By Bandu de Silva
Will Sri Lanka joining 127 other countries in supporting the UN Resolution against America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli Capital, in the General Assembly Emergency Session’s vote on 21 December 2017 be a real test of her foreign policy in the wake of new power politics in the world as practised by the US? President Trump threatened to cut off US financial aid to those countries which voted in favour of the resolution, but Sri Lanka voted in favour of the resolution like the other 127 states which did likewise.
That the US could garner the support of only nine countries against the resolution, that too largely a group of isolated Pacific islands which are sustained by American aid, and have strong military alliances with it. The vote of Nauru supporting US looks a joke. This is a country which sold its soul several times earlier. The chiefs who run the island had squandered the financial resources that a Commission on Nauru, headed by the late Justice Christopher Weeramantry gained for the country as compensation for the exploitation of its rich phosphate resources and the severe damage done to its environment. A few years ago as I commented, these chiefs were seen selling off their only remaining asset, a sprawling hotel complex in Sydney!
Outside this group, Togo, from the entire African continent, and Guatemala and Honduras from the West Indies and South American group voted with US and Israel against the resolution.
The European countries of Hungary, Croatia, Latvia, Romania and the Czech Republic who broke European Union consensus on the vote. The EU had previously vehemently collectively rejected any attempt to change Jerusalem’s status in the absence of a final peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Just as much as the vote denoted a failure for US diplomacy of trying its rough hand by threatening to cut financial aid to those countries which voted for the resolution, that the numbers which voted in favour were less than what was expected can be seen as a disappointment to the exponents of the resolution move. This was seen from the fact that abstentions including the 21 states which were absent, numbered 35. Among these countries who abstained were Canada, Australia, Mexico, Kenya, Malawi. Myanmar’s absence is interesting and can be understood in the context of her problem with Rohingiya Muslims over which she has earned the ire of Arab/ Muslim states. On the whole, the abstentions/absentees may have something to do with President Trump’s threat to cut aid.
US Ambassador Haley observed that 65 countries refused to condemn the US action. This is a point worthy of note. The resolution was therefore milder than what it was expected to be. If Sri Lanka had been following her traditional nuanced position established since the days of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, that the country would not have joined others in condemning a country but its actions, it would have been among the 65 countries which refused to join in condemning US and Israel.
US assistance to SL
According to US State Department sources, the United States has delivered more than USD2 billion in development assistance to Sri Lanka since its independence in 1948. Through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States seeks to broaden and accelerate economic growth, develop democratic institutions, and promote the reconciliation of multi-ethnic and religious communities in Sri Lanka.
With the change of Presidency in January 2015 Sri Lankan presidential election US saw a new political era ushering and opportunity for renewed US diplomatic and development engagement to support the country’s ongoing reforms. During his May 2015 visit to Sri Lanka, Secretary of State Kerry announced USD 40 million in U.S. assistance to support Sri Lanka in implementing comprehensive reforms in areas including reconciliation, livelihoods, democratic governance, rule of law, public financial management, trade policy and facilitation, alternative dispute resolution, intellectual property rights protection, and ports and tourism management.
Bilateral Economic Relations
US goods exports in 2015 were USD372 million, up 4.7 percent from the previous year. US exports consisted primarily of industrial machinery, medical instruments, aircraft parts, lentils, paper, specialized fabrics and textiles for use in the garment industry, fruits, and pharmaceuticals. Sri Lanka is currently the 115th largest export market for US goods. Corresponding US imports from Sri Lanka were USD 2.88 billion, up 7.8 percent. The next round of U.S.-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Framework Agreement talks will be held in April 2016 in Washington, DC.
A point of interest to Sri Lanka is how its vote might affect the fortunes of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in the light of President Trump’s threat to cut off financial aid? The Foreign Ministry, explaining its vote, asserted that its vote was not intended against any country. It was reported explaining further that the vote in favour of the resolution was “on the basis of Sri Lanka’s long held traditional and principled position, which is in keeping with the international understanding that Jerusalem is a final-status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties on the basis of the relevant United Nations resolutions, taking into account the legitimate concerns of both parties – Palestinians and Israelis, and that Jerusalem should be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian States”.
This was better than the position taken up by the Indian Foreign Office, which according to Indian sources, avoided a direct statement when Arab Ambassadors in New Delhi met the State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Akbar, who merely repeated what the spokesperson , Raveesh Kumar had stated, namely, that “India’s position was principled and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by a third country.” At the UN in lobbying, India did not show her hand but in the end voted with the majority.
On balance, will US apply the treat of no financial aid to Sri Lanka? That could be to repeat history. Persuading the small country to seek the assistance of China once again as it did very early in 1952, when it signed the Bi-lateral Trade and Payments Agreement with China, commonly known as the Rubber-Rice Pact, which continued to be renewed several times because of its advantages to both sides. That was when Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, not even a member of the UN, was twice disadvantaged by US, in 1952, by applying the provisions of the Battles Act to deny PL 480 Food Aid to Ceylon because of her selling strategic goods (Rubber) to China, which had entered the Korean War. It was on the basis of the UN vote to apply sanctions to countries doing trade with China, a vote taken in the absence of Soviet Union. The other blow was when earlier US releasing war stock-piles of rubber to the market despite protests of rubber producing countries like Ceylon. That depressed the rubber prices and dealt a severe blow to the rubber industry which was suffering from over-tapping during WW II to keep the US-Western war machine going.
To make the agreement workable, China possessed stocks of rice purchased from Burma which she supplied to Ceylon in the first few years till her own crop was available. The American rice offered to Ceylon was found too expensive to maintain the subsidy scheme.
Even more recently, until President Sirisena came to office, China had become Sri Lanka’s major donor of development aid and provider of infrastructure. In the context of US’s new shift to Asia-Pacific, Sri Lanka’s dependence on China is an enviable situation. Given this context, US administration might wish to think carefully in applying the hard rule to Sri Lanka, which occupies a high security position in the Indian Ocean. Or, Will the Sirisena government go with the begging bowl to the US once again?