Sri Lanka: Fending off China, the belated American way?

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The featured image shows Lankan Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana meeting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington newsin.asia/

by N Sathiya Moorthy 9 July 2019

It is anybody’s guess why US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo had to cancel the Sri Lanka leg of his limited South Asia visit, when he did spend time in the neighbouring Indian capital of New Delhi. If it owed to the emerging political controversies over the proposed US-Sri Lanka SOFA-MCC agreements, it’s anyway Secretary Pompeo’s job to discuss and arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.

To India, he did not shy away just because the bilateral tariff issues had heated up to an all-time high temperature. Instead, he used the occasion, to discuss, if not decide on, bilateral concerns, for US President Donald Trump with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to try and take it forward at the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, only days later.

Be it as it may, the current controversy is neither unavoidable, nor unsolvable. But then the traditional American insistence on having the cake and eating it too on issues of security and military cooperation, seems to be the thorn in the Sri Lankan flesh, as has been the case with other nations on other occasions, in the past, present and future.

In a way, the US behaviour in such matters is without near-exception. Be it NATO allies or Russo-China like adversaries, or Iran and North Korea like ‘un-acceptable behaviour’, it has had its way. In the case of allies, existing as with the NATO or emerging as with India and Sri Lanka, their one-liner has some meaning: ‘He who pays the piper (should) call(s) the tune.’

With adversaries, like China and Russia, talking down from the top seems to have advantages in negotiations, as the US gets to set the goalposts and yardsticks all the way. So, when you start off unilaterally, others have the time and efforts only to react, not act. This is precisely what an emerging China has learnt from a close study of the US policy-making and international relations, and has already applied to ‘South China Sea’ controversy – Advantage China!

Unsustainable argument

The current controversies involving the America-proposed SOFA and MCC agreements possibly flows from an all-American hurry to stitch up things even under impossible conditions, and unbecoming reciprocity shown by the likes of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, nearer home. If looks as if both sides want it all behind them before the presidential polls later this year, so as to hand over a fait accompli to incumbent Maithripala Sirisena’s successor.

The irony is striking. Barring the American presidential practice of declaring unacceptable ‘war on terrorism’ ahead of upcoming presidential polls, rarely does any US Administration take any major policy decision in an election year nearer home. Thus for the Americans now to except a divided Sri Lankan political leadership to rush through deals of the kind, and expect instant results, speaks poorly of their so-called respect for democratic practices and understanding of host-nations, this time, Sri Lanka.

The ‘loser’ in the bargain could well be Sajith Premadasa, the ‘eternal no: 2’ in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP. Mangala S is a leading-light, if not the decider, in the UNP and his open call for the party to make Premadasa, Jr, the presidential candidate, could suffer, only because the latter is identified with the very same constituency that is generally perceived as opposed to everything American/western, in terms of foreign and security policies involving third nations.

For all this, the American MCC, or ‘Millennium Challenge Corporation’ offer, as reported, may not be bad for Sri Lanka. The idea, for now, is for MCC to invest $ 400 m on a Colombo-Trincomallee Economic Corridor (CTEC), and who knows, more American developmental aid may be in the pipeline. Such aid may also be un-hinged from the political/personal identity of the post-poll Sri Lankan leadership.

It is not without reason. The American concern seems aimed at keeping China out of Sri Lanka, in whatever way possible and in as many areas as possible – even after this belated entry. Hence, even if an ‘unfriendly’ leadership (in general perception) comes to power in Sri Lanka, the US fiscal efforts would be to limit further Chinese investment and Sri Lankan indebtedness to the latter, in every sense of the term.

Some interested segments argue that if MCC funds were to come, that could well be accompanied by ‘Blackwater-like’ mercenary firms, which have had a bad reputation in countries like Afghanistan, where they were deployed. At least in the contemporary Sri Lankan context, such arguments are unsustainable.

If nothing else, on all funded projects in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, Chinese companies had deployed (not even ‘employed’ in the conventional sense of the terms) Chinese labour, who are said to be prisoners back home. No beneficiary-nation has even been able to seek a clarification, or can expect to get a honest answer.

If so, such Chinese chicanery may be a violation of human rights under international norms, first for citizenry and next for prisoners. No one in Sri Lanka or in the ‘international community’ is waxing eloquent on ‘war crimes’ has ever mentioned it in the UNHRC or elsewhere. Are they afraid of facing Chinese rebuttal of such claims/charges – or, worse on the ‘Blackwater-kind’ of American induction in third nations?

White elephant!

Yet, those opposed to MCC funding in Sri Lanka need not worry too much. After all, including the incumbent Government under PM Wickremesinghe, in which ‘pro-American’ (?) Samaraweera is the all-important Finance Minister, has different yardsticks for different ‘friendly nations’. Mangala was the Foreign Minister when the Wickremesinghe Government pushed through the ‘debt-to-equity’ deal with China on the Hambantota, after blaming it all on the ‘anti-American’ (?) Rajapaksa Government before it!

But when it came to similar projects, including the one for neighbouring India to re-develop the ‘white elephant’ of the Matala Airport, again a China-Rajapaksa JV the processes have been slow. Equally slow has been the progress of the much-trumpeted Trincomallee development project, involving India, Japan and Singapore, and a Colombo port scheme, again involving India and Japan, there is more talk and less action on the ground. 

The less said about India-proposed Sampur power project in the war-time Eastern Province, the better. Yes, the Tamil residents were upset and angry that the Government had wantonly identified densely-inhabited areas for the project-site, only to displace them, but the bureaucracy in the Rajapaksa regime found new ways and newer consultation processes involving the ‘ever-obliging’ (!) Department of the Attorney-General (AG) to seek further time at every turn, with the result the project got dropped in sheer exhaustion.

Open-ended and more

The same cannot be said of SOFA, or the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’, which empowers US troops while on an R&R landing on host-nation’s territory can go around in uniforms and carry their weapons without being subjected to domestic laws, even if they are caught committing offences, punishable under universally-accepted criminal laws.  There is enough and more material for controversy in such an agreement, especially for a resources-deficit island-nation, eternally concerned about its ‘external security’ to be bothered about.

Leave aside the traditional argument that such provisions impinge on Sri Lankan ‘sovereignty’ if signed, no signatory-nation ever seems to have asked the question of the US, why the latter’s troopers would require to wear uniform, and even more carry weapons, on the host-nation territory, if they are there for ‘rest and recreation’, as agreed upon. Does if flow from the global perception that R&R troopers, especially of the American types, are given to not taking their military decorum, overseas, so much so they needed to announce their ‘arrival’ with their uniforms and carry weapons to defend themselves if challenged by the local police on Law & Order duties?

Here, however, a reverse-criticism remains: If SOFA is now unacceptable, how come the Rajapaksa regime signed the ACSA, or ‘Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement’, that too at the height of the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’. Despite the overwhelming yet unexplained coincidence of it being signed by then Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakksa, that too on American territory that the US Embassy in Colombo constitutes, when brother and President Mahinda R was in China, March 2007, distinctions are being drawn in every which way.

First and foremost, now it is claimed with retrospective effect, that the earlier ACSA was a war-time necessity, yet was confined only to military training with a 10-year time-lag. That is not the case with a new ACSA, which the present Government signed, at the earlier one’s conclusion in 2017, but is open-ended with no time-bar. 

The current criticism to perceived clauses and provisions of the American SOFA are unclear and unannounced, yes, but then neither did the Rajapaksa regime reveal the details of ACSA-2007, when signed. That they had an ‘US-friendly Opposition’ in the UNP may also be a reason why no one challenged it nearer home, even granting the nation’s war-time needs and requirements.

Different strokes

Yet, the overall reservations to a Sri Lankan SOFA need to be viewed from the broader American–Quad concerns in the abutting Indian Ocean seas and region. The US and at least two Quad member-nations, namely, Japan and the Indian neighbour, have increasing concerns about ‘Chinese expansionism’.

It is not the case with Sri Lanka, which has no such security worries viz China, and for the US and other Quad nations to expect Colombo to sign the dotted lines of SOFA seems unacceptable to Sri Lankan strategic community, including possibly those in the nation’s armed services. If nothing else, the Hambantota ‘swap-deal’ with China was signed only after the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) had its way with the security of the port area and the abutting sea, that’s not the case with the SOFA draft, we are told.

But then the question also remains: If neighbouring atoll-nation of Maldives could ‘bury’ the SOFA when Mohammed Waheed succeeded Mohammed Nasheed as President, after the latter had signed the ACSA when in power, and no one in Male is talking about reviving it, why should Colombo hurry to sign one, that too without taking the nation and future generations into confidence?

The article appeared in the Ceylon Today on 9 July 2019

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