What does ‘strategic partnership’ with the US entail?

What does ‘strategic partnership’ with the US entail?

By Sathiya Moorthy

In a tweet in mid-May, the US Ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, tweeted on ‘strategic ties’ India and Sri Lanka as if one existed already. The tweet followed a meeting between Amb Garcetti and Milinda Moragoda, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India.

“As strategic partners, the US, India, and Sri Lanka share a commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. I had a productive meeting with Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda, discussing ways to further strengthen our nations’ ties on trade, security, and people-to-people exchanges,” Garcetti’s tweet read.

Garcetti is a first-time diplomat, that too posted to a nation as diverse as it is large and democratic, the binding force between the US and India. Sri Lanka is not any less than the other two in this department. He was a long-term mayor of Los Angeles before coming down to India in March – after what reads like an exceptionally long wait, caused by US congressional delays in stamping on his suitability. Sure enough, HC Moragoda would have also briefed the home office about what transpired.

From what Amb Gracetti tweeted, the two also discussed relations between the US and Sri Lanka. The details are not in the public domain and for good reasons. It is safe to assume that the bilateral would have covered human rights and more human rights, then the economy, IMF aid and ‘investment environment’ for American MNCs (read: the kind of unparalleled concessions that they would require, including the ready-repatriation of profits and at times the principal itself).

Sneaking in & Breaking in

On this one aspect, the US and China seem to be travelling together. Or, is it the way the big power and wannabe big power behave. Rather, bulldoze your way in third countries, especially in the Third World, in politics and economics, making it a habit for them to make strategic assumptions and miscalculations. It is the way, the US did with Shah’s Iran, and Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines in this part of the world, and of course, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Going by Sri Lanka’s very own example vis a vis the Hambantota, Colombo Port City, Colombo Port development and a host of expressways, it is clear that China has always preferred a backdoor entry into the strategically-placed nation in the Indian Ocean, by touching the heart and not the head. The US too begins on the same lines, but is too impatient to stay in the shadows and hiding for long. The result for the host-nation and host-region are one and the same, distanced only by time.

In Sri Lanka, China has strategic interests, first viz India and more so now viz the US in regional and super-power terms, respectively. It is immaterial if it does not help Sri Lanka over the medium and short terms. In a democracy, the host rulers are concerned more about the next election, not the next generation. It suits China well as the ongoing developmental deals have shown over the past ten years and more.

The US is no different when it comes to aid-offering to bolster its strategic interests. Rather, for both nations, aid is the sugar-coated medicine to give, for establishing near-exclusive strategic ties with a third nation that they are competing to corner. Both excel in managing the ruling class, or, the rulers of the day in the chosen country, seldom remembering that there is a domestic constituency that could upset their calculations, either through the ballot, bullet or street-protests.

It is thus that the US lost hold in Shah’s Iran, Marcos’ Philippines and elsewhere, to street protests and worse.  Xi’s China especially lost Sri Lanka and neighbouring Maldives to democratic elections, the former in 2015 and the latter in 2018. Again, the end result was similar for the ‘outsider’ to the nation and/or region in both cases.

Peter against Paul

After regime-change in Sri Lanka in 2015, China suffered certain reverses, at least in the case of promoting future projects and fast-tracking existing ones. But it was also the cohabitation government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that converted the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s Hambantota construction contract into a 99-year-long lease for Chinese firms.

On the US front, the advantages that had accrued during the cohabitation era were lost subsequently when Gotabaya Rajapaksa became elected President in 2019. The reference is to the SOFA military agreement and the MMC deal on the development fund, pertaining to the US’ Millennium
Challenge Corporation initiative in this country that the cohabitation government had earlier approved of.

It is not as if the other side, namely, the Rajapaksa camp was averse to the US and to strategic ties with that nation, as they now want the nation to believe. In one of the rarest occasions in bilateral strategic relations and ahead of the full-force commencement of the conclusive war on the LTTE in early 2007, Gota as defence secretary signed the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) with the US, hurriedly with then US Ambassador Robert Blake — that too on the premises of the US embassy in Colombo, and not in any Sri Lankan government building, starting with his own office and conference room. Interestingly or ironically at the time, his brother Mahinda R as President was touring China, yes.

Thus, playing Peter against Paul is not a new game now for Sri Lanka. Before the Rajapaksas, JRJ, in the Cold War era, played the mighty US against a still-developing Indian neighbour, by purportedly offering the twin oil-tank farms in Trincomallee to a front company of the CIA. He also offered a relay station for Voice of America, which Indians saw also as an observation tower for the CIA. These were after the US, despite having an up and coming military base in Diego Garcia, not far away from the Indian coast, could not militarily intervene in the Bangladesh War, 1971. Or, so goes the perception.

Wickremesinghe as President first allowed berthing freedom for Chinese spy-ship at Hambantota that in China’s possession. The government has since approved the setting up of a Chinese radar station at Dondra Bay as close to the land’s end as can be. It is better or worse still on the American front. The government is yet to respond effectively to media claims that CIA boss William Burns and aides were in Colombo, and transacted important strategic business. However, it is stone-deaf silent on the SOFA and MCC – though some social media posts claimed that the Burns’ visit was all about SOFA and more on the strategic and military front.

People’s revolution

That is the commonality and problem in Sri Lanka’s relations with the US and China but separately. The US makes even core issues pertaining to bilateral relations and discussions and decisions over them, top secret, keeping other domestic stake-holders out of it, as it suits both leaderships. China is worse. It tends to keep secret even bilateral economic deals like the Hambantota and CPC secret that have medium and long-term consequences for all stake-holders, starting with the Sri Lankan voters, who are at the bottom of the politico-strategic pyramid.

Sri Lanka’s strategic concerns, interests and priorities are the nation’s own. Third nations should have no role in it. That, according to Sri Lankan critics of India, should begin with and include the larger northern neighbour. These critics are however unsure or tentative when it comes to bigger players, both now and in the Cold War past.

But the government and more so nations like China and the US have to be cautious for their own benefit. Yes, as nations they can afford to wait longer if there is a regime-change effected through the democratic process in this country. But when the stakes become high, they tend to interfere in internal politics and political processes.

There they control simply nothing, unlike in the case of larger nations that they deal with. After a point, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans will have nothing to choose from.

It is in this background that not just the Wickremesinghe leadership but even the US will have to consider the wisdom of trying out things of the strategic kind when the anti-American JVP’s electoral fortunes are said to be on the rise. The JVP may or may not win the presidency or a parliamentary majority. But a stronger JVP, for instance, is enough to upset the American apple-cart in Sri Lanka, in the elections over the next two years.

Contemporary writers often compare Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya protests last year to the Arab Spring and Orange Revolution elsewhere, during the previous decade or so. But the US cannot afford to take such a complacent view, not any more. Washington should instead remember the people’s revolution against the Shah of Iran and the Marcos regime in Philippines, in the seventies and eighties.

After all, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans live in the past, and they seem to have vivid memories of what happened more than four decades ago compared to what occurred even six months back. Bringing them over to the present is a great and arduous task, and the US as a nation and system does not have the patience for it!

(The writer is a policy analyst & political commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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