The Lion and the Eagle: Pivoting Washington’s Focus Back to Southern Asia
By Connor Tull
On April 4th, Sri Lankans watched as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa forced his entire cabinet, which included much of his family, to resign. While Rajapaksa’s goal was to soothe the protests that have rocked the country since March, the move has not quelled his opposition’s call to see him resign as well. In fact, three days ago people across the small island nation defied the government’s state of emergency and chanted calls of “Gota, go home!”, referring to the fact that Rajapaksa holds dual citizenship in both Sri Lanka and the United States. With both the protestors vowing to march until Rajapaksa gives in and Rajapaksa’s history of using violence to suppress opposition, Sri Lanka looks poised for immense civil strife.
At first glance, this may not seem like the most immediate issue facing the American government, but as Washington draws back from its Middle Eastern commitments, it must renew its ones in South Asia if it wishes to block China’s expansionist policies. Indeed, solving the Sri Lankan issue may help open the way to revitalizing the American presence in a strategically important region at a time when it has seemed to decay in other parts of the world.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa began his career in 1971 when he joined the Sri Lankan military, which at the time was engaged with the militant organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in what would become a brutal 26-year long civil war. Rajapaksa later immigrated to the United States in 1998 before returning in 2005 and becoming defense minister in the government of his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa. While he was charged with alleged wartime atrocities for his role in ending the civil war, the political clout of the Rajapaksa family ensured those allegations eventually disappeared. Riding a wave of support after the 2019 Easter terrorist attacks, Gotabaya became president the same year with Manhinda becoming prime minister in 2020.
Since then, any goodwill the people of Sri Lanka had towards Gotabaya and his family has slowly dried up due to the many blunders he has committed politically, socially, and economically. Things have only gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic that has eradicated the tourism industry, one of the principal sectors of the economy, and a failed transition to organic farming that has created skyrocketing levels of inflation and import costs.
Currently, Sri Lanka is nearly $4 billion in debt, and people around the nation have complained about fuel shortages, power cuts, and lacking even basic essentials like milk powder and rice. In response to the protests, Rajapaksa has declared a state of emergency and used authoritarian methods to crack down on protestors, even blocking social media.
This crisis is important to the U.S. because even though Sri Lanka has traditionally been a nonaligned nation, China is poised to continue moving into Southern Asia and increase its influence via its Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, according to an article by World Politics Review, the Rajapaksa administration has “become something of a poster child for the risks of engaging with China and its Belt and Road Initiative.” China has given enormous loans to Sri Lanka, which in turn have been used in infrastructure projects, most prominently the development of Hambantota Port in the south. The port is over 15,000 acres and is considered a model of China’s “string of pearls strategy: a series of Chinese-built or operated ports along the Indian Ocean coastline to secure maritime routes for economic and potentially military purposes.”
This port was built despite the fact that it was consistently criticized during its construction for its high economic and geographical displacement costs and the fact that it has not materialized any immediate benefits for the Sri Lankan people. On the other hand, the State Department’s official policy regarding Sri Lanka is to “support Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions, encourage its economic development, counter-terrorism, and promote a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.” While some may argue that these are goals the U.S. has for almost every country it interacts with, what makes Sri Lanka so critical to this is its position in the Asian world, both in a geographical sense and in a metaphorical sense.
If the Chinese were to gain enough leverage over Sri Lanka to bring it into their sphere of influence, that threatens close U.S. allies like India, Bangladesh, and Singapore. Those countries will feel as though their backs are to a wall and may seek to arm themselves rapidly to counteract a potential Chinese incursion.
This paranoia would only serve to disrupt any future cooperation between the U.S. and these countries. This also heightens the possibility of a potential showdown between U.S. forces in South Asia and any Chinese forces that could be stationed in Sri Lanka, which would only serve to further destabilize the region as a whole. That’s why the U.S. must take a stand in Sri Lanka. China only succeeds if there are cracks in the geopolitical realm where it can extend its influence.
If the U.S. wishes to be serious on its stance in Sri Lanka, it must apply pressure on Rajapaksa to step down, both for the sake of Sri Lankan democracy and future peace in the region. Sri Lanka necessitates action more so than anywhere else because of how close it is to the brink. Others may argue that the U.S. has other places to intervene and that Sri Lanka lacks anything special, but that fundamentally ignores its position and the role it has to play in South Asia.
This pressure does not have to amount to outright removal, as that could jeopardize the relationship between the U.S. and Sri Lanka and further damage American prestige in Southern Asia. Rather, what is needed is a coordinated campaign in both secret and public channels from the Biden administration alongside help from other regional partners like India. The U.S. is Sri Lanka’s largest export market and has given over $2 billion in aid since 1948. In addition, over 49,000 people of Sri Lankan descent live in the U.S. In addition to the other 3 million Sri Lankan who live abroad, these factors present a series of steps the U.S. can take against Rajapaksa.
The first step would involve supporting the protestors by drawing attention to their cause and announcing U.S support for them. This would help further legitimize the protestors’ demands and make it clear to Gotabaya that he needs to leave for the good of the nation. The next step would involve manipulating U.S. aid in ways that force Rajapaksa to grant political concessions or pull back from using violence. For example, the U.S. could make its next payments of foreign aid contingent on having Rajapaksa suspend his state of emergency and withdraw security forces.
Another example could be offering to send economic advisors to help with the debt problem on the condition that Rajapaksa agrees to a meeting with the opposition. While this is not a fix to the problem, it can help to further mobilize the opposition and could result in a vote of no confidence to remove Gotabaya from office. Third, connecting with Sri Lankan community leaders around the world and organizing them to issue denunciations against Rajapaksa could show that it’s not just a small minority of protestors who want him gone, but rather the Sri Lankan people as a whole. The final step would be threatening Rajapaksa’s citizenship and any connections he has in the U.S. if he does not step down.
This is a drastic measure, and it must be said throughout this whole process that caution is important. If the U.S. intervenes too strongly, violence could ensue, Rajapaksa could further embrace China, or the Sri Lankan people could react with hostility to what they could see as American meddling. However, by walking the tightrope and using these strategies in combination, the U.S. can guide Sri Lanka into a period of peace and perhaps turn it into a trusted ally.
This is very important considering that the U.S. needs a more unified strategy in Asia to combat China. Sri Lanka in that regard can be the first partner in an American-based bloc designed to prevent further Chinese machinations. It may be a small fish in a big pond, but America needs as many friends as it can get now more than ever. Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and many other countries are testing America’s mettle, and we need partners to stand side by side with.
While it could be argued that there are more pressing areas to be concerned about within Asia, like Taiwan and South Korea, that does not mean the U.S. should neglect its partnerships elsewhere in the region. By remaining true to the principles that it has established, working with regional allies, and utilizing the right combination of pressure points, the U.S. can ensure stability and continued good feelings with South Asian states. If there was ever a time and a place to remind America of its friends and commitments, Sri Lanka is the place to start. Showing up for Sri Lankans will remind the world that America is back and standing alongside them.