Punsara Amarasinghe

Punsara Amarasinghe is a visiting fellow at Sciences PO, Paris and reading for PhD in Law at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa.

Thucydidean reality in Sri Lanka: Some comments on Yuan Wang 5

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The small state dilemma is a complex discourse in the realm of International Relations, which dates back to the classical epoch of Thucydides whose seminal work “The History of Peloponnesian War” has been regarded as the first illustration revealing a realist outlook toward interstate relations. The most famous passage, which is known as the “Melian dialogue” from Thucydides’” History of Peloponnesian War epitomizes the genesis of the realist point of view in international relations, where a group of islanders from Melos argued by virtue of the law of nations they have the right to remain neutral in the conflict between Athens and Sparta. This contention was unpalatable for Athenians as they believed in their supremacy should be honoured by the weak city-states. While scornfully ignoring the Melian plea to remain neutral in the war, Athens emphasized that Melos should consider who they are and what they possess. In the speech delivered by Athenian envoys before the Melian delegation, Athenian delegate states
“You have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible. Since you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes is only in the question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

Those prophetic words in the Melian dialogue extend their significance to understanding the current geo-political trap challenging the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The island nation with its unique significance as a geopolitical hub in the Indian Ocean currently undergoing its worst economic calamity since its independence from the British and the political instability followed by the economic crisis deepened the socio-political limbo of Sri Lanka. In the backdrop of such a chaotic internal atmosphere, the sailing of the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese satellite tracking vassal to the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka has created a tense situation pushing the Sri Lankan government into a diplomatic quandary. The initial response of the Sri Lankan foreign ministry to the Chinese ship Yuan Wang 5 to call at Hambantota was altered as India and the US showed a critical concern over the issue. The foreign ministry in Colombo requested China to postpone its visit to Hambantota while adding that it wished to reaffirm the enduring friendship and excellent relations between Sri Lanka and China”. The main concern for both India and the US was based on the security of the Indian Ocean Region as they suspected that Yuan Wang would seek to track down certain intelligence information.

Sri Lanka caught in the tug-war between India and China over the dominance of the Indian Ocean has often faced diplomatic hullabaloos. More importantly, the island nation’s foreign policymakers seem to have a knack for making diplomatic blunders in handling both China and India. In particular, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, Sri Lanka tilted toward China in the post-civil war era, which resulted in the influx of Chinese influence into the Sri Lankan domain causing concern for India. On the other hand, Colombo’s partnership with Delhi took a doggy standard as Sri Lankan policymakers made no genuine attempts to show its primacy for India’s concerns under the thread of neighbourhood. It was in this background, India came to assist Sri Lanka to grapple with its worst economic crisis as New Delhi provided $3 billion in loans to replenish the economy. It seems that the Indian influence has grown rapidly with its monetary assistance to the default island nation by accelerating its influencing capacity to the state apparatus.

Taking the Yang Wang 5 incident and the pressure imposed upon Sri Lanka denotes that Sri Lanka has reached a point of no return from the orbit of both China and India, which signifies the Thucydidean reality.

However, Sri Lanka’s decision to allow Yuan Wang 5 should be understood in the critical juncture that Sri Lankan authorities faced from multiple fronts. From one side, Colombo was pushed by New Delhi and later the US to prevent the Chinese ship from entering Hambantota harbour, which was leased to China for 99 years in 2017. On the other hand, the request came from China as a major investor and a donner in Sri Lanka further increased the dilemma. The question that arises now is whether Colombo has any individual choice in opting for its foreign policy decisions. From a vantage point, the political-economic trajectories loomed after the civil war in Sri Lanka brought much of a sinister outlook for the country as the Rajapaksa regime made a rapport with China regardless of the country’s reputation for its nonalignment foreign policy.

Today Sri Lankan authorities stand between the devil and the deep blue sea before the “realpolitik” regarding the Indian Ocean Region security. China has been carving the niche for its position in the Indian Ocean for a longer period with much deeper ambitions of securing the Belt and Road Initiative through the maritime routes. Against this backdrop, some of the Chinese military strategists openly claimed that the Indian Ocean cannot be regarded as the backyard of India. In particular, since the People’s Liberation Army opened its first overseas military establishment in Djibouti in 20, China’s interest in Sri Lanka seems to have risen to a significant level. It was in 2010 Robert Kaplan predicted China’s long-term ambition for the hegemony of the Indian Ocean as he depicted the Chinese as well organized and deliberate in whatever they do. The comity built up by the US along with India, Australia and Japan to counter the Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean has been consolidating through the defence pacts such as QUOD and AUKUS.

This is the current power tango prevailing in the Indian Ocean and its effects on Sri Lanka continue to create detrimental impacts on the island. In applying the moral emanating from the Melian dialogue, it becomes evident the island nation possesses no ultimate agency in deciding its strategic affairs. Perhaps when Sri Lanka was governed by its wisest statesmen like Sir John Kotalawala who even challenged Nehru in Bandung, the island nation had the fullest competency in taking its stances. But, the ebbing of strategic thinking as a result of the bureaucratic decadence under political influence has curtailed Sri Lanka’s own external relations standards. Taking the Yang Wang 5 incident and the pressure imposed upon Sri Lanka denotes that Sri Lanka has reached a point of no return from the orbit of both China and India, which signifies the Thucydidean reality.