How would Trump presidency affect Sri Lanka

 few months ago, it could have been treated as a cynical joke, but now Donald Trump is the President of the world’s most powerful democracy. His hate-filled and polarizing campaign has left deep scares in America, it would be a long time before they would be healed. Elsewhere, world leaders, still recuperating from the daylight shock of his upset victory are gradually resigning to the disturbing prospect that America would be a less dependable ally in the future.

Mr Trump’s foreign policy is as obscure as smoggy air in New Delhi these days. Most of his foreign policy snippets were announced through tweets and off the cuff remarks to the media. He has threatened to disavow collective security responsibility of NATO and pull out troops stationed in South Korea and Japan, unless the host countries paid up. Being a global hegemony means also providing public goods such as peace and stability and normality. However, Mr Trump, who is more concerned about the transfer of jobs to China than the transition of power in the international system to China seems to be less endearing to that time-honoured notion.

However, it is likely that even a man as self-important as Mr. Trump would be constrained by the structures of the American political system; the existing alliances and treaty commitments are too sacrosanct to dismantle and any effort to that end would be resisted by the Generals and the military industrial complex. So one could expect much of that would remain intact, though it would not be a surprise if South Korea, and even Japan, disenchanted by an unreliable American ally go nuke, to provide their own security.

However, Trump’s American relationship with countries like ours would be very different. Our recent return to the good books of Washington was for two reasons; first there were those democratic gains and the advent of a government amenable to Washington. The second, and perhaps more important, was because of our strategic location, the utility of Sri Lanka in the US hedging against China. Those concerns were multiplied by the growing rapport between Beijing and the former Rajapaksa administration and the increasing Chinese activity in Sri Lanka, which Washington viewed as losing out to Beijing. And Rajapaksa’s successor, the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe administration (especially the latter) was more than willing to play a role in the US pivoting
to Asia.

Now, democracy may not be a strong asset nor is a sufficient inducement for Mr. Trump, who himself has pledged to bar the Muslims from America and deport 11 million illegal Latinos. Thus, our first strong point is no longer as strong as it was before. As for the second point, though he may stick to existing treaty commitments, Mr. Trump is unlikely to commit himself to expansive and expensive geopolitical commitments such as the pivot, which after all was championed by Hilary Clinton. Mr Trump has already promised to snuff the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade pact involving 11 Asia Pacific countries and America. TPP is also the economic dimension of the pivot. So, as far as the second point is concerned, changing priorities of the Trump administration would make it harder for the government in Colombo to present itself as a useful ally.

Sri Lanka recently had better relations with Republican administrations than with the Democrats. The short- lived UNP government in the early 2000s, helped by its personal rapport with Richard Armitage, then Deputy Secretary of State, nurtured a functional strategic relationship with the Bush Administration. Sri Lanka supported the Iraqi invasion and agreed to send an engineering battalion to Baghdad as part of the US-led coalition. (Before that happened president Kumaratunga staged a palace coup and the Wickremesinghe administration was toppled.)

However, Mr. Trump is an outsider to the Republican establishment, which he has accused of undermining his campaign. None of his successors, except Bob Dole endorsed him. It is not clear how old ties between the UNP and the Republican Party would help Sri Lanka under a Trump administration.  Then, if Mr. Trump decides to scale down US presence and therefore the US pre-eminence in Asia, it would not only be us who would be abandoned. There is India, the Obama administration’s latest candy. Strategic partnership between India and America has reached its all- time high, and still growing, except short of an overt military alliance.

The raison d’etre is the rising China. India is the only country in the region with a sufficient heft to balance China. Though the US relationship with India is a bipartisan effort in Washington, with the Civil Nuclear Agreement signed during the Bush Administration being a pillar, it is not clear how far Mr. Trump is keen on building strategic ties with India.

“The raison d’etre is the rising China. India is the only country in the region with a sufficient heft to balance China. Though the US relationship with India is a bipartisan effort in Washington, with the Civil Nuclear Agreement signed during the Bush Administration being a pillar, it is not clear how far Mr. Trump is keen on building strategic ties with India”

In the absence of the offshore balance of America, India, albeit its growing economy and military muscles is vulnerable to the implications of the growing Chinese clout. (The Chinese economy is five times that of India’s in GDP market value). Abandonment by America would leave it paranoid and insecure. This leaves small nations like ours in India’s backyard that have chosen to deal both India and China, in an increasing dilemma.

An insecure India could well resort to subterfuge as it did during the Cold War in order to keep its rivals out. That would complicate our relations both with India and China for we need both for our economic prosperity. Thus, America maintaining the status quo in the region is in our interest, but it is beyond our control.

However, there could still be a way out; since everything in American politics has suddenly become personal, rather than principled, and since Mr. Trump prides in his ability to cut deals, Sri Lanka too can cut a deal with him. Perhaps he would like to open a Trump casino in Colombo.   

Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter  

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