By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera*
The first 100 days of the US President Donald Trump’s administration revealed the complexity of a head of state’s task. One of his predecessors, former US President John F Kennedy during his first 100 days had learned a costly lesson with the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. His reaction to the event was to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the wind.” Most presidents realise the gravity of decision-making during the initial 100 days; and this applies to Sri Lanka as well.
In this new emerging global order, Sri Lanka, a nation in transition from the third world to the second with a per capita income of USD 3200 will need to craft its path to be able to become a developed country. Even in its current economic state, with 27 per cent of the population living in poverty, a small section in the Sri Lankan society is extremely wealthy. In a recent article, Malinda Seneviratne argues that “beggars can’t be choosers.” Sri Lanka will beg more from the international community given the relative weakness of the domestic industries. The Central Bank projection of achieving a per capita income of USD 7000 by 2020 will be unachievable with the current state of the economy.
In March 2017, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena became the first Sri Lankan Head of State to visit Russia in several decades. President Sirisena’s official visit will strengthen Sri Lanka’s relations with a geo-strategically important country. This was Sirisena exercising his own foreign policy, carefully calibrated in the right direction. No previous Sri Lankan president has held in high esteem the values and teachings of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx. In contrast, their pictures are placed in the main boardroom of the current president’s residence. This is a clear indication of the deep socialist values that President Sirisena holds.
These values probably echo in reminding the president not to sell any state resource. If the United National Party (UNP) is the pro-Western business-oriented party that advocates joint ventures, Sirisena is the inward looking farmer attempting to advocate the importance of an indigenous economy. Russia, with its gilded chambers suffering from the imperial hangover, is a reminder of deep nationalistic values.
Neither the US, Europe or China want it to be strong. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gesture of handing a 19th century sword belonging to Sri Lanka to President Sirisena was a reminder of the need to preserve the Sri Lankan values and historical treasures smuggled or taken out of the island nation.
There have been some recent developments regarding the future of two strategic projects in Sri Lanka, one undertaken by India in Trincomalee and the other by China in Hambantota. According to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, he has saved the nation from a joint venture with the Chinese. He claimed that he was able to negotiate a better, less harmful deal with China as compared to the one agreed to by former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
On these strategic long-term projects, it is unclear how public input has been taken. Elected representatives are appointed for a period of six years for the Executive and five years for Members of Parliament. If they agree upon a deal that will conclude beyond their tenure, it is important to include public observations. If a certain project is awarded for 99 years of lease agreements, most of the policymakers who decide today will not live to see its conclusion. In China, a large-scale strategic foreign project will not be approved if there is no national security clearance. Sri Lanka should also think of national security clearance when deciding on large-scale strategic foreign projects. The clearance or the study report could be preserved for the next generation as a point of reference.
Furthermore, the report should also assess if these projects add strategic value to Sri Lanka’s economy. It is important to remember that given the volatile global order, what may be the best strategic option today may not be the same in a few years’ time. A simulator should be designed to deeply understand future events and scenarios.
Foresight analysis is a methodology that Sri Lanka could adopt to predict the best future scenarios. Has Sri Lanka assessed the strategic and economic significance of the Hambantota and Trincomalee port projects in 2030, 2050 and beyond? The Sri Lankan policymakers should take these questions into consideration while making strategic decisions. If they do not have the necessary data sets to decide, they should defer the decision. Due to Sri Lanka’s geographically strategic position, it cannot ignore regional and extra-regional entities’ interests in it.
The Sri Lankan government should view its national interest as the first point of reference.
* Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
Director General, Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), Sri Lanka & Columnist, IPCS