In a talk at the influential US think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on Tuesday, US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal spoke of a new report that focused on the vital role of Central Asia in reconnecting Eurasia. “The uptick in attention on [...]


The geopolitics of diminishing Sri Lanka’s war victory


In a talk at the influential US think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on Tuesday, US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal spoke of a new report that focused on the vital role of Central Asia in reconnecting Eurasia. “The uptick in attention on Central Asia around this town is much needed and long overdue” she said. Noting that the study highlighted the tremendous potential to connect with and profit from regional and global markets, she said that promoting Asian connectivity was a major pillar of US’s Central Asian strategy.

What Biswal went on to describe was the US’s New Silk Road initiative originating in 2011. Among its key aspects are the creation of a Central Asia-South Asia Regional Energy Market, and the development of trade and transport corridors. In this connection she referred to the ‘CASA-1000 electricity grid’ that would link Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and the ‘TUTAP grid’ connecting Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Overlap with China
What immediately comes to mind for Sri Lanka is the seeming overlap between the US’ plans in Central Asia, and those of China. China’s president Xi Jinping in September last year toured Central and South Asian with precisely the same objectives, of promoting regional connectivity and energy cooperation. Before the South Asian leg of his tour (Maldives, Sri Lanka, India) Xi visited Kajikistan, where he attended the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (consisting of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). There he inaugurated the Kajikistan section of the Central Asia-China gas pipelines. One of China’s major energy cooperation projects in Central Asia, the 1000 km line will run from Turkmenistan across Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to China, with an expected delivery capacity of 30 billion cubic metres of natural gas every year once completed in 2016, according to Xinhua.

While the four countries visited by Xi are considered ‘pivotal points’ in its Silk Road project, China has stressed that its diplomacy aims at achieving ‘amity and cooperation. Biswal too in her CSIS talk adopted a non-confrontational approach in describing the US initiative, saying the US did not see Central Asia as ‘an arena for zero-sum geostrategic rivalry’ and that “everyone has a productive role to play, all boats can rise.”

But is this likely to be the case when major powers are competing in an area where the world’s energy resources are concentrated?

Eurasia the chess-board
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Security Advisor to former US President Jimmy Carter and a member of CSIS, was prescient when he wrote in 1997 that “Eurasia remains the chess-board upon which the struggle for global primacy takes place…. As Eurasia is situated in the centre of the world, whoever controls this continent will control the planet… The appearance of a rival in Eurasia capable of dominating this continent and defying America will put into question its objectives.”

In their book titled ‘Yugoslavia: An Imperialist war for a New World Order’ (1999) Tania Noctiummes and Jean Pierre Page say that “In the view of the Americans, the Eurasian continent which extends upto China and including India, constitutes the pivot of the world.” They cite Brzezinski to explain the basis on which importance is attached to controlling this part of the world: “… it contains approximately 75% of the world’s population … the greater part of the physical wealth in the form of corporations or raw material deposits. The global GNP of the continent amounts for some 60% of the global total. Three-quarters of the world’s known energy resources is concentrated there … After the US, six of the most prosperous economies and six largest defence budgets are to be found there, including all holders of nuclear weapons … All the political and/or economic rivals of the United States as well. Their cumulative power far surpasses that of the United States. Happily for the latter, the continent is too vast to realise its political unity.”

Different approaches to Silk Road
China’s Silk Road has two aspects – the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Sri Lanka’s potential involvement, owing to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, would relate more to the maritime aspect. Sri Lanka’s port development activities in Hambantota and Colombo are often viewed as part of China’s project (although Hambantota could be seen more as a fulfillment of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s desire to have a showpiece project in his home constituency. We may recall it was first offered to India, which turned it down.)

A crucial difference between China’s Silk Road and the US’s Silk Road is that China in its attempt to woo participants does not, as a matter of policy, interfere in their domestic affairs. Reporting on Xi’s visits to Kajikistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka after his return to Beijing Xinhua mentioned that he had “reiterated China’s firm support for the three countries’ choices of own political systems and development paths.” The US on the other hand invariably bundles its offers of development assistance to other countries with its usual mantra of ‘good governance,’ human rights,’ ‘accountability’ etc.

Biswal reiterated this stance when she said the US commitment to the ‘endless task of protecting and advancing the rights of private citizens’ does not stop at its own borders. “.. we carry it with us wherever we go – it is a core aspect of our foreign policy, and it informs and defines our engagements with societies and governments around the world, including in Central Asia.”

Countering terrorism
The US position articulated by Biswal (in this instance in relation to Central Asia) is that ‘by partnering economic connectivity with transparent, accountable and inclusive government,’ countries can ‘more effectively counter the forces of extremism and terrorism and provide a more hopeful future for their people.’

Now, in the case of Sri Lanka, the US cannot apply this matrix because Sri Lanka has already ‘countered the forces of extremism and terrorism’ that it faced in the form of the LTTE, and thereafter engaged in intensive infrastructure development, registering high growth rates in the region of seven percent. In other words Sri Lanka is a ‘fly in the ointment’ of the US’s geopolitical game that is being played out in Asia. As Kalinga Seneviratne wrote in the Manila Times, “For the West, this cannot be held up as a good example, because it showed that the West could be irrelevant in shaping up the 21st century Asian Age,”

Making the US mantra credible
These factors help to explain why the US finds it necessary to target Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council by bringing resolutions against it. They relate to why, instead of praising Sri Lanka for recording a singular triumph in the ‘war on terror’ anywhere in the world, the US chooses to press war crimes allegations against the Government, aided and abetted by the western-based LTTE diaspora. The war victory needs to be discredited in the eyes of the world, in order to make the US’ mantra sound credible.

Emasculating the armed forces and air-brushing their military achievements out of the narrative, would fit in well with the US’s scheme. And as the sixth anniversary of the war’s end approaches, Sri Lanka’s new political leaders seem to be signaling that they are happy to cooperate.

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