Patterns to Politics: Entering 2019

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Image credit: The International Studies Association

by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera 19 January 2019

“To understand is to perceive patterns.” ― Isaiah Berlin

In the new year,  Sri Lanka remains at a crossroads. As before, the island nation  requires carefully calibrated statecraft from policy makers to choose the path towards prosperity. The political, constitutional and parliamentary crisis over the last months of 2018 was a waste of time.  Possibly, the President  never was fully in control of the crisis riddled turbulent political alliance strategized by him.

More Machiavellian than over his appointment,  a lightning strike introduced a model which was a  legally proven impossibility. What came out of it was that the President should be consulted in national affairs. In the months ahead the polity will decide which road to take from casting their ballot from local election to parliament and finally the presidential by 2020.

External influences play a pivotal role in statecraft. Two roads ahead are shaped by external forces.  Perhaps, these roads can be seen as diverting at a point to a perhaps simplistic East-West binary. It is also visible in internal polarizations of nations. Western or Chinese influence is the case in Sri Lanka , but this debate and international tug extends far beyond the island nation.  International relations and its affects to the nations should be understood by time, space and scale. There are moments in history when natural order is disturbed by leaders breaking the natural patterns doing the impossible, mobilizing and bringing the people together to achieve the space and scale imagined by the leader. Such was the moment in 331 BC in the dusty plains of Gaugamela a town near Iraqi Kurdistan which changed history. According to Plutarch the young General Alexander was sleeping so deeply that his commanders had to shake him awake before the battle, dressed in his favored outfit with a bright helmet made from most refined silver grasped a trusted sword in his right hand and led his troops to a crushing victory defeating Darius III’s vastly superior Persian empire. The moment which opened the West to the East a moment of confluence of Western and Eastern cultures and values touching the Silk Road explains Peter Frankopan. Alexander was the first to bring a sweeping approach with gigantic scale reaching distant Asian space embracing the richness of Asia, reaching the value of Silk Road. He respected the cultures and even his defeated enemies marching towards Hindu Kush which time was the only factor which caught in-between achieving space and scale of his ambition, a death at a young age of 32. Empire he built was scattered after his time. A powerful will of a great and strong man may bring grand visions but time will capture and recalibrate putting back as explained by the German geopolitical thinker Karl Haushofer “ sinked back to its accustomed ways: its lasting earth bound traits will eventually win out”.

This is applicable to all the empires including the modern day superpower United States, the nation is now undergoing withdrawal of its troops from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The scale and space of US power built in the past had to be reduced with time as the economic slowdown and massive spending to sustain the geographical spaces captured for power projection. While the US is trying to sustain its exiting spaces and retain the power projection it had a decade ago another Asia power China is seen gaining momentum of building its own empire with its own characteristics. For US it was a massive effort to capture the central artery of Asia the Silk Road across the two oceans of Atlantic and Pacific setting up bases, listening posts, trade hubs and allies. US does not wish to play the global policeman utters Donald Trump borrowing from President Kennedy who explained US position during cold war.

US is busy recalibrating and rechristening its versions from Asia Pacific to Indo Pacific to regain and sustain its geopolitical space. What we see is withdrawal and pull out from the central artery of Asia, the Silk Road. The quadruple alliance with India, US, Japan and Australia another form of christening to emphasise the likeminded allies should look elsewhere, India an emerging South Asian power should realign its position with its Asian rising and expanding power China rather than counting on US who has a withdrawal strategy. Sri Lanka sitting at crossroads between the two powers is to have a balanced approach but more than balancing it goes off balance due to its internal political disarray.

Like all other empires, OBOR scale is massive. Could this be achieve, or, will it slow down and scale back? Dr. Françoise Nicolas from IFRI a leading French think tank at recent Colombo Shangri-la colloquium held by the Sri Lanka’s security think tank says OBOR is a “systemic project, and a strategic plan rather than an “initiative”. There are three possible scenario’s which could unfold. First, the project as develops and succeeds in promoting a new form of globalization which is gradually referred to: new globalization with Chinese characteristics (or Alibaba world). Second, the project develops but is faced with increasing resistance and problems and thus gradually slows down. Third scenario is OBOR develops successfully, although not perfectly smoothly, and it is in conflict with other forms of globalization, leading to the emergence of two rival poles, one led by the US and the other by China, each one with their own infrastructural networks.

Going back to geopolitical thinker who clearly understood the importance of the Island Japan’s geography in the Pacific Dr.Karl Haushofer explains in 1925 “Powerful new states emerged because their creators, with the sensitivity of the true statesman, understood the geopolitical demands of the hour. Without such insight, violence and arbitrariness would have charted the course of history. Nothing with lasting value could have been created. All structures of state which might have been created would sooner or later have crumbled into dust and oblivion before the eternal forces of soil and climate.” If China fails to understand  geopolitical demands of the hour, it would fail to achieve its grand OBOR strategy.

Given this scenarios and the grand project spelled out by the rising China what effects does a nation like Sri Lanka has from global power transition? There are several, first internal polarization of political parties and society between the two camps the third scenario explained before, this could also lead to internal political instability. Second, economic projects from China and the West demanding for strategic assets and investment to secure the sphere of influence in the Island, some nations prefer to play one against the other to demand better economic offers.

Regionally, the internal political instability during last few months in Sri Lanka has cost the nation’s economy deeply. The recent parliament elections in Bangladesh with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s clear majority victory is a sign of political stability to sustain the economic growth of last quarter(2018) at 7.6% GDP comparing to Sri Lanka with its recent political instability would find it challenging to sustain or improve from its last years economic growth of below 4%.

Balancing the global and the local, the need of the year is to keep build and strengthen internal policies in small nations such as Sri Lanka.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the director general of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. Author of Sri Lanka at Crossroads (2019),The views expressed here are his own.

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