Sri Lanka: A Lesson for U.S. Strategy


For much of the period since its independence, Sri Lanka attracted scant regard throughout the West. At the culmination of its civil war, some attention did begin to be paid to human rights issues. In the last few years, however, Sri Lanka has begun to feature as a country of strategic relevance to the great powers. For one, it sits at the center of the Indian Ocean, likely to be one of the world’s most strategically contested regions in the coming century. Sri Lanka is also halfway between China and its energy sources in the Middle East, something Beijing had responded to largely successfully until January this year when Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency. Last week’s parliamentary elections were a further blow to Beijing, when Rajapaksa’s party lost to the center-right United National Party led by pro-Western Ranil Wickramasinghe

All this is far from a deathblow to China in Sri Lanka though, and Western policymakers should not see the election as cause for again taking the island state for granted. Rather, Colombo’s interactions with the great powers should provide lessons for Washington on a re-emerging paradigm in world politics, one that it should note in its approach to the Middle East. A reprioritization of certain drivers of foreign policy is needed in order to successfully compete with China in the future multipolar world order.

In the decades following independence, Sri Lanka’s future looked bright and it was expected to develop more rapidly than Singapore. The two were compared because both were small, highly educated, multicultural Asian states straddling important shipping lanes. The winds of national fortune blew in another direction, however, and Sri Lanka became bogged down in a vicious insurgency that eventually became Asia’s longest running civil war. The war received little attention from the West until its culmination, at which point discussion was centered on human rights – what strategists might deem a second order security concern.

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Newfound Interest

In the last couple of years, however, Sri Lanka began to appear on the West’s strategic radar. In May, John Kerry became the first Secretary of State to visit Colombo in over a decade. The foreign policy commentariat is publishing articles introducing Westerners to Sri Lanka. There have been reports in Sri Lankan media that Obama has also promised to visit, a trip that now looks more likely given Wickramasinghe’s victory.

Why this newfound interest? It is related to a first-tier security challenge: China. Rajapaksa’s government, unlike its predecessors, had prosecuted the war with full effort. In doing so, particularly at the conflict’s culmination and aftermath, Colombo fell out of favor with the U.S. and even more so with Western Europe. Citing non-implementation of good governance regulations, the European Union removed preferential tariff rates for Sri Lanka’s exports, causing thousands of garment factory workers, many escaping rural poverty for the first time, to lose their jobs. Western countries supported war crimes investigations at the UN. India, under pressure from Tamil Nadu state political parties, denied lethal weaponry to Colombo during the war and leaned on Sri Lanka to concede more legislative autonomy to Tamil-dominated provinces afterwards.

Unlike in previous decades, however, Colombo had an alternative great power to look to for military technology and investment, a power that preoccupied policymakers in both Washington and Delhi: China. Beijing obliged, joining Russia in using its veto to defend Sri Lanka at the UN. Sri Lanka was included as part of a chain of infrastructure projects along China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. It built on the two states’ long history, with Sri Lanka being amongst the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic post-revolution. Rajapaksa’s move is reminiscent of the 17th century Sri Lankan Kingdom of Kandy inviting the Dutch in to oust the coastal domination of the Portuguese.

In terms of soft power, the U.S. and European stance drew a strong anti-Western public reaction in Sri Lanka, underpinned by existing suspicions of Western support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and anti-colonial and Cold War sentiment. Political parties connected to the government led mass protests against Western countries and the UN.

In January, however, Sri Lanka made a foreign policy 180 when Rajapaksa narrowly lost presidential elections in favor of the current government of Maithripala Sirisena. The new president reached out to the West, began governance reforms, and signaled a less nationalist approach to Tamil concerns. The U.S. responded positively, helping Sri Lanka to delay the release of UN Human Rights Council’s report on war crimes allegations until September 2015. Sirisena’s first foreign visit was to New Delhi and Modi repaid the gesture.

Strategic Importance

Washington, Delhi and Beijing’s interest in Sri Lanka is justified given its location at the heart of the Indian Ocean, which along with the Western Pacific will form the center of future world politics, strategy and economics. Indian Ocean sea lanes are the world’s busiest, with more than 80 percent of global seaborne oil trade transiting through them. A significant percentage of that trade must pass through chokepoints: 40 percent through the Strait of Hormuz and 35 percent through the Strait of Malacca. As such Sri Lanka is central to China’s “string of pearls,” a series of ports in friendly countries to support and protect its massive exports of goods and imports of energy.

U.S. policymakers should also note that Sri Lanka’s maneuvering between China and the West may have been noted by Middle Eastern governments. The Middle East forms the source of the oil shipments passing by Sri Lanka to China. Given the recent steps by Gulf States in particular, to diversify their security partners, they may learn from Sri Lanka’s example of extracting the most from established and rising powers.

Middle Eastern states feeling hamstrung by the West’s inadequate support, or outright opposition to their own conflicts against non-state actors may draw lessons from Sri Lanka. Furthermore, Colombo accomplished something that neither the major powers, nor any Middle Eastern country with an enormous defense budget, including Israel, was able to achieve: It comprehensively defeated what was then one of the world’s most powerful terrorist armies. The LTTE had pioneered both female suicide bombers and the suicide bomber jacket, which was later copied by Al Qaeda. This is a relevant feat even considering Sri Lanka’s in-built strategic-military advantages over most Middle Eastern countries, such as the unified identity of the majority population and the ethno-territorial rather than religious basis for LTTE ideology.


The recent parliamentary elections were more significant than past polls because of the new powers bestowed on the prime minister. Rajapaksa, running on the ticket of the center-left United People’s Freedom Alliance, lost by a small margin to the most pro-West, pro-free market politician the country has seen in the last two decades. For the last decade, Ranil Wickramasinghe’s support for war crimes investigations against Rajapaksa had compounded his earlier unpopularity for concessions to the LTTE and accepting devolution in Tamil majority areas to render him unelectable. His party’s recent success owes to fears of a return to the corruption and abuse of power under Rajapaksa, who offered the same ministerial team he was surrounded by while in power. It was not a reflection of national security or foreign affairs issues.

The elections results are not a cause for Western complacency. Major moves by Wickramasinghe, either toward neoliberal economic policies or an “appeasing” foreign policy may result in a swing back to the opposition at the next election. The UPFA needs only to recapture a small number of Sinhala voters who were turned off by Rajapaksa’s nepotism, but supported his nationalism.

This includes his being seen as “standing up” to India and the West. After the January 2015 elections, Rajapaksa alleged that India’s intelligence service helped organize the opposition parties, something Delhi denied. In May, this author opined that Rajapaksa’s government might have benefited electorally had it employed the tactic of more strongly painting the Opposition as under Indian influence, playing on long-existing Sinhalese suspicions of India. His campaign seemed to have adopted that strategy in the run up to the August poll.

While Sri Lanka’s changes of government will not overturn economic anchors, such as the U.S. and Europe export markets, they still have significant impacts on Colombo’s geopolitical alignment. If the UPFA wins next time, major Chinese projects that were halted by Sirisena’s government may recommence. It may also revisit the Sirisena government’s stated decision to potentially bar Chinese submarines from docking in Sri Lankan ports in future

Beijing will have learnt its lesson from Sri Lanka: that spending billions on investment in potential small-power friends is sometimes less useful than spending millions, or even thousands, on gaining some insight and influence into the country’s domestic politics. Furthermore, during Rajapaksa’s decade in power, the Chinese made some strategic investments that will be difficult for any government to dislodge. Beijing helped develop the harbor at Hambantota into a port which can be redeployed for military purposes and may be included in a planned string of naval bases from East Asia to the Middle East. Another location is Djibouti, which Kerry also visited on the same tour as Sri Lanka.

Even if the direct strategic benefits China acquires from having had a pro-Beijing government in Colombo are minimal, perceptions matter. Countries throughout Asia and the Middle East are re-evaluating their great power relationships. If states perceive Beijing’s strategic reach increasing it may tip their calculations toward acquiescing rather than resisting. They may lose trust in America’s will and ability to offer security, and commitment to their regions.

New Paradigm

Sri Lanka provides an important lesson for Washington policymakers. The very symbolic switching of great power friends by a small country following changes of government is something not seen in the region since the Cold War. Back then elections and revolutions in small states often equated to gains and losses by superpowers playing the Great Game.

The “geopolitical vacation” of the post-Cold War era is over. The game is opening up. Traditional spheres of influence of regional powers like India are no longer sacrosanct. In future, small states, particularly those around Indian Ocean and the Middle East with strategic relevance, will have more options to switch between multiple poles. Great powers will have less leverage. This is exacerbated by the decreased control Western states have over their private corporations, reducing the levers of influence over other states – a challenge China does not face.

Moreover, increasing access to information means countries’ longstanding images can be rapidly altered. Sri Lankans’ approval of America’s world leadership fell from 36 percent at the end of the war in 2009, to just 14 percent in 2012 (U.S. Global Leadership Report, 2013, Gallup). Damage to image can translate to long-term harm to strategic interests. In Sri Lanka, anti-Western sentiment amongst the population has made being pro-Western more an electoral liability for politicians, than an asset. Rajapaksa supporters evidently saw political gain in alleging that his opponents were assisted by the CIA and M-I6.

The return of high stakes geopolitics means that the U.S. needs to work harder to win over small states, both governments and populations. This is particularly true for states that are geographically further from China and face little threat from her, those who feel the status quo has not served their security interests, and those with postcolonial sentiments. Sri Lanka fits all these categories, as do many Middle Eastern states.

In both these cases, the U.S. could harness its near-perennial advantage over China at the individual leader-level. Many of the anti-colonial elite in these countries are still attracted to the prestige of living in the West and association with Western institutions and imagery. They still prefer to send their children to study in American and British cities over Beijing or Shanghai. Two of Rajapaksa’s brothers, both former ministers and nationalists, are Green Card holders.

In addition, Washington needs to dilute the influence of domestic lobbies whose agendas are not always in line with U.S. national interest or values. There should be a smaller lag from the period when intelligence and strategic analysts determine that a foreign country’s strategic importance has significantly increased, to the time when high-level policymakers decide to base their approach to said country more on national strategic interests and less on lobby groups. In Sri Lanka’s case, this took too long. The same mistake should not be made in the Middle East and elsewhere. For their part, Sri Lankans would have better accepted a pragmatic approach publicly framed in U.S. national interests than one which they perceived as driven by Western domestic political constituencies.

Sri Lanka’s example provides a glimpse of small power-great power relations in a future multipolar world order. Obama and Kerry’s recent reassuring gestures to Gulf States suggests that the U.S. now may be recognizing the need to be more attentive to the interests of countries that were previously taken for granted, lest they fall into Beijing’s waiting arms.

Dr. Kadira Pethiyagoda is a visiting fellow in Asia-Middle East relations at the Brookings Doha Center and a former diplomat.

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