During Sri Lanka’s 30 year long war against the LTTE terrorists, Five Eyes English speaking alliance, composed of the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, watched in silence, perhaps expecting Sri Lanka to fall to the terrorists who were trained and armed by India. It was the famous American whistle blower Edward Snowden who exposed that the U.S National Security Agency [NSA] marked top secret documents on its global surveillance, FVEY meaning that they were for distribution to FIVE EYES only The FIVE EYES disguised themselves as the West or even as the International Community in criticizing Sri Lanka’s policy to degrade the terrorists, particularly after the victory on May 19, 2009.
Even after the mouthful taste of terrorism on 9/11, the FIVE EYES and their European allies refused to extend to Sri Lanka any support to degrade the LTTE terrorists. It was only after our ablest Foreign Minister L. Kadirgamar’s untiring diplomatic efforts that the US and its European allies banned the LTTE. Japan flatly refused to ban the LTTE. Instead Japan’s special envoy Akashi and Norway’s Erik Solheim were regular visitors to Prabakaran’s den in the Vanni. Those visits no doubt would have provided moral support to the mass murderer. U.K provided a safe haven to LTTE ideologue Balasingham and his Australian wife [a former trainer of LTTE women cadres according to a 1977 BBC documentary] Bala coordinated LTTE’s fund raising and other activities in Europe. The funds were channelled to Banks in Japan and Thailand for the purchase of weapons and to be shipped to Sri Lanka from the port of Phuket in Thailand. Since 19/5 the centre of Tamil separatist’s agitation shifted to the West, where their votes are sought after by political parties.
Fortunately, Sri Lanka’s all weather allies China, Russia and Pakistan provided invaluable material support to prevent Sri Lanka from falling to the lap of the terrorists. The three alliance provided endless supplies of artillery, guns, ammunitions, fighter jets, naval crafts, all on credit. It is indeed very doubtful whether Sri Lanka could have celebrated victory on 19/5 without such support.
US and its allies still fighting terrorists after 9/11 from the Middle East to Afghanistan would not have expected small Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE terrorists without any support from the West .US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report of 2009 ,declared that the US could not afford to lose Sri Lanka’. The report highlighted “the danger to US strategic interests of China’s growing influence in Colombo.’’ Hence the sudden shift in US policy on Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the war from indifference to antagonism and to exert pressure through UN Secretary General and UNHRC is not surprising. What war weary peace loving Sri Lankans expected from the West was a mini Marshall Plan assistance to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure, battered economy and national unity.
Instead the FIVE EYES alliance and their allies have chosen to use their economic power to pass Resolutions demanding international investigations into alleged war crimes and Human Rights violations by Sri Lanka. US Senate Foreign Relations Committee of 2009 warned the administration “preoccupation with Human Rights would short change US geo-strategic interests in the region’’. Such advice fell on the deaf ears of Obama’s policy makers.
Perhaps the best example of US hypocrisy is the infamous reply of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright to a question asked by journalist Lesley Stahl in a 60 minute TV show on 5.12.1996. Stahl asked referring to US sanctions on Iraq ‘’we have heard that half a million children have died; I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?” Albright replied “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price we think the price is worth it.’’ She continued to be Presidents Clintons Secy of State even after making that unspeakable inhuman statement.
US footprint on the trail of blood extending from Ukraine through Syria, Iraq, to Afghanistan may be visible from space. Israel, rock solid friend of America bombed and shelled Gaza recently killing even school children in a UN school. UN Secy General dared not condemn Israel while UNHRC and Navi Pillay’s silence was deafening. No one was prosecuted for the war crimes committed by US forces in Asia after the Second World War. US the self styled global policeman is above the law, like Sri Lanka police in recent times. How could then any Sri Lankan believe, that the US is so concerned about alleged war crimes as to spend so much diplomatic muscle and pressure to move UNHRC Resolutions of 2012 and 2014 against Sri Lanka?.
What then is the real goal of US policy on Sri Lanka? It is containing China stupid. The rivalry between China and US to dominate in the Indian Ocean region has made Sri Lanka too big to be allowed to fall. Both super powers need to pivot to Sri Lanka, to achieve their competing goals. US sees Sri Lanka through prism of Chinas challenge. From Beijing’s perspective Sri Lanka is an indispensable ally to face the challenge from US to dominate the Indian Ocean.
President Obama’s pivot to Asia policy is at its core, “a policy of containing China” writes Vali Nasr former adviser to Hillary Clintons State Department ,in his book ‘The Dispensable Nation – American Foreign Policy in Retreat [page 215] Hillary Clinton was the first to use the term pivot in an article in Foreign Policy magazine. She wrote “China and not the Middle East is the real strategic challenge facing America. She went on to suggest “US re-set global strategy and camp at China’s door step to make sure that China’s influence remains limited.” Henry Kissinger wrote “China’s greatest fear is that an outside power or powers will establish military deployment around China’s periphery.” Obama’s pivot to Asia provided that fear by building military bases in Australia and Philippines and wooing India and Vietnam for military support. With US military bases in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan the encirclement is complete. “US vision is that we have been for seven decades pivotal military in the Asia Pacific region. We continue to be what we have been’’ writes Vali Nasr [page218]
It is therefore natural that there is consternation in Beijing at the idea of a US led coalition of Japan Australia, Philippines, India and Vietnam to contain and countervail Chinas growing influence in the Indian Ocean region. In response China is building a blue water navy, investing billions of dollars on the String of Pearls strategy [SOP] of building ports in Hambantota, Gwadar [Pakistan], Bangladesh and Myanmar to protect China’s sea route from China to Africa and Middle East. Pentagon branded the strategy as the “String of Pearls”. Hambantota owing to its strategic location half way between Asia and Europe and just 10-12 kilometres from the world’s busiest sea lane, is the jewel of SOP.
Hambantota port may be idling today, but the patient Chinese are in Sri Lanka for the long haul. The value of Hambantota to China will come into play down the road. One of the key Agreements signed during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Sri Lanka provides for China to Supply Operate and Transfer [SOT] Hambantota container terminal as stage 11 of the project. A Chinese company also built the container terminal of the South Port in Colombo. The port city in Colombo to be built at a cost of US dollars 1.4 billion is adjoining the container terminal China will be given freehold ownership of one third of 583 hectares to be reclaimed from the sea, to build Chinas first satellite city outside China. It may be named as SILK CITY as part of Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Route project.
Perhaps the most important document signed during Xi’s visit is The Plan of Action to Deepen the Strategic Co Operative Partnership of Sincere Mutual Assistance and Everlasting Friendship. This document which spans from military co operation to strategic interests guarantees China’s defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Hence Sri Lankans need not fear aerial parippu bombardment, again. Who knows India’s role in Sri Lanka and the 13 Amendment may get washed away by the Plan of Action.
President Xi responded in September 2013 to Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy, by announcing the Maritime Silk Route project. He seeks to restore Chinas prestige and historical links along the MSR through South East and South Asia. It is significant that while the Pentagon branded SOP sounds hegemonic MSR sounds mercantilist, bringing memories of China’s ancient silk trade with Europe or even Chinamen riding push bikes selling silk to Sri Lankans before the Second World War. MSR also helps China to dispel the notion of SOP strategy and legitimize Hambantota port and other infrastructure development projects along MSR. China has invited ASEAN countries and India to join the project. As an incentive China established China ASEAN Maritime Co Operation Fund with a contribution of USD 3.8 billion. While the ASEAN countries are cautious in their response Sri Lanka and Maldives have agreed to support the project.
Armed with USD3 trillion in reserves, plethora of trade Agreements and investment funds and a vision of reviving Han Dynasty [202 B.C -220 A.D] MSR, Xi is on an over drive to charm the maritime countries along MSR. Thus while Obama’s pivot to Asia prioritise building military bases in Asia, Xi prioritizes building ports and improving infrastructure in littoral countries.
The Chinese mantra since Deng Xiao Peng has been “peaceful rise in a harmonious world.’” China is not thinking of war against US, but its instinct is to build its capability to resist US pressure and push back against encirclement. However, China’s policy and US policy of containing China could lead to a slippery slope towards military confrontation. Sri Lanka is likely to be involved if and when such a conflict occurs. The current proxy wars in Ukraine and Syria are examples of how third countries could become victims of super power collisions.
The US mantra on Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 30 year war has been to peel Sri Lanka from China by using wrong tactics which are guaranteed to fail. While the US was busy in Geneva drafting, canvassing and moving UNHRC Resolutions against Sri Lanka, China was busy in Colombo signing deals and contracts on mega development projects. Chinese managers, engineers, workers and stevedores have moved to Sri Lanka to stay for the long haul.
While Sri Lanka has gained in stature to attract the two leaders of the world’s second and third biggest economies Xi Jinping [first President to visit after 28 years ] and Shinzo Abe [first PM to visit since 1990] Katunayaka Air Port [funded by Japan] seems to be too small for US Secy of State John Kerry’s plane to land, on its way back from frequent visits to Kabul and New Delhi. ‘’Kerry is busy going everywhere but not getting anywhere,’’ as one cartoonist told me.
It is quite evident that the US is seeking a regime change in Sri Lanka, using pressure tactics in the name of Human Rights. As mentioned earlier US Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned against pre occupation with Human Rights. To the US Senate, at least Sri Lanka is too big to be allowed to fall to the Chinese. Sri Lanka’s well known economists and political analysts have warned that unilateral economic sanctions could follow the US instigated UNHRC investigation in to alleged war crimes. Imposing sanctions is what US does when it cannot or will not do anything else. When sanctions work, they hurt the most vulnerable civilian populace and the least accountable for a dysfunctional state, militarising and assaulting democratic institutions as in Sri Lanka. Sanctions will obviously not hurt the Ruling Family, or the millionaire one hundred Ministers.
US belief in the power of sanctions and UNHRC resolutions has blinded them to the possibility that the Rajapaksa regime can withstand the pressure, with a little help from allies such as China, Russia, Pakistan Iran and even popular support. People love a winner, and despise a loser. The Boston Globe reported ‘’No foreign leader fared worse in the cables [dated 15.1.2010] sent by US Ambassador Patricia Butentis and released by Wiki Leaks than Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Butentis’ implications of Rajapaksa in the alleged war crimes’’. Rajapaksa’s defiance will not be unwelcome in Beijing.
In the past, US Foreign Policy secured stability, promoted prosperity, and built democracy in region after region including Sri Lanka. In the 21st century the US appears to have forgotten that legacy. Today US is relying on global surveillance, aerial bombing using drones and supply of weapons rather than on trade. When US policy makers look back at US policy on Sri Lanka during the last three decades, they are likely to see the policy, as a strategic blunder.
Henry Kissinger in his latest book The World Order [released in August 2014]while acknowledging that US and its allies since 2000 are on the defensive, if not in retreat in their project on a new world order, offers sound advice to Obama’s policy makers. To regain US world order offensive, Kissinger advised US leaders to make persuasion, constant diplomatic discourse as part of the strategy. Rebuilding nations prosperity and renewing its military strength are just as crucial to regain America’s Mojo’’ writes H Kissinger. The book should be on the must read list of books of John Kerry and his ambassador in Sri Lanka.
Chinas Foreign policy on Sri Lanka is proof of such re-calibration. Sri Lanka has been enrolled as a Dialogue partner into Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation, which is a counter to US led NATO military alliance. In May 2013, Sri Lanka and China agreed to elevate bi-lateral relations to Strategic Co Operation Partnership. Not surprisingly India and Japan have agreed to undermine Chinas SOP strategy, when PM Modi and PM Abe had bi-lateral talks in Tokyo in August 2024.
When Xi canvassed India’s support for MSR during his three day visit to India in September 2014, PM Modi pulled a rabbit from his turban. It is called the Mausam Project. Using India’s cultural history and geography, the Mausam project is believed to have both cultural and serious strategic dimensions. Both Japan and US are likely support the Mausam project. So the equation now is SOP+MSR versus Mausam.
In sum, to China Sri Lanka is too big to fall in times of war or peace. To the FIVE Alliance led by US, Sri Lanka is too big to be lost to China.