But it is not clear this is the case withSri Lanka. For instance,Sri Lankais not a “communist” country. Nor does it export or purport to export any other ideology or practice antithetical to core American values. (One might say that oil has been discovered off the coast ofSri Lanka, and that perhaps this is what theUSis after in the long term. But to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been any mention of “Sri Lankan oil” in any of the majorUSforeign policy journals or think-tank publications, which latter are usually a reliable way to gauge the priorities and concerns of US planners. So it is unlikely that “Sri Lankan oil” is currently even in the radar of US foreign policy concerns.)
To turn to more pertinent matters, the fact is that on many important issues, Sri Lanka’s conduct, as opposed to its attitude, is exactly what America wants. Sri Lanka’s foreign-trade policies, for instance, including the embrace of the so-called neo-liberal agenda, are perfectly compatible with American interests. Robert Blake, former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, currently Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South Asian Affairs, and one of the prime architects of the present resolution, has said that Sri Lanka has “great opportunities” for American companies. Meanwhile, one of Blake’s predecessors, Ambassador Jeffrey Lundstead, has said categorically, “The US has no significant strategic interests in Sri Lanka, certainly in comparison with other areas of US engagement.”
Given this situation, then, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka’s attitude or recalcitrance would constitute a “threat” in the minds of American planners. Certainly, Sri Lankais a bit eccentric. But as long as it doesn’t hurt the USwhere it matters—i.e. in the wallet—what does it matter? A cold and calculating policy-man would say, “So what?” Live and let live. At any rate, it cannot explain the intensity of the attention and fixation theUS seems to have developed forSri Lanka.
Finally, third, we have geopolitics. Rohan Gunaratna, a well-known security expert, deals with this aspect when he says, “Sri Lankahas become a pawn in the geopolitical chess game between the West and Indiaversus China, the emerging superpower.” Again, the explanation is reasonable and makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, but there are complications. First, we need to distinguish between the interests driving US foreign policy from the interests driving the respective policies of other Western nations. TheUS’s geopolitical interests are unique and different, on account of it being the world’s sole superpower. Second, with respect to the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region, in my view, it is not possible to say that there is a nexus between theUS andIndia on one side, andChina on the other. Each of these powers has distinct interests in the region, some of which coincide, and some clash.
In general, the South Asian region has been relatively unimportant in American geopolitical considerations. The main American theaters of operation in Asia as a whole have been Central Asia and the Middle East on one side, and the Far East on the other, in both of which America has fought (or continues to fight) major wars. South Asia, therefore, has largely figured as a sort of staging area, or transitional point between these two theaters. Traditionally, theUS’s primary “involvement” in South Asia was its relationship withPakistan(and through that, indirectly, withIndia.) From about the 1950’s to the 1990’s theUSwas an unreserved supporter and backer ofPakistan, which set it at odds withIndia. In the 1990’s this dynamic began to change, when the Americans began to pursue a policy of increasing co-operation and comity with India over certain areas of mutual interest, particularly trade. Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, of theUniversityofChicago, explain this as follows:
For roughly 50 years, the USdestabilized the South Asiaregion by acting as an offshore balancer. Its actions allowed Pakistanto realize its goal of “parity” with its much bigger neighbor and to try to best that neighbor in several wars. With the end of the Cold War (1989,) the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan(1989,) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1992,) little was left to justify the USacting as an offshore balancer in South Asia.
If we look at all this then from the perspective of the grand geopolitical stage, or “chess board,” Sri Lanka is not really in an area of the world where the US is inclined to take drastic action (except, perhaps when it comes to Pakistan). Indiaremains the “superpower” in the region, and theUSis happy to let this status quo continue as long as it is mutually beneficial, especially with respect to trade matters. IfSri Lankawere to pose a geopolitical “threat,” theUScan rely onIndiato neutralize it.
So, this is the background in which we have to approach any clash between US and Indian interests on the one hand, and Chinaon the other. The only way Chinese actions in Sri Lankacould become a threat to the USis if the Chinese obtain something like a naval base on the island. But Indiawould never allow this—not because it is acting in concert or collusion with the US, but because it would jeopardize India’s own hegemony in the region. The Sri Lankagovernment, meanwhile, is well aware of India’s concerns on these crucial matters, and the folly of thwarting Indiawhen it comes to her core interests. Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India, no doubt echoing the sentiments of his bosses in Colombo, is on record as saying, “Chinais an old friend. Indiais an older friend. Our political and economic friendship with Chinawill not be at the expense of India.”
Meanwhile, valuable insight into theUS’s own assessment of any “threat” posed by the Chinese inSri Lankacan be gained from a recent Wikileaks release of a cable sent by current Ambassador Patricia Butenis toWashington. In the cable, classified “confidential,” she writes,
At times the Government of Sri Lanka strikes a defiant nationalist tone, claiming that it does not need the USand the West since it can turn to new friends such as China. The trade figures do not bear this out, as investment and trade is a one way street, and the West remains an irreplaceable export market. Sri Lankaexports 37% of its goods to the EU, followed by the USwith a 23% share. Meanwhile the USruns an enormous trade deficit with Sri Lanka. In 2008 Sri Lankaexported $1.96 billion of goods to the US, and only received $283 in American imports. Although Chinamay well offer an excellent long term market, in terms of trade opportunities Sri Lanka’s new friends cannot compete with her old ones in the United Statesand EU.
To repeat, core American geopolitical interests are well protected inSri Lanka: Chinacan gain as many concessions as it wants, butAmericacan leave it toIndiato make sure the Chinese don’t cross a certain critical line.
That leaves R2P. Ambassador Kunanayakam has said: “The West has been developing this argument to justify and legitimize interventions in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libyaand now Syria. Their real objective is ‘regime change’! Many Ambassadors in Geneva have been telling me that this is also what they want to achieve in Sri Lanka, so we take it very seriously.” But the question still is, “Why?” Why would theUS want “regime change” inSri Lanka, at this precise point in time? The only way to answer this question is to refer to the explanations we have already considered—for instance, that theUS is being driven by “domestic pressure,” that there are “geopolitics” involved, thatSri Lanka poses some sort of ideological threat, and so on. As we have seen, however, these explanations don’t hold up under close scrutiny. So what could possibly be the reason thatSri Lanka is important to theUS in connection with R2P?
There is no question that the resolution is a boost for the R2P doctrine in general: the HRC’s endorsement of the resolution can be trumpeted as another instance when the international community endorsed or approved the core concepts behind R2P. This, in turn, will join the panoply of other precedents that the US can rely on if and when it wants to apply the doctrine in some specific situation in the future, whether in Sri Lanka or in some other country. But, there has to be more to it than this. For instance, if what the USwants is simply another precedent to bolster or boost R2P, it could focus on plenty of other countries, countries with ongoing crisis. The unique aspect of theUS’s attentions toSri Lanka is that here the attempt is to hold a country “accountable” for alleged offences that happened in the past. Sri Lanka, in other words, is a test case. But for what, exactly?
In my view, the significance of the resolution (and there’s really no other way to put it) is that it allows theUSto continue its assault on, and undermining of, some of the core concepts and foundational pillars of international law. This assault is part of a new direction or focus inUSforeign policy, though of course not in an explicit or overt way. There is very little public discussion of this matter.