April 23, 2010

Chinese Checkmate in Sri Lanka

A few supposed certainties about 2030, courtesy of the US Joint Forces Command Operating Report 2010: energy supply will be lucky to meet demand, and both China and India’s population growth isn’t going to stop. Acutely aware of its impending energy needs - only 40 million cars for 1.3 billion people - along with its competition, China’s strategy to avoid a crunch is easy to spot and hard to stop.

Sri Lanka appears to be checkmated on Beijing’s grand board.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is no ordinary politician. A pure breed, Rajapaksa is part of a political dynasty with aspirations of resurrecting Sri Lanka as a strategic powerhouse. With prime geopolitical positioning and a powerful economic base, Rajapaksa could very well transform his vision into reality.

Enter China.

Already obsessed with securing its energy routes from Africa and the Middle East, Sri Lanka is a major piece of China’s plan to secure the Indian Ocean into the 21st century. The shipping lanes from the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb to the Strait of Malacca run right by the island.

An estimated 15 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Malacca, according to the US Department of Energy, 25% of the world’s consumption. Some is headed to Japan and South Korea but most ends up in Chinese gas tanks. Thus both these figures stand to increase.

“The Chinese are laying down approximately 1,000 kilometers of four-lane highway every year, a figure suggestive of how many more vehicles they expect to possess, with the concomitant rise in their demand for oil,” reports the JOE. “The presence of Chinese “civilians” in the Sudan to guard oil pipelines underlines China’s concern for protecting its oil supplies...”

It's not just oil either. The Indian Ocean is omnipotent in Asian economics, carrying a substantial load of the world’s cargo.

These factors drive China’s quest for regional hegemony and could lead to military expansion. Though China appears certain to construct its own aircraft carriers, they may be a lighter type supported by Chinese friendly military ports such in Iran, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Constructing ports, oil infrastructure, and possibly airfields, this strategy would create a politico-military-economic chain from Iraq to Shanghai.

What China is playing for in Sri Lanka is obvious, but what about America? If China’s goal is expansion then America’s is reduction. Addition by subtraction, America (and India) cannot allow China to dominate Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean by hegemony.

Though China hasn’t surpassed America as Sri Lanka’s leading partner in trade and foreign assistance, it has more raw potential. So much so that even with all its power America must remain quiet, resorting to Beijing’s “non-interference policy” of overlooking human rights allegations and abuses for the sake of economic gain.

Hard to say that’s a Chinese thing though.

Months have passed since former General Sarath Fonseka was unceremoniously carried away, imprisoned, and threatened with a court martialing. President Obama was one of the first to congratulate Rajapaksa after his election victory (just like Hamid Karzai), while no White House official has dared weigh in on Fonseka’s condition.

Given the first opportunity in weeks to make a statement, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley revealed what has become Obama’s response for fraudulent or suspicious elections: ignore them.
QUESTION: In Sri Lanka, election results have been announced and they have a new prime minister now, Jayaratne. What’s the message to the new Sri Lankan Government and prime minister?

MR. CROWLEY: I think our primary message to Sri Lanka is that there is – there appears to be a significant mandate coming out of this recent election and the government should use that mandate to help continue to – the healing process within Sri Lankan society to bring all elements of – to help Sri Lanka get past the recent conflict and move forward together.

QUESTION: Do you think things are moving in that direction in the –

MR. CROWLEY: We will continue to encourage Sri Lanka to use the power of this election ad the momentum coming out of this election, use it to best advantage.”
Fonseka was actually released from his detention to be sworn into the parliamentary seat he won while detained, which would sound nicer if his court martial date wasn't postponed again. He’s unlikely to receive a fair trial and indefinite imprisonment isn’t outside the range of possibility. Meanwhile his wife Anoma has allegedly joined the JVP, a Marxist political party with a violent history.

Transport Minister Dullas Alahapperuma recently warned, “We request Mrs. Anoma Fonseka to watch her step as she has joined a political group with a violent past. They have blood on their hands. We all know how they use violence for political gain. Therefore, Mrs. Fonseka should be very careful.”

Now some might wonder why Obama would use his own platform to cast the spotlight on Sri Lanka or Fonseka’s treatment, and they would have a point. He can’t spend all his time engaged in the workings of various foreign states, and neither Rajapaksa nor the Sinhalese people respond positively to what they see as hypocritical Western intervention.

But if America wanted to be a true friend to Sri Lanka it would explain how the conventional war has been won - and not the counterinsurgency.

Left disenfranchised and jobless, another insurgency out of the Tamils is inevitable if they aren’t engaged in a political resolution. Yet America is encouraging what could already be a tyranny of the majority. Consider whether this “mandate” both Sri Lankan and US officials glowingly speak is truly good for the overall unity of the country.

“The president has the mandate... he has said that he'll speak to all the parties. I am sure now that he has a majority [in the house]. He has plans to [implement] constitutional changes," said Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister and one of five Rajapaksas in the government.

He dismissed speculation that his brother would seek more powers through constitutional reforms, saying, "He has all the powers; he doesn't need more powers."

Paikiasothy Savaranamuttu, a prominent analyst in Colombo, seized on this reality, saying he couldn’t understand why Rajapaksa perceives Fonseka as a threat.

"He is at the pinnacle of his power. Parliament does provide a forum for Fonseka but he might find it a rather difficult environment. He is only the leader of a minority party and even other members of the opposition are not going to necessarily be tremendously supportive."

The Tamils aren’t likely to receive any better treatment if that is how Rajapaksa, a de-facto king, is going to treat the lowly Fonseka.

Unable to defeat China materialistically, it’s hard to wonder if speaking on the Tamils and Fonseka’s behalf would actually pay off for the US in the long-term. Washington has no hope of competing with Beijing in a silent contest. Convincing Rajapaksa of doing the right thing - engaging the Tamils before it’s too late and giving Fonseka a fair trial - would bring real stability to Sri Lanka and allow for unimpeded economic growth.

And possibly undo China’s checkmate.


  1. Thanks for this excellent piece.

    It all goes back to resources, and the transport of those resources [choke points].

    China and its [soft power] is winning this battle.

  2. Israeli Censor


  3. Very nice... looks like censorship is becoming the new topic in Israel. Might be good for its domestic politics.

    Back to China, everything does revolve around resources, all-encompassing at that - political, military, and economic. Choke points like Malacca are a means to systematic hegemony of the Indian and Western Pacific oceans, which in turn is part of the larger strategy to control the entire Eastern Hemisphere. That's why America is panicking over Asia - China is slowing forcing it out.