Sri Lanka needs an Indo-Pacific strategy

If there was any doubt that Indo-Pacific is in fact the metaphorical “Heartland” of the 21st century, recent developments indicating intensifying U.S.-China competition in the region confirm this.  Writing in 1904, Mackinder described ‘heartland’ as a geopolitical region where great powers would bid for world domination and identified the landlocked region of central Eurasia as the same. Developments since, particularly the introduction of Intercontinental Ballistic  Missiles, has undermined the validity of his arguments in favour of landbased powers, but the allusion to a geographical ‘heartland’ is arguably more relevant now than ever.

Since the official adoption of the term “Indo-Pacific” by the U.S. in 2017, it has captured geopolitical imagination and emerged as a hotly contested topic in contemporary discussions on the evolving balance of power dynamics. Home to over 4.3 billion people accounting for half of the world’s GDP and constituting  60% of the global maritime trade, it is no wonder that the U.S. government has identified the region as the “single most consequential region for America’s future.” Meanwhile Beijing has been strengthening maritime ties with strategically important players in the region, building artificial islands in the South China Sea, expanding its naval strength – decisively indicating that it is ready to increase its overall presence in the region. This has in turn invited retaliatory moves by the U.S. which sees Chinese actions as threatening the existing rules based order of the region. Although “free and open Indo-Pacific” is the overarching theme binding together liberal democratic countries in the region, there are subtle but significant differences in their individual Indo-Pacific strategies. While U.S. has been vocal of its Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at ensuring Beijing’s attempts to “reorder the region to its advantage” are opposed, India, for example, has sought to focus more on inclusivity and ASEAN centrality as the central pillars of its SAGAR vision. Beijing which has long rejected the Indo-Pacific construct is now aligning itself more closely to ASEAN’s vision of the region, possibly fearing regional isolation if the more “neutral” countries adopt the U.S. vision.  It is clear that global powers such as U.S. and China alone cannot define the regional order for the Indo-Pacific and that the middle and smaller powers will have a decisive say as regional actors.

The rapid alignments and re-alignments has left the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific in a flux. Nevertheless, this flux has also opened up vast opportunities for the smaller countries to have a decisive say over what the future of the region will look like. For the first time, the German government released a 70 page policy guideline for the Indo-Pacific indicating how distant European nations are aligning themselves in the Indo-Pacific axis. With bigger external powers vying for influence, the smaller countries in the region have to act decisively to ensure they don’t become mere paws in the larger geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific.

Sri Lanka in the Indo-Pacific:

The small island nation sits geographically across important Indian Ocean sea-lanes and the East-West shipping route—which has over 60,000 ships ply annually— is just about six to ten nautical miles south of the island. Its natural geography endows it with immense potential to emerge as the Indo-Pacific hub, but overall it has failed to leverage this position. Sri Lanka has a natural advantage in providing hub services in the region but falls behind because of the lack of attention to and proper investment in infrastructure development. Although Sri Lanka was ranked the most connected country and port by sea in South Asia by the 2019 UNCTAD’s Liner Shipping connectivity index, it did not fare well compared to the south-east Asian nations of Malaysia and Singapore. Global container trade volumes and container port volumes declined over the first few months of 2020 and is not expected to recover before 2021, which adds to the pre-COVID economic woes of Sri Lanka caused by serious balance of payments deficit due to serious balance of payments deficit. Colombo port has further witnessed erosion in trans-shipment cargo because of India’s amended cabotage rules.

Sri Lanka’s Indo-Pacific outlook has to be understood against the backdrop of its overall foreign policy approach. Between 1977 to 2015 there has been shifts from balancing to band wagoning and then back to balancing. China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka under the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government is well documented. Beijing’s selective investments in expanding Colombo Port, Hambantota Port undoubtedly has much to do with leveraging Sri Lanka’s natural geography to bring it under its own umbrella of influence. Under the traditionally pro-Western United National Party from 2015-2019, Washington tried to bring Colombo closer to its own vision of the Indo-Pacific, but failed. Although the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has repeatedly stressed that his government would adopt a ‘strictly neutral foreign policy,’ it is unlikely that the Chinese influence will wear off easily. Recent moves such as  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka and more recently with Colombo hosting the India-Maldives-Sri Lanka Maritime Security NSA Trilateral meeting indicates that Sri Lanka is actively moving to maintains close ties with all the major powers of the Indo-Pacific region suggesting a return to balancing behaviour. Yet, there are limits to this balancing behaviour particularly since the intensification of Sino-US rivalry is seeming to take an irreversible turn making neutrality an increasingly ill-suited option.

Sri Lanka is showing active interest in the evolving geopolitics of the region, but a comprehensive long term vision is still missing. This will cost Sri Lanka dearly especially since as it seeks to emerge as an international financial center and a regional maritime hub. Colombo needs to make its voice heard in the evolving narrative of order building in the region, to ensure it can retain its strategic advantage and make independent foreign policy choices.

Rushali Saha
Rushali Saha
Rushali Saha is currently serving as a research associate at the Centre for Airpower Studies, New Delhi, India