Lanka to benefit as big powers compete
By Rathindra Kuruwita and Umesh Moramudali
South Asia is headed for a turbulent time with rivalries between US and China and India increasing in coming years. Ceylon Today spoke to Kadira Pethiyagoda who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre and has covered bilateral relations with India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Iraq and the European Union to get his opinions on how Sri Lanka could navigate through these rough times.
Q: How do you see the rivalry between China and India affecting small countries like Sri Lanka?
A: I think it's important to look at it in different ways because I think there is an opportunity for Sri Lanka because when you have two major powers like China and India competing with each other it creates an opportunity for small countries to extract more. For example the investments China made in Sri Lanka and the support it gave during the country's war effort was partly because China wants to establish links with countries along its trade routes. China is concerned about the United States; similarly India is now trying to invest in Trincomalee because it is concerned about China. So there are benefits for small countries. This is something we saw during the Cold War as well. Two big powers were competing and they had to do some hard work and give some concessions to small countries.
Q: While that is true trying to balance the two powers is not an easy task as Nepal and Bhutan found out recently. Do you really think that a balance is possible when there is such an overlap between what both powers want?
A: It is necessary to have a coherent plan. In the two examples you brought domestic politics of the two nations played a big role which made matters more complicated. When the Rajapaksa administration was finishing the war it had to rely on China and there were deals. The new government comes and it wants to differentiate and tilted towards India. If there was one government throughout that time a more coherent policy might have emerged. But in democracies where there are competing parties who want to differentiate from each other coming up with this kind of a policy is harder. As with the example you brought about Nepal it's much harder for them because its land locked, they don't have as many options as Sri Lanka. India has on Sri Lanka
Q: As you said domestic politics play a big role and we have seen this whenever we try to enter trade agreements with India. We saw this in the past and we are seeing this today regarding ETCA. What can the government do?
A: When it comes to domestic opposition to trade agreements it's the government's job to firstly, define what the national interest is because if there is substantive groups in the populace who oppose these, you have to ask why they oppose and whether it benefits the people of Sri Lanka. If it benefits the people, it needs to sell this idea to the people. The citizens have to be convinced that they will not lose their jobs. So that's the first priority, to determine what the national interest is and before you engage in a FTA you have to go on consultations with different groups and establish what are the parameters. In a democracy it's important to listen to the people and to convince the people with proper information.
In terms of negotiating with India, it is sometimes beneficial to have domestic protests because negotiators can go to the Indians and say we can't push for this now because of domestic issues, and Indians will understand and back off for a bit or make a better offer. So it's not a simple issue.
Q: One of the most talked about developments right now is the One Belt One Road initiative by China. How do you rate the possibility of success of this endeavour considering that a number of relatively unstable countries are also vital to its success?
A: The project is to bring US$ one trillion as investments and it's so diverse, it has projects in various parts of the world and different participating countries have diverse political systems. So, of course there were some bumps on the road that China had to face, even in Sri Lanka there were some difficulties. So it's difficult to predict however, definitely there will be benefits for Sri Lanka. It will lead to infrastructure development which is of great importance and there has been a lot of talk about making Sri Lanka a commercial and logistical hub, to accomplish that the capital from China could be vital. The thing Sri Lanka has to keep in mind is what will be the amounts it has to pay as debts for the investments and the loans. Sri Lanka needs to take a rational approach to it and decisions should only be made after a lot of analysis, and open consultations with the people. The public has the right to feel worried and it's the government's job to explain what it's trying to do and be open about it.
Q: Do you think that when trade negotiations are taking place the details should be open to the public?
A: It depends. I think the information should be made available to the public before negotiations take place. Because it's important to have consultations with unions, businesses, and various other stakeholders but once the negotiations start, the government can't reveal its 'negotiating hand' and play its cards too early. So it's difficult to say, from the outside, that the government has a legitimate right not to reveal information. If keeping things close to the chest helps the government get an advantage over the other side, then it's a good enough reason, but if they are saying they are keeping things not to offend the other side, that's not a good reason.
Q: When it comes to the Indian Ocean the United States still dominates and it is doubtful that it wants to relinquish its position of power. On the other hand China has come up with their own Monroe Doctrine to push away other powers from their backyard. Given that China has been very close to Russia in the last few decades and that Russia and the US are also having serious issues, do you think that there is a possibility of a conflict in the region?
A: I think there is a definite risk. It's difficult to predict the time frame but there is a definite risk if you look at history. No rising power has accepted the prevailing world order and the United States have not tolerated any challenges to its dominance in the last 50 years. But the United States have never faced a powerful country like China. The economy of the Soviet Russia was a fraction of the United States economy. Even though they had similar amounts of nuclear weapons and had a very powerful Army, they couldn't last because they didn't have the necessary economic strength and stamina. However, China is almost as strong as the US and you can easily convert economic strength into military strength. That's what China is doing right now, even though the US has higher military spending. So there is a good chance of conflict because as you said these are two powers who won't give in and they have conflicting strategic interests and I think Asian countries like Sri Lanka needs to unite and work together to convince US and China not to have a conflict and to have to come to some kind of agreement through confidence building measures. I think this is very important because no one in Asia is going to benefit from a war between these two powers.
Q: But the problem with that is Asian countries are also divided. For example if you look at India and Pakistan they can't see eye to eye on almost anything. This animosity is what made sure that Secretary Hillary Clinton's efforts to link Afghanistan with India did not work out and it is also derailing SAARC. How do you think this increasing hostility will affect the future of SAARC?
A: I think SAARC has been hobbled by the India – Pakistan rivalry and I think South Asia is very difficult to have such a grouping because it's not like ASEAN where all the powers are relatively equal. Of course in ASEAN Indonesia is the most powerful but it's not an overwhelming power like India in South Asia. India is also right at the centre and it wants to deny other external powers from getting involved. On the other hand Pakistan is also not relenting and won't submit to India, so it's extremely difficult for SAARC to be successful until the Indian and Pakistan issue is resolved. I think that issue can be resolved. I think India wants to solve this issue quickly because it wants to rise to great power status and to do that it needs to neutralize the Pakistani issue and I think they will be willing to give a lot to resolve it. I think the Modi Government has the opportunity to do that because he is seen as a right-wing Hinduthva leader, and he has credibility.
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