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The Relevance of US -Sri Lanka Relations: Turning Over a New Leaf in Diplomacy

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Authors: Srimal Fernando and Yashodha Rathnayake*

Seventy-one years after independence, Sri Lanka   is    eventually   on a new   path in forging   stronger   diplomatic bonds with the United States of America. This bipartisan foreign relationship is perhaps one of the most important factors   that could   influence South Asian economies in the coming years. Going down the corridors of post-independence history, D.S Senanayake and S.W.R.D Bandaranaike   the founding   fathers of two major political parties in Sri Lanka helped shaping the US and Lanka foreign policy choices over the years.

Exactly five years since independence, Sri Lanka witnessed  a huge   change in diplomatic relations with the visit of the US Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953. This significant visit was a momentous milestone in shaping the dual foreign policy status (Richard Nixon  Foundation 2009). Thirty years later, the US attitude towards Sri Lanka changed remarkably when Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardena unveiled a new diplomatic strategy. The memorable words of US President Ronald Reagan during   the state dinner held in honor of visiting Sri Lankan President J.R Jayawardane stated,

“Sri Lanka is an example of independent people determining their own destiny and a country which the United States is proud to count among its friends “

This gesture by the American president increased   the effectiveness of diplomatic collaboration between the two nations that was at a highest point (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library).

Years following President Jayawardena’s visit to the United States (US) the  bilateralism took a wider   angle,  where  both nations  took steps  to maintain  closer economic connections. This in turn generated trade incentives from America to the island nation. The incentives involved a big change in Sri Lanka’s apparel sector.  It was a big shift in Sri Lanka’s financial outlook from its previous agriculture based economy. In various corners of the island nation, more than 200 apparel factories were opened creating employment opportunities for nearly 300,000 Sri Lankans in early 1990s. Over the years both nations experimented in changing the face of the diplomatic landscape. Nonetheless, the two-way diplomacy has not always been smooth. Thus in 2013, Sri Lanka’s relations with the Americans were seriously affected and it was disheartening to see the drift due to numerous reasons. Despite several setbacks, both nations have come a long way. Therefore, the stalemate situation in the diplomatic endeavors changed within days after Sri Lanka’s new government came into power in 2015.

Looking at the foreign relations, today the US is one of the largest trading partners of the island nation. Currently the two way trade continued to climb and it is closer to US$ 3.2 billion (Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2017). According to the figures released by the Sri Lanka Export Development Board (SLEDB), the apparel exports to the US was over US$ 2.2 billion (SLEDB, 2019).It is worth noting the economic integration  with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations  has been the top most   trade  priority   of   Sri Lanka .   The advantage   for Sri Lanka is, its geographic location in the Indian Ocean that links east and west maritime routes.  Therefore, there are number of ways in which these ties could become more relevant for the Americans, to tap into the 1.6 billion Indian subcontinent consumer and producer market through the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). On the other hand, the 300 million US consumer market cycle might be comparatively different than the South Asian market. Even though clearly there are abundant opportunities for investors. Therefore, treating the US investors on par with   Sri Lankan businesses can go a long way if necessary steps are taken.

On the defense side, the fundamental changes in the bilateral defense policies were initiated during the former President Barack Obama’s tenure. The inaugural defense dialogue between the US and Sri Lankan armed forces in 2016 were a groundbreaking collaboration (Ministry of Defense Sri Lanka).

For the Americans to walk this fine line with Sri Lankans, they desire to balance trade and aid cooperation that can win the hearts and minds of many islanders.  Since 1956, the United States has provided over US$ 2 billion worth of development assistance to Sri Lanka. It is worthwhile to mention the current US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina Teplitz stated “For seven decades, the United States has supported Sri Lanka on its path to peace and prosperity “. One of the touching examples of American kindness towards Sri Lankans was, when H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the two former presidents visiting the island nation to gain firsthand information of the post tsunami recovery efforts.

Making predictions about the future of the two-sided diplomacy might be a challenging process. The new America First Policy towards South Asian nations had taken entirely an unexpected path. Yet, Sri Lanka can take necessary steps to revise its current foreign policy towards the United States. This structural shift   may gain greater recognition for Sri Lankans among the US foreign policy makers. The long-standing diplomacy evolved differently. It is obvious that there are no easy solutions to strengthen American and Lankan bonds. In fact, to pursue this bipartisan diplomacy to a strategic partnership should come as no surprise. In short, policy makers of the two nations are in a position to turn a new page in these enduring bonds.

*Yashodha Jayathmi Rathnayake, a scholar BA (Hons) in English, at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Languages, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka.

Research scholar at Jindal School of International Affairs, India and an editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa

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South Asia

Questioning the Novelty of India’s New Normal

Haris Bilal Malik

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In recent years Indian notions of Pre-emption and so-called surgical strikes have been referred to as the ‘new normal’ by many in India. These have contributed to further affecting the security, stability and strategic equilibrium in the South Asian region. This is evident in how the top-brass within the Indian military has repeatedly asserted that India reserves the right to punish Pakistan with such notions of preemptive strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) under its limited war doctrines, which themselves belie a desire to wage a low-intensity conflict across the border. At the doctrinal level, India has been planning for this for quite some time as evident from its 2004 Cold Start Doctrine (CSD)as well as its more recently released doctrines such as the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD). These doctrines are all based upon proactive strategies and indirect threats of preemptive strikes against Pakistan. Based on the current patterns of Indian aggression these ideas hold immense significance when considering the latest rounds of tensions over the disputed territory of Kashmir as witnessed in the short-lived military engagement between the two countries in February 2019

Inspired by such notions and in typical fashion, the new Army Chief of India Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane wasted little time in blaming Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism in India. The same day he took charge of his new appointment he claimed that India reserves the right to respond in the same way it had previously done through its so-called ‘surgical strikes.’ Moreover, he openly asserted to physically taking control of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) if his government ordered him to do so.

However, such assertions from the Indian political and military leadership are simply repetitions of the same statements that have been made by Prime Minister Modi, Mr. Rajnath Singh, and former Army Chief Gen. (R) Bipin Rawat in the recent past. Representing the same aggressive and jingoistic posturing, there is not much novelty in these statements. In fact, even in this so-called ‘new normal’ which these leaders have repeatedly described over the last few years, there is nothing new at all.

Even the oft-quoted notion of a preemptive ‘splendid first strike‘ is not new for Pakistan as it had already formed a key part of the discourse surrounding the Indian and international strategic community since the years 2016-2017. According to this, if in India’s assessment, Pakistan was found to be deploying nuclear weapons, as a contingency, India would likely resort to such a splendid first strike which it has always hinted as being a nuclear strike. As such all this does is prove Pakistan’s pre-existing doubts over India’s long-debated ‘No First Use’ (NFU) Policy. Yet, what’s worth noting here is that this overt shift towards declaring a more offensive doctrinal posture from India represents a more focused attempt at undermining the deterrent value of Pakistan’s own nuclear posture, thus ultimately destabilizing the South Asian region.

Instead, the only thing new to come out from all these assertions from Indian leaders is the prevailing fascist mindset within India that is being fueled by a false sense of racial superiority and hatred against Muslims. This was clearly stated by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his tweet when he attributed the cause of such provocations to the RSS’s extremist ideology. Hence, Pakistan perceives the recent statements from India’s top military brass as also being wholly politically inspired and as a routine attempt to divert attention away from the rampant domestic socio-economic issues currently plaguing India. The fact remains that Pakistan’s response to this Indian self-proclaimed ‘new normal’ which was on full display during the Balakot crisis itself set a clear example of its full spectrum deterrence. Contrary to the notion that a conventional asymmetry of sorts exists between the two countries, Pakistan had responded conventionally and more befittingly while holding its own toe to toe. In other words, Pakistan proved that it can also restore deterrence via conventional means despite the quantitative edge of India’s conventional forces and military hardware.

It is also worth noting that while India is spending billions of dollars on its military modernization program both in terms of its conventional and unconventional acquisitions; allocating billions for defence spending does not necessarily guarantee military supremacy. Especially if the adversary is determined to thwart any such attempts right from the outset. India’s actual capabilities still differentiate widely from what its political and military leadership inspires and projects itself to be. In fact, there is a huge gap between the Indian leadership’s expectations and what its military can actually deliver. As apparent not only in the absurdity of Gen. Naravane’s statement but also in Prime Minister Modi’s and others, the credibility of such threats already remains highly questionable.

Hence at the present, it seems that India is more keen on simply projecting military supremacy vis-à-vis Pakistan as opposed to actually attaining it, as reflected in the statements of its political and military top brass. Its favored notions of preemption at the doctrinal and strategic levels are evidence of such aspirations. As such the increasingly provocative posturing against Pakistan in the form of this so-called ‘new normal’ seems to represent simply a jingoistic approach to manipulate Indian public sentiment in the ruling government’s favor. However, the fact remains that Pakistan has already nullified such notions of preemption in the recent past and has proved it time and again. As such India’s aggressive posturing seems to be collapsing on itself with its self-proclaimed ‘new normal’ unlikely to pose any serious challenges to Pakistan’s strategic posture at least for the time being.

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South Asia

From Scapegoat Back to Key Ally: Pakistan and the Perils of US Maximalism

M Waqas Jan

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In the two years since President Trump accused Pakistan of giving nothing but deceit and lies, relations between both countries seem to have undergone a dramatic turnaround. This is evident not only in the official narrative being put forth by both countries with respect to one another, but also in how this growing sense of cordiality has culminated into a series of high-level visits and meetings between key representatives. For instance, the icy indifference with which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was greeted with in Islamabad back in September 2018 now stands in stark contrast to the frank more amicable meetings that have been held between Prime Minister Khan and President Trump thrice since then. Not to mention the back to back visits from Alice Wells, the current US government’s focal representative for South Asia, that have further accompanied a steady yet gradual thawing of tensions.

Signs of this turnaround are further evident in how last month’s resumption of military education and training programs for Pakistani Officers marks one of the first steps towards renewed strategic cooperation. This represents an important milestone since President Trump had announced the cancellation of all forms of US military aid to Pakistan in early 2018. Similarly, acknowledgments of the progress made as per the requirements of the FATF review, as well as the ‘concern’ expressed over India’s recent actions in Kashmir are all signs aimed at placating some of Pakistan’s most pressing interests. Thus, hinting at what more cordial relations with the US could look like for Pakistan, while just stopping short of making any concrete commitments.

Yet, to say that Pak-US ties have begun to ‘normalize’ or ‘revert’ towards a mutually beneficial status quo would be ignoring the age-old complexity that has characterized relations between both countries. Especially for a relationship that has been long described as blowing hot and cold, on and off, as a rollercoaster ride, or simply a love-hate one. History has borne witness to the fact that US foreign policy towards Pakistan has more than often been based on a ruthless pragmatism and maximalism. This all or nothing approach has brought immense amounts of aid and funds for Pakistan which have been always cut off just as abruptly as they were initiated. Often without any long-term assessment or appreciation of what such actions are likely to lead to beyond the US’s more immediate goals.

None of this has been more evident than in US expectations from Pakistan regarding Afghanistan and the Taliban. It’s no secret that the very inception of the Taliban came from US funds and training during the waning stages of the Cold War for which Pakistan played the role of an indispensable intermediary. Yet following the 9/11 attacks, US policy towards the Taliban changed overnight when the US in lumping the Taliban together with Al-Qaeda brought down its military might on the entire Afghan State. What’s more it forced Pakistan to join its War on Terror almost at gunpoint. The infamous statement attributed to then US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage where he allegedly threated ‘to bomb Pakistan back to the stone age’ stands as a stark reminder of how even labeling this relationship as ‘complex’ is simply an understatement.

This aspect is further reinforced in the damning revelations of the Afghanistan Papers that were released just last month. Representing a cache of candid interviews of key officials responsible for formulating and implementing the US’s Afghanistan policy, these interviews have been used to piece together crucial mistakes at the strategic and policy levels made by successive US governments over the last two decades.  One of these mistakes has been highlighted as ‘trusting Pakistan as a friend’ where Pakistan has been repeatedly accused of providing sanctuary and support to certain militant groups. Hence, accusations of Pakistan playing a double game, as well as the confusing distinctions between good and bad Taliban all contributed to a narrative that Pakistan was doing more to upend US progress than support it. This had caused much of the resentment and mutual distrust specifically during the Obama years which starting from calls to ‘do more’ resulted in the US unilaterally and covertly taking out Osama Bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory. As ties worsened, the advent of the Trump presidency brought with them an overt sense of finality in the form of his new year tweet that was referred to in the beginning of this article.

Yet, even now as both countries come full circle with the US asking for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, one fears that the US may still not have learnt anything from its adventurist debacles. As the Afghanistan Papers themselves testify, Pakistani officials have remained quite  candid in their desire to hedge their bets against the US by maintaining limited ties with the Taliban. This was made clear to Ambassador Ryan Crocker who had served as the US ambassador in Islamabad from 2004-2007. In one of his interviews in the Afghanistan Papers, the former ambassador directly quotes a conversation he had with Gen Ashfaq Kayani who was then the DG ISI.As Mr. Crocker himself recounts, the general had quite explicitly made clear his reservations against an abrupt US withdrawal that would force Pakistan to once again pick up the pieces while having made the Taliban a mortal enemy. Hence justifying the reasons behind Pakistan’s so-called duplicity.

But considering how it is in fact the US now that is pressing Pakistan to use those same ties to help extricate itself out of the Afghan quagmire, Pakistan’s strategy against the Taliban seems to have stood wholly vindicated. In fact, it appears downright visionary considering how in hindsight, Pakistan had repeatedly called on the US to consider negotiating with the Taliban – especially when the US had the upper hand following its initial successes back in the early 2000s.However,the US after squandering its own reputation and credibility and already having missed multiple chances to engage with the Taliban are now ironically banking on Pakistan to help secure an exit. A kind of exit that not only allows the US to perhaps save face at the international level, but also offer something palatable to the American people during an election year. Thus, once again reeking of the reactionary maximalism that has so often brought into question the US’s reliability and trustworthiness as an ally. Not to mention President Trump’s own ‘America First’ policy, which already risks squandering whatever little credibility the US has been left with in the first place.

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South Asia

India’s Modi: Messiah or Menace

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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When the Hindu sages developed their way of life, they divided people into four castes:  Brahmins, the thinkers, scholars and priests at the top for they were the guides; Kshatriyas, the soldiers including the king second for they protected and governed society; Vaishyas the merchants third with their commerce facilitating daily living; and Shudras who were the laborers and service workers at the bottom.

Well, the world has changed as it should but perhaps they had a point as there is a Vaish — not one at the top of the class but a tea-seller from a shop that would be at the other end of the spectrum from those charming English tea shops in Devon — now running the country.  Of dubious education that has been challenged and a beginning in the ultra-nationalist RSS (once outlawed by India’s founding prime minister and known also for producing Gandhi’s assassin) Narendra Modi is at India’s helm.  His BJP party’s rise is linked to stoking up tensions between Hindus and minority Muslims, whose suffering has been well documented.  Police powers have been increased and Muslim Kashmir is now under direct rule from Delhi, while new laws are disqualifying Muslims from citizenship.  So reports The Economist in its special issue, The State of the World in 2020 (p. 53).

Better known is the pogrom of Muslims in Modi’s Gujarat when he headed the provincial government there, and his party’s role in the destruction of a 500-year old mosque built by Babur so that the fictitious birthplace of Ram would be holy to both religions.  Having overthrown the Muslim Lodi dynasty and with a tenuous hold, Babur was seeking friends among Hindu Rajas who generally owed fealty to the Delhi sultans.  The Mughal Emperors also started the custom of marrying Hindu royalty to cement relationships and ensure loyalty.  And this Mughal openness to other religions reached its apex under Emperor Akbar who founded a new religion, Din-i-Ilahi, attempting to incorporate the best from all faiths but which, lacking roots, died with him.

After the Indian rebellion against British rule, the British saw advantage in fostering division among communities in the infamous divide-and-rule maxim, now changed by Modi into suppress-and-rule, as the left-over Muslim community is poor and weak after the emigration of many to Pakistan following partition and independence in 1947.

Gandhi and founding prime minister Nehru’s vision of a secular India is enshrined in its constitution, which Modi and the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda subverts.  Its Hindutva, a Nazi-like ideology holding Hinduism supreme, wants India to be an exclusively Hindu nation noting that Hindu and Muslim cultures are different, without regard to the similarities.  As a video demonstrating the new ideology in practice points out, it is safer to be a cow than a Muslim in Modi’s India.

It is what one can expect when an ill-educated, charismatic tea-seller takes over the world’s largest democracy offering cultural superiority and its false pride, hare brained schemes like a deadline  declaring old high denomination banknotes illegal causing chaos at banks.  Poorly managed plans like toilets and gas cookers for the poor are touted as successes.  But the toilets are not used because the plans did not include maintenance, and gas cooker distribution is riddled with corruption.  Meanwhile, the economy suffers and the country ranks 102 out 117 on the Global Hunger Index (between Sierra Leone and Niger) and far behind Bangladesh.  So much for the hype.

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