Former US President Donald Trump infamously set the world on fire regularly with his middle-of-the-night tweets, and ambassadors have often tried emulating him, rubbing the host country to which they are accredited on the wrong side. One of these envoys received an unexpected rejoinder from the President this week, and she soon recoiled to set [...]


SL debt trapped in US-China clashes


Former US President Donald Trump infamously set the world on fire regularly with his middle-of-the-night tweets, and ambassadors have often tried emulating him, rubbing the host country to which they are accredited on the wrong side. One of these envoys received an unexpected rejoinder from the President this week, and she soon recoiled to set the record straight and re-focus on bilateral relations.

Last week’s unwarranted muscling of protesters near the Presidential Secretariat seems to have made several Western ambassadors reach for their mobile phones and tweet condemnations. This resulted in some Opposition lawmakers who see a CIA conspiracy behind every bush, equally quick to ask if the recent ‘Aragalaya‘ (People’s Struggle) is a Western plot to destabilise Sri Lanka.

The conduct of these Western ambassadors may give rise to this suspicion, but what is fact is that the US and the West are masters of this game, and were behind the mass protests against a Russian-backed President in Ukraine not long ago, which has now led to a full-blown war. Was it pure coincidence then, that the US Under Secretary for Political Affairs famed for her role in the people’s uprising in Ukraine arrived in Sri Lanka in March and the Galle Face Aragalaya started in April. That the US and the West wanted to see the exit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also no classified secret.

What then is their grouse with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, or do they not recognise a regime change has occurred? None of the Western powers has sent congratulatory messages to the new President. The early well-wishers were China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko. India’s Narendra Modi took a week to message. And this is the President who is labelled a puppet of the West by his critics and who took his party, the UNP, to membership of the IDU (International Democratic Union), a club of largely Western centre-right political parties, currently chaired by a former Prime Minister of Canada.

In the midst of this, a hot potato has landed on the Presidential desk. A Chinese ‘scientific research’ vessel is planning to arrive at the Hambantota Port in less than two weeks. Permission to dock has already been granted by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It has caused a flutter in the Western camp – and India. The Indian Ocean waters are already warming up for this visit, given the vessel’s reach to conduct satellite control and research tracking with eavesdropping capabilities. US-China relations are already getting charged with a prospective visit to Taiwan by the US House Speaker.

The China-bashing by the US has taken an added momentum targeting the loans it has given Sri Lanka. Squarely blaming Sri Lanka’s debt crisis on Chinese loans, the USAID chief Samantha Power speaking strategically from New Delhi, praised India for coming to Sri Lanka’s assistance in its hour of need and called upon China to help out Sri Lanka and other nations with debt restructuring. Beijing hit back immediately saying that unlike the US, China had no political agendas in Sri Lanka. The IMF’s Indian director for Asia & Pacific echoed the US line saying Sri Lanka owes China USD 6.5 billion and the “big creditor” must come to the debt restructuring party. Nary a word about the ‘Vulture Funds’, the investment funds of the West that fed on Sri Lanka’s distress.

Thus, one sees the Western Alliance, India, the World Bank and the IMF using the ‘China card’ on Sri Lanka, trying to drag it away from its neutrality in an ideological clash with China while Sri Lanka, having caught the IMF tiger by the tail now, cannot let go of it either.

Overall, the current crisis and the lead-up to it have been marked by an unprecedented convergence of negatives in Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy domain.

Ham-handed handling of friends and issues (e.g. rejecting the Light Rail and Port projects with Japan, Muslim burial controversy during COVID upsetting Islamic nations, the MCC with the US, solar projects and the fertiliser fiasco with China, project delays with India etc.,) has irritated and distanced bilateral friends and confused multilateral entities. It has allowed India to rush in with ‘livelihood packages’ and demand sovereign rights and sovereign assets be sacrificed in return. At successive sessions in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council is becoming increasingly intrusive, not only in prescriptions and strictures, but more importantly, in prosecutorial work (for universal jurisdiction) dealing with accountability issues in Sri Lanka.

The economic crisis has also greatly enfeebled the country and depleted whatever was left of its diplomatic clout. There is little or no room to negotiate outcomes of the country’s choosing, pertaining to crisis-related priorities like bridging finance (short term) as well as debt restructuring and reform (long term). Sri Lanka just does not have much to merchandise – ‘no beef to sell’, but has to merely plead for mercy.

The one last thing on offer may perhaps be, to showcase that Sri Lanka has overcome the crisis (both the Aragalaya and the economic dimensions) peacefully, and democratically, aborted an authoritarian effort and transitioned to a credible multi-party, if not all-party consensual governance mechanism until the next election. And that this is a unique template to promote. Moreover, all the interlocutors as well as creditors, both bilateral and multilateral, including the IMF, will want to be assured that the painful reform programme that the country will have to eventually sign, is backed by a national consensus and will not be unravelled by the next Government that comes along – which has unfortunately been a ‘best practice’ in Sri Lanka.

So, consensual governance and public policy-making will be critical to any successful foreign policy effort in the crucial months ahead, at least until the bail-out negotiations with the IMF and debt restructuring talks with creditors have been completed. Whether this is possible remains to be seen. The Wickremesinghe-Gunawardene combine will need to be unifiers and the Opposition, including the unions less obstructionist.

There is no other way out. All options available involve varying degrees of painful reform. If there is no internal political consensus on ‘structured pain’, rampant pain (anarchy) will ensue. No foreign Government in its proper senses will be able to persuade its taxpayers to agree to fund chaos in Sri Lanka.


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