The traffic from Washington, D.C to Colombo has increased dramatically in 2015. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sri Lanka in May. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power was in the country in November. Ambassador Thomas Shannon, Counselor of the Department of State and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal were in Colombo in December. For Biswal this was her second visit to Sri Lanka within five months. These constant visits of high ranking officials from the United States to Sri Lanka have raised many eyebrows. Why are so many high ranking American officials visiting Sri Lanka suddenly? This is a legitimate question.
The nationalist fringe of the Sri Lankan polity is obviously threatened by these persistent visits, and some suggested that these visits are a part of the American call for an international investigation into human rights violations, which allegedly took place during the last phase of the war in 2009. Some of these groups might view and/or depict these heightened interactions between Colombo and Washington as an indication of the present government succumbing to the pressure from America on the issue of an international investigation. It is possible that these visits have less to do with the violence of the last phase of the war and the proposed investigative mechanism. The reason, perhaps, is some of the recent foreign policy changes introduced in the U.S. by the Obama administration.
Pivot to Asia
President Barack Obama, in the early days of his first term in office wanted to make a fundamental change to the American foreign policy. The idea is to “pivot” to Asia. The desire to pivoting to Asia had two integrated elements: (1) moving away to a certain extent from the traditional policy focus, which emphasized Europe and the Middle East, and (2) providing top priority to Asia. Asia always figured prominently in the American foreign policy orientation, but it never received the highest priority. The decision to provide top most prominence to Asia was the significance of the pivot to Asia policy. Accordingly, the region would receive top priority in defense policy planning, diplomacy and investment. The end of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq enabled the Obama administration to focus more on Asia.
The American foreign policy shift was influenced by enormous growth, potential and some of the problems that stem from the states of Asia. Currently, some of the major rising powers are in Asia. For example, China and India are emerging as major international actors. These are also nuclear powers. China could potentially challenge the U.S. in terms of economic power and military strength. Also, for example, some of the major greenhouse gas emitters are in Asia. As Hillary Clinton stated “the Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics.” This reality obviously influenced the Obama administration’s decision to pivot to Asia. Containing and engaging China are the two cornerstones of the pivot to Asia policy.
Pivoting to Asia however, was not easy. There was internal resistance from the more traditional and conservative section of the American foreign policy apparatus and analysts. This forced Obama administration to repackage the pivot to Asia policy as “rebalancing.” Also, the intensified violence, especially terrorism of the ISIS, forced the administration to return to the Middle-East centered foreign policy. However, the significance of Asia to the present American administration remains very high.
Pacific and South Asia are two major sub-regions of Asia. The American position in the Pacific region has been more than satisfactory because the U.S. has military and nonmilitary facilities in several countries in this region including Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Singapore and Australia. South Asia however was problematic because in the early days of the Obama administration’s policy shift, India and Sri Lanka remained out of the American sphere of influence. The Manmohan Singh Government in India hesitated to forge full partnership with the U.S. However, Narendra Modi’s ascendency to the office of the Prime Minister has brought India and the U.S. much closer as partnership in several areas has strengthened.
In Sri Lanka the Rajapaksa government was leaning drastically toward China, which in turn weakened the American power and influence in the country. The American sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on Sri Lanka, to a certain extent, allowed the Americans to have a say in the affairs of Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa administration. The U.S. in Sri Lanka could have been completely isolated without the involvement in the Sri Lankan human rights issue.
However, one may argue that America’s Sri Lanka problem was resolved with the regime change in Sri Lanka in 2015. The new government not only demonstrated willingness to work with the West in general and the U.S. in particular, but also co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution. When there is a friendly government in Colombo that could be of assistance to achieve its regional and global strategic objectives, the U.S. does not have to be imposing in their approach and damage the remerging cordiality between the two states. The constant visits of American officials to Sri Lanka are part of the effort to strengthen the U.S-Sri Lanka relations. An important element of the current American schemes in Sri Lanka (and India) would be containing China in South Asia.
As a result, one may assume that: (1) the American demand for an international investigation into the human rights violations would fade way, and (2) the ongoing engagement and visits would intensify. This however, is a short-term prospect because there will be a new administration in Washington, D.C, next year.
The results of the American presidential election would certainly have implications for Sri Lanka. Therefore, ideally, Sri Lanka should be closely watching the on-going primaries taking place to elect the nominees for the general election, which will take place in November 2016. Who is the best option for Sri Lanka?
The field has been really crowded. The Democratic Party contest has already been narrowed to two person race. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are the two candidates competing for the Democratic Party nomination. Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist promising free public education and healthcare in addition to a “revolution,” which has been attracting a large number of young voters. Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, served as the Secretary of State in the Obama administration. She was one of the architects of the American policy of pivot to Asia and played a major role in the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. Therefore, if Hillary is elected president, one may assume, that the current American interest in and engagement with Sri Lanka would continue; they may even intensify.
Sanders is a novice in international affairs and so far, has demonstrated ignorance about developments taking place outside of the Middle-Eastern region. He is too much into internal revolution, hence, he may pay less attention to Asia and Sri Lanka. At this point in time, however, it seems, even if he wins the democratic nomination, he would find it extremely difficult to win the general election with his socialist mantra.
The Republican Party started with seventeen candidates and has been reduced to five, currently. All of the leading candidates are foreign policy hardliners, who would “carpet bomb” the ISIS and other Islamic radical groups. Some, for example, Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, wants no rules in war. According to him, winning the war should be the only rule, which should be applied to warring parties. Donald Trump, the real-estate businessman, who probably would win the republican nomination, has similar views about foreign policy and war. Therefore, all Republican Party candidates would be sympathetic toward states that have to deal with terrorist threat and would probably understand human rights violations of state parties. Also, all Republican Party candidates, in terms of foreign policy, are excessively Middle-East oriented. Therefore, a Republican president in the Oval Office in January, would pay very little attention to Sri Lanka, which would work well for the government in power in Colombo.
(Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland)