Don’t let China dictate US and Indian policies on Sri Lanka – The Diplomat
US and Indian involvement in Sri Lanka, as in the other smaller South Asian states, is increasingly shaped by fears of losing ground to China. Over the past year and a half, China’s presence in Sri Lanka has expanded rapidly through infrastructure projects, financial aid and growing Chinese tourism. In the shadow of these changes, the involvement of the US and India has become increasingly cautious to counteract the often intolerant Sinhalese Buddhist sentiment that dominates the island’s politics and institutions.
In an effort to counter Chinese influence and establish a strategic and economic foothold on the island, the United States and India have at times worked to assuage Sinhala Buddhist sentiment by softly kicking controversial issues such as liability for mass atrocities and the rights of the island’s Tamil and Muslim communities. The problem with this approach is that the main obstacle to US and Indian interests on the island is not China per se, but rather Sinhala Buddhist nationalism itself and the political and economic outcomes it pursues.
While the US and India were key allies in Sri Lanka’s ultimately successful efforts to militarily quell the Tamil separatist insurgency, the Sinhalese leaders have always disliked the international push for a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Since the mid-2000s, they have turned to China as an alternative source of financial and military aid to reduce US and Indian influence. This intensified with the end of the war and the growing momentum of US Led Liability Requirements in front of wartime atrocities against Tamil civilians.
Yet we try to counter the Chinese influence by appease Sinhalese nationalist sentiment and soft treading on accountability and political reform demands comes with significant costs and uncertain benefits. Sri Lanka’s main strategic focus remains to secure Sinhalese dominance over the Tamils and increasingly over the Muslims as well. This explains the otherwise puzzling urge to use scarce financial resources to huge military presence in the Tamil-speaking areas. The extensive surveillance infrastructure also continues to be trained to monitor and harass Tamil civil society activists on the island and in the increasingly politically active and assertive diaspora scattered across Western states.
To truly surpass China’s offerings, the United States and India will have to do more than criticize these issues; they will have to actively support Sri Lanka in its efforts crackdown on Tamil civil society on the island and in the diaspora. The US and other western states will be asked, as they have been, until criminalize and forbid advocacy of the Tamil diaspora, censor Tamil political expression, and sharing information which can be used to intimidate relatives on the island. India will have to give up its previous recognition, by the Indo-Lanka agreement, of a historic Tamil speaking presence on the island.
These are big political questions, but they are unlikely to yield any apparent strategic or military gain. Appeasing Sinhalese nationalist sentiment will only fuel the Sinhalese leaders’ somewhat misguided belief that they can take advantage of the island’s strategic position to foment a cold war-style bidding war between the US, India and China that will secure not only Sinhalese Buddhist political domination over the minorities, but also the financial resources to support it. Sri Lanka’s erratic approach to Indian and US investment – seek them out and then fall back for nationalistic reasons – to be symbolic of this attempt to achieve maximum political and economic gain.
It is, of course, impossible for any of these international actors to provide the kind of blank check financial and political support Colombo is looking for; economic, aid and investment priorities just don’t work this way. yet the enthusiasm with which Western states and India have pursued military and economic ties in the absence of any progress on accountability or political reform has understandably encouraged the Sinhalese leadership’s belief that strategic interests are paramount and that a bidding war is possible.
Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, rather than China, is also the main obstacle to greater economic and infrastructural connectivity with India. In Sinhala Buddhist MythologyIndia is an ongoing cultural threat and source of alleged invasions that have destroyed the island’s once pristine Buddhist civilization. Although the actual history is quite different from this mythology, it is the mythology that is politically important and has been cited as an obstacle to Indo-Lankan relations even by normally Indophile political leaders such as Chandrika Bandaranaike.
Sri Lanka also continues to be plagued by political and economic instability, conditions that make it difficult, if not impossible, to build the long-lasting and reliable relationships that the United States and India aspire to. Although it has been more than 10 years since the end of the civil war, the country remains entangled in a escalating debt crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, persistent ethnic tensions that sometimes become violent, and creeping militarization already in acute proportions in the Tamil areas. However, the ultimate source of this instability is not China itself or its ‘debt trap diplomacy’, but rather the powerful and intolerant Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism that dominates Sri Lanka’s politics and public institutions. These forces have been unchecked since the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is himself accused of monitoring atrocities.
However, the United States and India do have tools at their disposal that can be used to forge strategic ties without compromising accountability and political reform progress. The long histories linking the island to the West and India, and those cannot be replicated by China, can and should be used to pressure Sinhalese leaders to take necessary but unpopular measures to promote the political rights of Tamils and Muslims.
The English language, cricket, Hollywood, Bollywood, as well as the Tamil music and film industries all have deep cultural and social traces on the island and are important to even the most persistent Sinhalese nationalist politicians. Multiple members of the ruling Rajapaksa family are American green card holders, and the previous government of Rajapaksa has invested heavily in lobbying in the US and PR firms to counter lobbying in the Tamil diaspora. They have also invested in the South Indian Tamil film industry to change the negative perception of the island.
Targeted sanctions, further travel bans on officials and family members, such as those already imposed on the head of the military Shavendra Silva, and the threat of cricket and other cultural boycotts can all have a convincing effect, especially when coupled with concrete expectations of progress in accountability and political reform. Fears that such measures would push Sri Lanka even further into China’s camp should not be overstated. The ties between China and Sri Lanka remain state to state and do not have the same resonance in popular culture as those with western states and India.
Sri Lanka’s turn to China has not solved its economic problems and has only made them worse by piling up even more government debt for infrastructure projects that have not yet yielded any appreciable benefit to the state treasury or social welfare. Moreover, China has not offered to simply bail Sri Lanka out of the current debt crisis, suggesting that whatever the long-term goals, Sri Lanka will remain especially important to Beijing for now as a location for excess Chinese capital and infrastructure capacity.
However, for the United States and India, Sri Lanka must not remain a mere place where excess capital is extracted or recycled, but must be a long-term partner in new regional and international architectures. The main obstacle to this is not China, but the dominance of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the economic and political results it seeks. To build reliable strategic ties in Sri Lanka, the US and India must use the “soft” influence they have to give Sinhala’s leaders a reality check and push for measures critical to ensuring stability and the prevention of recurrence of conflicts.