A month ago, a diverse coalition of parties and political, ethnic, and faith-based groupings led Sri Lanka to an election upset. The ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa, an increasingly autocratic ruler intent on strengthening both his domestic grip and strategic ties with other autocratic regional states, was sidelined by Maithripala Sirisena in what has been called ‘a blow for democracy’. This opens an uncharted chapter in Sri Lankan political history soon after the cessation of long-term civil hostilities. But how does this unlooked-for democratic transition bode for the entrance of an on-side regional player alongside ‘Team Australia’? Perhaps well. More interestingly and importantly, what does the Sri Lankan transition mean for the Indo-Pacific region broadly and Australia’s posture and prospects within it?
Sri Lanka: The Indo-Pacific’s Strategic Fulcrum
The Sri Lankan electoral upset on January 8 was largely lost amid coverage of the Charlie Hebdo events the day before. Despite the limited coverage the election outcome has significant implications for Sri Lanka and, by extension, the Indo-Pacific. Sri Lanka sits in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a population not much smaller than Australia’s and has strong economic growth that is likely to be sustained, particularly in its post-conflict transition. Under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka was heading comprehensively into a Chinese camp. In some ways it was to be the centrepiece in a Chinese String of Pearls stretching from the Persian Gulf through Malacca to the South China Sea. There was much hope, stoked by the incoming government’s coalition on the campaign trail, that Sri Lanka’s tendency towards China would be reversed.
Despite expectations and the vows of opposition, it has now emerged that the main Chinese-Sri Lanka port project will go ahead. The new government’s earlier, public dissatisfaction with increasing Chinese influence and investment – as well as its potential environmental impacts – now appear to have been overridden by political imperatives. Officially the new government has cited satisfaction with an environmental report for the reversal of opposition to Chinese investment. However, the need to avoid confrontation with China and the potential diplomatic backlash of rejecting vast Chinese investments in the first months of government and at a critical point in Sri Lanka’s post-conflict transition appears to be the more important as well as immediate concern. These investments constitute a crucial part of China’s regional strategy, the Maritime Sea Road, and Sri Lanka’s exercise of pragmatism is perhaps prudent. This outcome doesn’t necessarily mean that Sri Lanka will be less amenable towards its major northern neighbor, India, and the West, as certain analyses have suggested. However it does introduce extra complexity into parsing Sri Lanka’s potential future role in, as well as the overall constitution of, the region.
China’s interest in the Indo-Pacific has attracted significant attention from Western strategists and political observers. This attention has brought ripostes from Chinese spokespersons insisting on China’s purely economic focus in developing maritime facilities along the String. China harbours deep worries that the Indo-Pacific idea will justify Indian projection further East, just as India is anxious about existing Chinese designs on the Indian Ocean.
This all points to a fundamental fact and the take-home lesson: emerging regional dynamics (including the broad wake of such events as Sri Lanka’s election) indicate a viable and real Indo-Pacific which has never in the past so directly defined calculations of Asian geopolitics.
Australia’s Indo-Pacific and Sri Lankan Developments
As a concept, the Indo-Pacific is only just now coming into its own. In Australian policy, it has a chequered history alternating between neglect and dismissal. After the awkward strategic amalgam of Asia-Pacific + India of the 2012 Asian Century White Paper, the 2013 Defence White Paper introduced the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as official policy. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has since backed its use as a whole-of-government outlook. This realignment fits not only with Australia’s interests, but the Indo-Pacific is shaping up to be the strategic concept par excellence for major Asian players in the early 21st Century, reluctantly or not.
Importantly, a viable and cohesive Indo-Pacific region pulls Australia to the front-and-centre of Asia, rather than sitting as a footnote as it does in the Asia-Pacific. Rory Medcalfe of the Lowy Institute has done more than any other to point this out, suggesting that ‘here at last is a definition of Asia that automatically includes Australia.’ A horizontal – rather than vertical – conception of Asia makes sense for Australia. Sri Lanka’s democratic transition and the pragmatic decision to not exclude China bode well for our own rebalance across the Indo-Pacific. Even if these developments introduce more political immediacy and complexity, they will help Australia’s balancing of key diplomatic and strategic relationships with our most important commercial partnerships.
Despite Australia’s defence of the former Sri Lankan government’s human rights record, and the return of asylum seekers and donation of boats to stop those fleeing, one can hope that Australia will not only find more in common with an emerging democracy at the fulcrum of the Indian Ocean but a partner worth connecting with. Our recently invigorated ties with India, the world’s largest democracy, the putative emergence of a democratic – if pragmatic – Sri Lanka, and hopes for a more open Burma/Myanmar and Iran on the Indian Ocean rim, swing the pendulum towards a more integrated and (hopefully) cooperative Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific. Sri Lanka’s decision to continue its engagement with China will make this easier for Australia. These developments will diversify our enmeshment with Asia, while not threatening our longstanding ties with key partner China and our main ally, the US. Australia should look to pursue a deeper relationship with Sri Lanka across an Indo-Pacific which is not only viable, but has become very real.
William Bullock Jenkins is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image: Former President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa and new President Maithripala Sirisena.
Image Credit: Flickr (Mahinda Rajapaksa: Creative Commons)