The recent Sri Lanka-centred diplomatic drama in Geneva where Sri Lanka clinched yet another two-year ‘reprieve’ from the West over war crimes accountability issues underscores afresh the West’s keen intent to maintain its firm foothold in South Asia. The present Sri Lankan administration is a Western ally and the US in particular would go to any lengths to protect its friends in our part of the world. This is the clear message the diplomatic wrangling in Geneva over UNHRC resolution 40/1 conveys.
Among other things, we have here further evidence that Cold War-type politics are strongly re-emerging in the Asian region. It is not the case that the Southern hemisphere was ever free of such politics but the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late eighties, accompanied by the firm entrenchment the world over of the free market system, tended to deflect world attention from the global political ambitions of the big powers of the West over the past few decades. However, Russia’s current resurgence as a world power and the marked upswing in the economic fortunes and political clout of China are setting the stage for an intensification of Cold War-type international power contests.
It does not necessarily follow from the foregoing though that we are about to witness at present a resuscitation of the relatively rigid polarities of world politics that characterized the Cold War decades. This is unlikely to be the case but broadly speaking a clash of political and socio-economic systems in the predominant regions of the world could be expected, driven by the US and other powerful political and military players.
Once again, the recent diplomatic contention in Geneva is instructive. While the West’s backing for the Sri Lankan government was steadfast on accountability questions and the relevant UN Human Rights Council resolutions that flowed from them, Russia and China in particular were, and have been always, critical of the perceived efforts at arm-twisting of Sri Lanka by influential sections in West on specific war crimes issues. Accordingly, the policy positions of Russia and China on these problems are more in tune with the stances adopted by Sri Lanka’s political opposition on them.
The West could be said to be in a dilemma with regard to Sri Lanka’s war crimes questions. The major states of the West, such as the US and the UK, would prefer to remain engaged with Sri Lanka on accountability issues, but influential sections in these Western polities are likely to be unrelenting in their efforts to take Sri Lanka to task on these ‘war crimes’ allegations. However, for Western governments as such disengaging with Sri Lanka is inadvisable on account of Sri Lanka’s strategic importance in the northern Indian Ocean.
As mentioned, for states such as Russia and China human rights and war crimes issues are not of the first importance because they are ideologically inclined to place national security above human security in their list of priorities. We see here a clash of vital interests and world views between the so-called Western democracies and the more authoritarian states of the East, such as Russia and China, and this polarity we see as fast replacing the liberal democracy versus communism division of the Cold War years.
Yet, it goes without saying that we have here a fundamental political polarity that could keep these major powers divided, besides stoking tensions the world over wherever their interests come into conflict. There could very well be Cold War-type proxy wars where such conflicts flare but economic and material interests and not so much ideology will prove the bones of contention. This is the case in the Asia-Pacific of today where China’s economic penetration, for instance, is prompting the US to enhance its naval presence in the region, with specific reference to the South China sea.
Such power play could also be expected to escalate in the Southern seas off Sri Lanka where China is seen as upping its presence through major infrastructure projects in the island; the Hambantota Port being a case in point. In fact the international power play in Sri Lanka will likely heighten and prove complex because states such as India and Japan are also likely to be increasingly concerned over the growing Chinese economic presence here.
However, the political polarity between the ‘liberal democratic West’ and the authoritarian East is bound to play out rather riskily outside the Asian theatre as well. Western and Eastern Europe are the arenas to watch as NATO, now 70 years old, is trying to put its house in order to take-on a perceived Russian security threat. But how strong it will prove is the issue to settle. US President Trump is showing in no uncertain terms that he is not very enamoured of NATO and has called on its members to meet their obligation of spending two per cent of their GDP on defence or run the risk of losing strong US backing. Since Trump could be taken at his word, an internally bickering, and to that extent a much weakened West, could be very much on the cards. Such developments would render Russia stronger than before, paving the way for heightened tensions between it and the US, the only Western state that would be in a position to measure-up to it.
With Trump at the helm in the US, the world would need to brace for not only continuing but also heightening tensions in even the Middle East; the theatre where a regional war time bomb is ticking by relentlessly. Currently Arab-Israeli animosities are escalating as a result of the US’ decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Thus, is fresh salt being rubbed into old wounds. However, such moves by the US completely undermine all hopes of renewing the Middle East peace process.
Indeed, given the US’ present foreign and security policy trajectories the world would be rendered an increasingly dangerous place. For the Trump administration only the US national interest matters. Such a misconception makes multilateralism inessential and the consequence of this lacuna could very well be a most unstable world.