by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera* 18 May 2020
“We’re going to turn it around. And we have the cards, don’t forget it. We are like a piggy bank that’s being robbed. We have the cards. We have a lot of power with China”[i] President Donald J. Trump during the 2016 election campaign.
President Donald Trump was elected on a platform challenging long-standing American foreign policy premises with a particular criticism of US – China relations. Tensions in the US – China relationship exacerbated due to Trump’s continuous rhetoric and action during his Presidency reminding the American polity that China’s rise as a global power was not beneficial to the US on economic and security domains. In the economic front, China’s protectionist regulations, non-transparency, intellectual property theft and economic cyber espionage has escalated towards a tense trade war and a national security threat.
China’s economic dominance as the global manufacturing hub, providing financial assistance to many developing nations whilst expanding its tentacles towards the entire world through the Belt and Road initiative to AIIB has changed the geopolitical landscape in Asia. The tense US – China relationship which is at direct risk of a military confrontation is located in four geographical locations in Asia – the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the South China Sea. Protecting vital US interests and regional allies and friends from its liberal order established since the Second World War is at the core of US foreign policy. President Richard Nixon’s invitation to China in the 1970s of a diplomatic, economic and security partnership to secure US military presence in Asia was a geostrategic manoeuvre to draw China away from the Soviet orbit. This helped to strengthen US interest in the region to protect its allies and to end the Cold War three decades ago.
China’s Mask Diplomacy to Wolf Warrior Diplomacy
Today, thirty years after the Cold War, a Pandemic has triggered another cold war between the US and China, with US accusing China of a form of biological warfare. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China stating that there was “enormous evidence” supporting the claim adding “there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan…. I think the whole world can see now, remember, China has a history of infecting the world and running substandard laboratories.”[ii] Chinese media, responding to this direct accusation states, “If evil politicians like Pompeo continue to lie and bluff, then the Americans ‘becoming great again’ can only be seen as a joke.”[iii] Previously on social media, Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian strongly signalled their anger with the assertion that the coronavirus was a bioweapon used by American soldiers. China is carrying out wolf warrior diplomacy[iv], retaliating aggressively and responding with firmness than never before while carrying out its soft power mask diplomacy – a term employed for millions of masks donated with medical equipment. The dual diplomatic postures have increased Chinese soft diplomacy and power projection.
China, as part of its mask diplomacy, provided medical equipment and a concessionary loan of US$ 500 million with a repayment term of 10 years, to assist Sri Lanka in its fight against COVID19. This will increase the island’s existing debt profile with China and will certainly increase future borrowing from China due to unavoidable external shocks from the global recession. China, was seen by Anil Jai Singh as the “first off the block to capitalize on the vulnerabilities created by the spread of this pandemic. It has reached out to nations and offered support that obviously comes with strings attached. While there has been some pushback against coercive debt-trap diplomacy, the ability of the poorer or smaller nations to avoid succumbing to Chinese pressure will depend on the alternatives available”.[v] According to IMF, Sri Lanka’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 82.7% one of the highest ratios in South Asia. The Economist [vi] in its ‘Which Emerging Markets are in Most Financial Peril?’ statics recently ranked Sri Lanka at 61, a significantly reduced position compared to a few other South Asian nations.
Domestic challenges and strategic alignments
Months after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appointment in November 2019, he was to prove his leadership to a significant external humanitarian crisis from a global pandemic. Similarly, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa faced a devastating humanitarian crisis after being appointed Prime Minister in 2004 – the Indian Ocean tsunami that took almost 35,000 lives in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa proved his leadership skills managing the challenge which eventually won him the Presidency in 2005. His brother Gotabaya, demonstrated his leadership contributing his military expertise, efficiently coordinating with armed forces, the police, intelligence and healthcare officials. Sri Lanka is the second-best in the region for COVID19 testing (graph) and perhaps the best in contact tracing with a low rate of death under 10. It appears as if the ‘Rajapaksa decision-making’ works well in a crisis.
Among powerful nations, China provided one of the most substantial donations back then for the Tsunami affected island. Similarly, China was the first to step in to assist in this emergency. Behind the crisis, a tense geopolitical storm is brewing between the US and China. Crises usually accelerate geopolitical fissures, drawing out underlying pre-existing geopolitical fault lines and building strategic partnerships and alignments among like-minded nations. This was how the Quad (India, Japan, US and Australia) was created in 2004 after the Asian Tsunami. In the present day, as explained by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan ‘The United States has stepped up diplomatic consultations for cooperation with a geographically diverse group of countries, which has now been dubbed the Quad-Plus as it includes South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand in addition to the original Quad. China’s actions are making this cooperation easier.’[vii]
The new grouping with like-minded countries will play a strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. Recently, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien conveyed US support to Sri Lanka ‘to provide much-needed ventilators’ and recognizing ‘Sri Lanka is an important part of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.’[viii] How will Sri Lanka face this new strategic alignment and manage its Chinese sphere of influence? Sri Lanka’s erudite Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar noted in 2004, “China has never sought to influence the domestic politics of Sri Lanka” claiming that the country has never tried to dominate, undermine or destabilize Sri Lanka. “China has never tried to strike a quick bargain in a crisis. There have been no strings attached to Chinese aid”.[ix] Nearly two decades following this statement, China’s interest and its role in the Indian Ocean has evolved with strength due to the tense geopolitical atmosphere.
Countering the Chinese infrastructure diplomacy in the Indian Ocean with alternative options are already afloat by the western allies. As explained by Hudson scholar Satoru Nagao “Bangladesh has already chosen Japan’s Martabali port project instead of China’s Sonadia port project. If the Trincomalee Port project—involving Japanese assistance—in Sri Lanka succeeds, then the importance of China’s Hambantota port will decline. Similarly, the Chabahar Port project in Iran can mitigate the importance of the Chinese Gwadar Port in Pakistan.” Further, to strengthen the western grip in Malacca Straits, India is modernizing infrastructure to deploy warships and planes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. [x]
The strategic relations established by President Mahinda Rajapaksa with the arrival of President Xi Jinping to the Island in 2014 will continue strongly under the current Presidency in a more complex setting. With Geopolitical Cold War 2.0 and domestic economic strain, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the two daunting challenges ahead of him. He would have to navigate global shocks and balance the country’s internal political challenges within a squeezed economy. As explained by LKY Professor Razeen Sally, the present environment of unstable and contested geopolitics revolving around competition is going to squeeze global trade and globalization. Domestic malign mercantilism with more state intervention and restricted markets will see a different kind of capitalism coming out of this pandemic [xi]. Sri Lanka should foresee this danger to avoid malign mercantilism drifting towards losing liberal values. The nation has to balance its foreign policy, protecting its liberal democratic values and its important relationship with China amid a geopolitical storm.
[iv] Wolf Worrier Diplomacy, https://www.timesofisrael.com/chinas-wolf-warrior-diplomats-show-teeth-in-defending-virus-response/
[v] Anil Jai Singh, https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/the-quad-and-the-pandemic-a-lost-opportunity/
[vi] Economist, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/05/02/which-emerging-markets-are-in-most-financial-peril
[viii] O’Brien ‘National Security Council’, @WHNSC twitter message, https://www.newsfirst.lk/2020/05/09/us-national-security-advisor-calls-on-president-gotabaya-rajapaksa/
[ix] Quoted in J Dhanapala and J Goonaratne, ‘Sri Lanka:China as a growth of modernization’ in a resergent China:South Asia perspectives, eds S.D.Muni and Tan Tai Young( London Routledge 2012) pp 245-6.
[x] Satoru Nagao, Hudson, https://www.hudson.org/research/14402-countering-china-in-the-indo-pacific
[xi] Razeen Sally LKY School online discussion Asia Thinker Series 6th May 2020
* This piece was initially published by the Observer Research Foundation(ORF) New Delhi. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/sri-lanka-facing-geopolitics-of-covid-19-to-cold-war-2-0-66169/
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the author of ‘Sri Lanka at Crossroads’ (WorldScientific, Singapore).
He was the former Director General at the national security think tank INSSSL under the Ministry of Defence and former Executive Director at the foreign policy think tank LKIIRSS under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted at email@example.com