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)