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Sri Lanka: First Stone of the Domino Wave

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International Relations has recently faced a new global power struggle. The unipolar Atlantic Order formed after the Cold War was soon tested by Asia, triggering the start of a new era of turbulence. The rise of Russia and China, the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a new region of dynamism, and the rising “Independent Europe” discussions in Western Europe have brought regional developments to a global dimension.

The tension between the global system and regional actors has activated the fault lines, and as a result, while some regions have increased their geopolitical importance, it has been seen that some regions have evolved towards instability simultaneously. The Covid-19 outbreak, the withdrawal of the United States of America (USA) troops from Afghanistan and the recent Russian intervention in Ukraine have emerged as the most significant parameters that activate these dynamics. In today’s “New Great Game”, which we can also call the “Age of Anarchy”, Sri Lanka was the first country to suffer this instability.

Undoubtedly, it should not be a coincidence that Sri Lanka, located in South Asia, one of the regions where global competition has been intensely experienced recently, showed managerial inadequacy and was labeled a “failed state.” In addition, Sri Lanka, located at the center of the Indo-Pacific Region, which has the world’s busiest maritime transportation lines, is a doomed country and this island with such vital geography could not be saved by the major players also reveals the severity of the coming storm and instability. It can be said that the reflection of the process that started with Sri Lanka on South Asia will be severe and rapid. Because South Asia draws attention as the geography that has received the least share of the economic activity and development movement that has started in the whole of Asia in the last 20 years.

The economic stalemate that started with the Covid-19 epidemic sharply reduced tourism revenues and remittances, which were hoped for by South Asian countries with fragile economies, especially Sri Lanka. For example, in such a process, Colombo’s loss of approximately 5 billion dollars in tourism revenues and its deprivation of remittances, which provide resources of 6-7 billion dollars, is one of the reasons for the economic impasse in Sri Lanka.[1] Considering that South Asian countries have similar economic structures to Sri Lanka, it is highly probable that the coming crisis will directly affect the people. However, the wave of uncertainty and inflationary pressure that started with Russia’s intervention in Ukraine turns the South Asian countries, which stand on a weak foundation, into dominoes that are resigned to their fate.

Another weakness of the South Asian geography is that the administrations in the region are based on weak dynamics, ethnic and religious elements have a strong position and political wills are deprived of the power of inclusiveness. As a matter of fact, the said weakness was clearly seen with the junta movement in Myanmar on February 1, 2021. The army, which carried out a coup against the elected government, put Myanmar into an environment of internal conflict. Despite the constructive attitude of a regionally powerful organization like ASEAN, the fact that order has not been established yet. This situation shows that Myanmar is under the influence of countries that struggle for global power as well as its internal dynamics. Moreover, the main actors who have influence on South Asian countries see unstable South Asian countries that are not under the control of the rival state as less costly, instead of taking steps for a stable South Asia dependent on them.

The increased risk factor brought about by great power competition is the most important reason for the situation in question. The most recent and concrete example of this struggle, which is also called the “Gray Zone Tactic”, is taking place in Sri Lanka. Forces that do not want to be directly confronted follow the strategy of “Wait and intervene until the opponent cannot win” instead of taking the initiative. Because the instability and transformation that came to the region looks like a tsunami with a socio-economic dimension. Due to the increasing competition in all geographies, the great powers that desire to use their resources sparingly want to escape the tsunami by paying a low price, which leaves the countries that have been collaborating with the great powers for years without foresight and helpless.

Sri Lanka, which has been seen as an important investment base for China for a long time and where many infrastructure projects take place, hoped to overcome the economic crisis with a new loan agreement from China and announced that it was negotiating for a loan support of 2.5 billion dollars, but did not reach an agreement.[2] The credit failure of the Rajapaksa family, who had good relations with China and perhaps overly trusted these relations, deepened the crisis and eventually caused Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign from the presidency and leave the country. China did not take the risk of saving Sri Lanka, which you see as its most important stop on the Indian Ocean and followed the strategy of avoiding the incoming tsunami.

Although India, another actor in Sri Lanka, has lagged behind China in recent years, with the economic crisis, it sought ways to increase its effectiveness in Sri Lanka and sent aid to meet the needs of the people. In this way, Sri Lanka has been able to provide food and energy to the people, albeit partially, with the support of India in the recent period. However, despite the favorable conjuncture, India did not implement a rescue policy and took a position according to the atmosphere that would occur after the political tsunami.

The process that started in Sri Lanka is similar to the aftershock before the earthquake. Because the states of South and Southeast Asia, which are economically, politically and sociologically similar to Sri Lanka, stand on the brink of an economic and political crisis. In this sense, the Indo-Pacific line and thus rimland are open to new crises. A crisis that will spread throughout the region will destabilize land-based transportation corridors, increase the migration problem and deepen the economic depression.

[1] “‘Sri Lanka’s China Ties Don’t Detract from Special Relations with India’: GL Peiris”, The Hindustan Times, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/sri-lanka-s-china-ties-don-t-detract-from-special-relations-with-india-gl-peiris-101644253621408.html, (Date of Accession: 04.04.2022).

[2] Uditha Jayasinghe, “Sri Lanka in Talks With China for $2.5 Billion Credit Support -Chinese Official”, U.S. News, https://money.usnews.com/investing/news/articles/2022-03-21/sri-lanka-in-talks-with-china-for-2-5-billion-credit-support-chinese-official, (Date of Accession: 04.04.2022).

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem Koyuncu, Karabük Üniversitesinde Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde Master öğrencisi olup Hint-Pasifik Bölgesi, ABD-Çin Rekabeti, uluslararası güvenlik, jeopolitik ve stratejik araştırmalar alanları üzerinde çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Karabük Üniversitesi’nde eğitimine başlamadan önce, Boğaziçi Üniversitesinde Lisans eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Özel sektörde yöneticilik tecrübesi kazanmasının ardından Koyuncu, kariyerine ANKASAM’da devam etmektedir. Koyuncu, ileri seviyede İngilizce bilmektedir.