Has Another Great Power Game Begun in Sri Lanka?

Tuesday February 18, 2020

By Dr A.R.Sriskanda Rajah


As Tamils began preparing for Thai Pongal celebrations last month, Tamil and Sinhala media outlets were hit by the news of the arrival in Sri Lanka of high ranking diplomats of four great powers. First came Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister. He was followed by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Alice Wells, the US’ principal deputy assistant secretary of state. Then landed in the Japanese Minister of State Kozo Yamamoto. 


So what were they all after? Why did they all come on the same day? And what did the Sri Lankan president gain by meeting all four of them, one after the other, on the same day? 


Well, everybody instantly seemed to know the answer; as if it was some kind of instant Chinese noodles. And the narrative went like this: Sri Lanka is located on a geostrategic position on the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean so the superpowers are vying for control of it.


Wait... Did they say superpowers? But there is only one superpower in the world today! Perhaps they meant great powers. Some of our political pundits can be forgiven for using the Tamil term ‘vallarasukal’ to refer to both superpowers and great powers because in the Sangam and Medieval periods there existed, whether it be in the Indian subcontinent, East Asia or even the rest of the world, only three types of state-like power complexes: suzerainties (sittarasukal), kingdoms (arasukal) and empires (vallarasukal or perarasukal).


And Tamils lost their sovereignty to European colonialists when modernity set in motion in the beginning of the seventeenth century. In fact, Eelam Tamils lost their Jaffna Kingdom (which was encompassed of the territories of the now-defunct de-facto state of Tamil Eelam and Puttalam district) precisely 29 years before the Westphalian state system came into being in 1648. Hence there remains a four-century long void within the Tamil intelligentsia on developing correct Tamil translations of today’s key International Relations terms. Today’s international system is encompassed of a myriad of state-like power complexes, with de-facto states, sub-states, states, regional powers, rising powers, great powers, superpowers, declining powers, rising superpowers and waning superpowers being the notable ones. 


Sadly, there are no-clear cut Tamil translations for all of these International Relations terms, which has resulted in regional powers, rising powers, great powers, superpowers, declining powers and waning superpowers all being referred to as vallarasukal in most Tamil media outlets, when in fact the latter aligns more closely with the English term ‘great powers’.


Returning to the narrative on why high ranking diplomats of four great powers visited Sri Lanka the day before Thai Pongal, can we say it signals the beginning of another great power game, with Sri Lanka being the focal point? The arrival of Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval four days later in Sri Lanka, and the statement made by the US’ principle deputy assistant secretary of state on 24 January at a press briefing in Washington that ‘Sri Lanka occupies some very important real estate in the Indo-Pacific region and it’s a country of increasing strategic importance in the Indian Ocean region’ seems to affirm this. But does it?


Let’s begin with Russia. A superpower during the heydays of the Soviet Union, Russia only enjoys great power status today. Undoubtedly, it is also now being recognised as a declining power. Vladimir Putin has, for the past few years, struggled hard to assert Russia’s status in the world by flexing the country’s muscles in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But with a stagnant economy, it is highly unlikely that Russia will be able to prevent its declining power.


So what do the Russians want in Sri Lanka? Export of natural gas, arms sales and perhaps the training of Sri Lankan troops in Islamist-based counter-terrorism and intelligence operations may be some of those being offered to Sri Lanka by the Russians; perhaps in return for supporting Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. Beyond that, Russia may seek to show some symbolic geopolitical interest in Sri Lanka, but even then that is dependent on India giving the green light; which is highly unlikely, and Russia is less likely to unilaterally flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean region and antagonise its longstanding friend, India. 


And what of Japan? Militarily, it may not be a great power, but economically it has long remained a great power; and was the second economic great power until it was overtaken by China a decade ago. As the mercantilist China seeks to monopolise markets in the Indian Ocean region, Japan has an interest in countering it; and that includes on the island of Sri Lanka. Plus, Japan often represents the passive face of America in the Indo-Pacific region, as it did during the failed Norwegian-brokered talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state.


It is an open secret what China’s ambitions are, both in the Indian Ocean region and the rest of the world. Having ascended long ago to the position of a great power, China is steadily working towards becoming a superpower. In fact, many scholars are beginning to recognise China as a rising superpower, though it remains to be seen whether it will overtake the US. As a great power that seeks to achieve the China Dream, rewrite great power relations, and strive for achievement, as enunciated by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, China has a strong interest in developing Sri Lanka economically and cementing its influence over the island.


It is this that precisely makes the US anxious about China in Sri Lanka. If either China or Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksas move away from a mercantilist/statist economy, the US’ fears may be dispelled; as was during the regime of the former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In fact, these fears were explicitly expressed by the US’ principal deputy assistant secretary of state during her press briefing in Washington on 24 January. To quote: ‘We have compelling shared interests that include... ...promoting investment and economic growth as part of a free and open Indo-Pacific.’ The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not shy away from affirming this point when he issued his Independence Day message to Sri Lanka on 4 February, wherein he stated: ‘We share a commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region that ensures peace, economic growth, security, democracy and human rights.’


The US is still the world’s superpower, but its power is on the wane. During its heyday, after the disintegration of the USSR and the collapse of communism, the US was even called a hyper power. But Pax Americana is now increasingly under strain. The very fact that President Donald Trump contested the US presidential election in 2016 with the rhetoric of making America great again was evidence of the country’s waning global standing. As he faces his second presidential election this year, President Trump is using another slogan, ‘Keep America Great’, though it is clear he had failed to make America great during his term. 


Whatever changes that may happen to the international system, India is likely to be the loser. It is this that makes India increasingly anxious about steadily increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. But what can India do? It’s only a rising power; and though it has been rising for the past two decades, it is still not even close to becoming a great power. It will be interesting to see if it can even rise to great power status by the time China becomes a superpower.


The Rajapaksas know this very well. Flirting with India’s policy of multi-alignment under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Rajapaksas are courting the world’s powers. But whether this will work on the long run will depend on whether the US and China will be able to reconcile with each other, as the former’s global power wanes and the latter’s power waxes.


(The writer is an International Relations (IR) scholar. He is a visiting lecturer at City, University of London, and was an IR module convenor at Brunel University London).

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