Central Asia

Asian Century, New Cold War, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in the new ‘Super Region’

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By Dr. Harinda Vidanage

From dailymirror 29 December 2011

http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/15769-asian-century-new-cold-war-sri-lankas-foreign-policy-in-the-new-super-region.html

The global political terrain is undergoing a massive transformation, most of the transformatory features were witnessed in 2011. There is a definite shift in the Washington doctrine on how the USA perceives the world, influenced by a significant economic crisis at home, decline of Europe, the upheavals in Arab States, shifts in theatres of battles to the more visible rise of China and its repercussions.

The term ‘Asian Century’ is now a buzz word in many international policy or intellectual forums that focus on the location of global power and the ways and means of new power diffusion. What is driving the enthusiasm for understanding new Asia from the right to the left in political spectrum has been the emergence of China and India as global powers but more importantly, the emergence of a ‘super region’ the combines the Indian and Pacific ocean geopolitics.

The story of China rising, the transformation of power from hard to soft or the integration of hard power and soft power in the context of ‘smart power’ are now becoming more and more open in the public discourse. The top most influential political scientist in Washington, Joseph Nye and the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both talk more and more about smart and soft power, the former being the inventor of the term and the later trying to convince that is the new policy vision of the waning super power.

The term soft power and smart power are just not used in the context of American politics it is used by Indian scholars, policy makers, politicians, think tanks and same by the Chinese. All these terms and concepts signify the way Asia has become a significant power bloc in the world and maybe the decider of all global political futures in time to come. Hillary Clinton in an Op Ed piece of October 2011, Foreign Policy Magazine, wrote, future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq and stressing United States will be right at the center of the action. Francis Fukuyama claims that the US foreign policy focus should now look beyond Middle East towards Asia as the stratagem of geo politics has to be devised around the developments in the new super region of ‘Ind-Pacific’ (Indian and Pacific Oceans).

This article is focused on opportunities, challenges to the future of Sri Lankan foreign policy, given these new future projections of global power alignments. Some of these alignments are already taking place with Chinese moves of soft, hard and smart power initiatives from massive investments in East Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and to East Asia. The Chinese presence has become more and more apparent and open and it seems the Chinese charm offensive is becoming less of charm and more obvious. The response to this is the American initiatives of strengthening its alliances with India, Australia, Japan, Vietnam and even reaching out to the largest democratic Muslim State, Indonesia.

Hillary Clinton’s 2011 visit calendar will give a person a solid idea of where American interests are, with multiple visits to central Asian, South Asian, East Asia and Pacific rim states and President Obama’s high-level visits to India, Indonesia and Australian clearly outlines that the necklace of pearls is not the only alliance that the Ind-Pacific region will see in its futures. Obama administration’s first distinguished guest was Manmohan Singh, a couple of years ago and in a significant speech to Australian Parliament in November 2011 Obama said, ‘I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.’.

If one starts connecting the dots of both American and Chinese interest in the Indian ocean and Pacific ocean, a pattern will emerge which will be defining both the futures of US foreign policy and Chinese foreign policy. In 2011 a five year research initiative was launched by the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) which is the research arm of the Chinese foreign Ministry titled, ‘Assessment of China’s neighboring security environment in the next decade’. The purpose as outlined in the initiative clearly claims that the region will heat up with geo political issues and China should be prepared to respond. Thus the research has been launched as a five year plan to prepare China both diplomatically and strategically for any such challenge.

Coming back to Sri Lanka, our foreign policy initiatives currently are more or less preoccupied with trying to tactically out play the so called ‘Western pressures’ a hyper charged ideological view point of the nationalist political mindset and trying to woo in new friends who has the ability to outmanoeuvre Western influence. Such outbidding is necessary for regimes of small nations to grapple with immediate problems.

But by exclusively focusing on a narrow stretch of the current battleground, one is compromising the foresight or future projection capabilities needed for a robust foreign policy decision-making. It is like preparing for battle in a theatre which will radically alter in a short time span, thus rendering Sri Lanka unprepared, unmatched and easily outflanked by any interest party. As we are consistently overlooking strategic focus for a tactical sense of global relations. These short term tactics are easily sellable in any public media outlet and can be made a justifiable public discourse using a simple but power stand against ‘Foreign/Western intimidation and National Security’.

Sri Lanka sits in a vital space of geo strategic importance in the dawn of the Asian century, but we are witnessing the creation of two alliances of power, a Chinese dominance in one side of the axis and an American dominated Indian, Australian, Japanese backed on the other. There is a definite potential for a new cold war which is far more complicated that the 20th century ‘Cold War’, as this will be a loose alliance based on interests rather than a tussle between two political ideologies of distinct world views.
Thus stakes are high, complications are inherent and diplomatic navigation will be beyond a mere mine field, it will have many IEDs to cope with.
The emergence of this new alliance will probably try to distinguish their political ideology as ‘pro democratic, such as India, Australia, Japan Vs more centralized governance led by China which will include Pakistan, Burma, North Korea even Singapore.
Though again there can’t be clear lines of distinction drawn, a major point of departure will be the working of democracy. In this context Sri Lanka should soon understand the working of soft and smart power which will enable us to evolve a foreign policy which will not necessary tie us either one of the alliances. For Sri Lanka cordial relations with China are virtual life line for development but friendly relations with India in a way defines our existence.

Thus it is an ideal time to reach out to a third strand of foreign policy which has been a strength in the past, a new or resuscitation of a Non Aligned movement or Non Aligned initiative as there will be many other states which will like this Non Aligned position. Sri Lanka can benefit from both these new power alliances, and there are states which may not enter either of them such as South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. South Korea though an ardent ally of USA is not the best friend of Japan and in the case of a Korean unification the threat Japan will face is far grave than China. On the other hand Korea will not favour to be in the Chinese camp. This is merely an example for the argument.

Evolving a new Non Alignment policy and quickly making that a foreign policy vision will enhance the current regime’s aspiration of Sri Lanka’s becoming of a hub.

The hub will work well if it can attract all and if not will be just a beachhead for who it perceives as friendly. 2012 should probably be Sri Lanka’s opportunity to look forward and find our place in the Asian century before an element of the Asian century puts us in place, we don’t want to be handicapped from the start, do we?

Dr. Vidanage is a Fulbright Scholar in Residence at University of St. Lawrence, New York.