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Friday December 9th, 2022

Biden-Harris: What’s in store for Sri Lanka?

ECONOMYNEXT – If all goes well – not a small ‘if’, given recent events – Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States later this evening, Sri Lanka time. Outgoing President Donald Trump is boycotting the inauguration, and words like “civil war” are being thrown around freely, but – CNN’s premature frenzy notwithstanding – the transition should be mostly smooth. Mostly. In a few hours’ time, Biden will be conferred the increasingly dubious title ‘leader of the free world’ and Kamala Harris will create history by being the first woman and first person of colour to be Vice President of the US, an “enlightened” country that was mysteriously lagging behind on that count until November 2020. While this is all arguably good news for America, what are the short and long term implications of a Biden-Harris administration for Sri Lanka?

EconomyNext reached out to three experts, an economist and two former senior and reputed diplomats, for their views.

Research Economist at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Kithmina Hewage predicts a return to multilateralism after years of isolationist foreign policy under Trump.

“This means that in many ways, Biden’s foreign policy will closely reflect Obama’s and his proposed appointments to the State Department and Defence Department show that. However, there will be some significant shifts between the Biden and Obama foreign policies. The world Biden has inherited is very different to the one Obama left in 2016 – China is a much more powerful player in global politics and traditional US allies like South Korea, Japan, EU, and the UK have started seeking alternate alliances amongst themselves due to US policy inconsistency under Trump. Therefore, Biden will likely continue to be somewhat aggressive against China whilst trying to rebuild US alliances at the multilateral level,” he said.

This muted aggression notwithstanding, Hewage believes that Biden is less likely to continue Trump’s controversial trade war with China. This, coupled with the promised return to multilateralism, he said, will be in Sri Lanka’s favour.

“Biden will attempt to push back through multilateral forums such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on issues like copyright infringement and other trade concerns. This is good news for Sri Lanka as it will create a much more stable global economic environment. The US might also attempt to reinvest in developing stronger economic alliances in South and East Asia (with India and former TPP partners) to try and balance Chinese economic interests in the region. That might provide more opportunities for Sri Lanka to join regional and global value chains, so long as we get our macroeconomic fundamentals in place,” he said.

Despite attempts to balance Chinese interests, Hewage does not see a Biden administration forcing a “with us or against us” choice on smaller nations, as was seen during the hurried visit of outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Sri Lanka in October last year.

Another area of importance for Sri Lanka, according to Hewage, will be possible attempts under Biden to restart the Iran Nuclear Deal. This is because Iran has historically been a significant oil supplier and an important destination for the island nation’s exports. He also believes the new administration’s focus on climate change will be in the interest of Sri Lanka.

“As a particularly vulnerable economy to climate change, this will benefit us in the long run, both in terms of mitigating climate change as well as promoting greater global investment and innovation into green tech and sustainable energy,” he said.

Economic implications aside, the new administration’s approach to Sri Lanka’s human rights record will be of utmost concern to the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). The US is widely expected to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) under Biden and once again assume a role of global leadership in addressing issues of human rights. It was the US, under a Democratic administration, that took the initiative in holding Sri Lanka accountable at the UNHRC for the country’s alleged violations of human rights in the final phases of the separatist war.

A retired senior diplomat who spoke to EconomyNext on condition of anonymity said the intensity of focus on Sri Lanka will depend on a number of factors.

“A Biden administration will rejoin all multilateral processes, including the UNHRC in time to come, but by March this year it will be too soon for any significant US interest to manifest. Given that several Democratic party leading functionaries have had a focus on South Asia including  Sri Lanka, US interest in Sri Lanka at the UNHRC will manifest in time to come. However, the level of that focus will be a function of the quality and quantity of interaction at Congress,  the State Department, and the White House by Tamil and human rights lobby groups on the one hand and the GoSL and the Embassy in Washington on the other,” the diplomat said.

With regard to China, he said, ongoing US-China dissonance will essentially remain the same. “But in style it will manifest differently and Sri Lanka, too, will come under focus accordingly. However, it’s likely that the US will let India handle that issue as a QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) partner given that US-Sri Lankan relations have now reached an all-time low,” he said.

The diplomat further said that the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to Sri Lanka will depend on how Sri Lanka handles its own reconciliation process and human rights issues as well as economic policies. Another factor, he said, will be how best Sri Lanka can manage the ‘Comprehensive Partnership Dialogue Process’ between the two countries initiated in 2017.

Another former senior diplomat who also spoke to EconomyNext on condition of anonymity said that though it is unclear at present whether the US under Biden will get back to piloting the Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC, they will likely play a proactive role in using international mechanisms to enforce human rights in various countries, especially in the developing world.

“They have picked Samantha Power to be the head of the USAID. She was very much active on the human rights front and very much focused on Sri Lanka during the former administration. So you can expect a more active stance. Whether that stance will be an aggressive one is not clear,” he said.

There has been some speculation that the ethnicity of Vice President-elect Harris, whose mother was born in Tamil Nadu, will factor in newfound resolve on the part of the US to see that Sri Lanka is held accountable for its alleged war crimes. Asked to comment on this, the diplomat said it is unlikely that Harris would be guided by her ethnic origins.

“Quite frankly, I think the American administration works more on institutional guidance rather than personal compulsion. I’m not sure Harris would be guided by her ethnic origins rather than by the interests of the US. They also understand that they have to work with Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka is strategically important for the new Indo-Pacific strategy. They understand that more pressure on human rights on Sri Lanka could make Sri Lanka gravitate more towards China. They’ll be cautious of that,” he said.

Asked if the new administration might continue to pressure countries like Sri Lanka to resist Chinese influence, the diplomat said, echoing Hewage, that the US is unlikely to adopt a zero-sum, “if you don’t deal with China, you’re better off with us” approach.

“But they will certainly discourage Sri Lanka from entering into strategic partnerships with China. They will also be cautious about Sri Lanka getting into undeliverable financial commitments like the so-called debt trap. At the same time, they understand that China is a good source of investment and purchasing power for Sri Lanka.

“I believe they will have a more nuanced, perhaps balanced approach to let Sri Lanka deal with China on commercial matters, but without giving China any strategic or military or other advantage,” he said, cautioning that this is still speculation as the new administration has yet to articulate their foreign policy in full.

However, he expressed confidence that the US under Biden will not follow Trump’s “doctrine of zero sum thinking”.

The inauguration ceremony will begin at 10.30pm tonight, Sri Lanka time. (Colombo/Jan20/2021)

Comments (4)

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  1. Dalit Prawasi says:

    Democrats have never been good for smaller countries like us. Who ever are the individuals running USA from Biden to the lowest poor and powerless countries will be doomed.

  2. Robbo says:

    He’s senile, he doesn’t even know where he is, let alone Sri Lanka LOL. So sad what has happened to America. So, so sad for the world. Fingers crossed I guess, we can only hope for the best.

  3. Chulie says:

    A comprehensive analysis. Thank you.

  4. Shan says:

    When it comes to strategic importance India is now a much more important country to USA and the west. This is the result of growing power of China. India is determined to get involved in Sri Lankan matters not to protect Tamils but for its own geopolitical interest. Their geopolitical groups. Indian Ocean’s strategic equation has changed. The reason is, while India was sleeping mired in its internal politics China has grown by leaps and bounds, economically, technologically and militarilly. Now India is gearing up to grow rapidly while the Sri Lankan government plays ethnic politics to win votes.

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Comments (4)

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Dalit Prawasi says:

    Democrats have never been good for smaller countries like us. Who ever are the individuals running USA from Biden to the lowest poor and powerless countries will be doomed.

  2. Robbo says:

    He’s senile, he doesn’t even know where he is, let alone Sri Lanka LOL. So sad what has happened to America. So, so sad for the world. Fingers crossed I guess, we can only hope for the best.

  3. Chulie says:

    A comprehensive analysis. Thank you.

  4. Shan says:

    When it comes to strategic importance India is now a much more important country to USA and the west. This is the result of growing power of China. India is determined to get involved in Sri Lankan matters not to protect Tamils but for its own geopolitical interest. Their geopolitical groups. Indian Ocean’s strategic equation has changed. The reason is, while India was sleeping mired in its internal politics China has grown by leaps and bounds, economically, technologically and militarilly. Now India is gearing up to grow rapidly while the Sri Lankan government plays ethnic politics to win votes.

Foreign minister, US ambassador discuss future assistance to crisis-hit Sri Lanka

ECONOMYNEXT — In a meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Ali Sabry and US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung discussed ways in which the United States can continue to support Sri Lanka going forward, the Ambassador said.

Chung tweeted Friday December 09 afternoon that the two officials had reflected on the “twists and turns” of 2022, at the meeting.

Minister Sabry was recently in Washington D.C. where he US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

A foreign ministry statement said the two officials held productive discussions at the Department of State on December 02 on further elevating bilateral relations in diverse spheres, including the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations which will be marked in 2023.

Incidentally, Sri Lanka also celebrates the 75th anniversary of its independence from the British in 2023, and President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given himself and all parties that represent parliament a deadline to find a permanent solution to Sri Lanka’s decades-long ethnic issue.

The US has been vocal about Sri Lanka addressing concerns about its human rights record since the end of the civil war in 2009 and was a sponsor of the latest resolution on Sri Lanka passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Unlike previous resolutions, this year’s iteration makes specific reference to the country’s prevailing currency crisis and calls for investigations on corruption allegations.

In the lead up to the UNHRC sessions in Geneva, Minister Sabry Sri Lanka’s government under then new president Wickremesinghe does not want any confrontation with any international partner but will oppose any anti-constitutional move forced upon the country.

On the eve of the sessions on October 06, Sabry said countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, who led the UNHRC core group on Sri Lanka, are greatly influenced by domestic-level lobbying by pressure groups from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.

These pronouncements notwithstanding, the Wickremesnghe government has been making inroads to the West as well as India and Japan, eager to obtain their assistance in seeing Sri Lanka through the ongoing crisis.

The island nation has entered into a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an extended fund facility of 2.9 billion dollars to be disbursed over a period of four years, subject to a successful debt restructure programme and structural reforms.

Much depends on whether or not China agrees to restructure Sri Lanka’s 7.4 billion dollar outstanding debt to the emerging superpower. Beijing’s apparent hesitance to go for a swift restructure prompted Tamil National Alliance MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam to warn of possible “go home, China” protests in Colombo, similar to the wave of protests that forced the exit of former pro-China President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The TNA will be a key player in upcoming talks with the Wickremesinghe government on a solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue. (Colombo/Dec09/2022)

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India smogs out Sri Lanka’s China tower observers

 

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Chinese-built Lotus Tower has halved visitors to its observation deck an official said as dirty air flowing from India triggered air quality warnings and schools in the capital closed.

“Masks are mandatory at the observation deck and roughly around 50 to 60 can go up to the observation deck at a time, time limits have not been altered and still persists at 20 minutes for observation,” the official told EconomyNext.

Prior to the smog, 120 observers were permitted at once to the deck.

However, even after limitations the Lotus Tower has continued to draw visitors, and revenues are coming in, the official said.

The tower built with a Chinese loan by the cash rich Telecom Regulatory Commission has been described by critics as a white elephant that eats the money earned from telecom operators mainly as spectrum fees.

Sri Lanka’s National Building Research Organization (NBRO) said India air heavily polluted with particulate matter was flowing across the island into a depression in the South West Bengal Bay. (Colombo/Dec09/2022)

 

 

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Mystery mattress sparks innuendo-filled row in Sri Lanka parliament

File photo of a mattress

ECONOMYNEXT — A mysterious luxury mattress said to have been paid for by a private company has found its way to the president’s office in the parliament complex, an opposition MP claimed, leading to an innuendo-filled exchange of words between the MP and the chief government whip.

Main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Buddhika Pathirana told parliament on Friday December 09 that on July 28, a week after President Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in, some “items” had been transported to the parliament complex.

“None of these items were purchased by parliament. A private company had paid for them,” said Pathirana, announcing his intention to table all receipts.

According to the MP, the items had been moved to the space allocated for the president’s office inside the parliament building. Among these items had been a luxury mattress that the Matara district MP claimed was one foot thick.

“Why has a mattress like that been brought here, and why is it in the president’s office? As far as I know, nobody sleeps in that room. This raises a serious question as to whether someone goes to bed in that room,” he said.

“Either the president has to sleep in it or it’s his staff,” he added.

Pathirana urged Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena to appoint a committee of MPs to investigate the matter, and the MP volunteered to inspect the bed himself.”

“We’ll also go and take a look. That’ll be good for president’s security and for that of this House. Can things paid for by a private company be brought in here?”

MP Pathirana claimed that though it was said that President Wickremesinghe had covered all expenses of his swearing in ceremony with his private funds, the company that paid for the mysterious mattress had in fact made the payments.

Pathirana’s SJB colleague Hesha Withanage who came to the MP’s defence amid howls of laughter from the government benches said it was a serious matter, urging the lawmakers not to make light of it. Withanage claimed that he had in his possession a letter directing an unnamed authority to provide the company in question 20 acres of land in Hambegamuwa, Hambantota.

He did not elaborate.

Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatunga, meanwhile, told Pathirana and the SJB that the Speaker had said he would look into the matter.

“The speaker has said he will look into it. You’re not going to sleep in that bed, are you? I don’t know if you do and if that is why you’re so interested.

“There are much more important things to discuss. Talk about problems of the country without talking about about beds,” he said. (Colombo/Dec09/2022)

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