Viewpoint by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake*
COLOMBO (IDN) — All bets were off as Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House and second in line to the United States Presidency, pivoted to Asia on August 1. As Ms Pelosi tottered off a US Air Force plane at Singapore’s Changi Airport in her signature stilettos, Southeast Asia tripped into high tension as a collective shudder seemed to reverberate through the region.
China’s President Xi had warned President Biden ahead of Pelosi’s Taiwan trip: “play with Fire, and you will get burned!” This is a time when relations between the two Superpowers, one rising and the other fading, are at a historic low as the world recalibrates and reorients to the emergence of China, Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as its growth hub.
As China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and part of its history and geography, Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan seemed provocative, to say the least.
On the same day, Sri Lanka, perpetually in the cross-hairs of geopolitical rivalry due to its strategic location at the centre of the Indian Ocean and roiled by anti-government and International Monetary Fund (IMF) protestors calling for debt cancellation as the Washington Consensus fishes in its troubled waters, woke to stormy monsoon seas and the news that a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval vessel with satellite tracking capability was headed to the Hambantota Port, which the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) deems part of the “String of Pearls”. Indian authorities claimed that they were tracking its progress.
This movement followed a US Department of Defense ‘Sea Vision’ training exercise in the months of June-July when the island at the centre of the Indian Ocean was effectively under a fuel embargo. As US Marines instructed the Sri Lankan Navy, the country was starved of Russian oil and gas that may have saved its US Dollar debt-trapped economy from further freefall and IMF inroads.
Although the Dragon had been missing in action recently in the strategic island, a key port of call on China’s maritime Silk Route Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for global connectivity and infrastructure development, clearly geopolitical competition for power and influence is unfolding with islands—Taiwan, Sri Lanka, the Solomon Islands—as targets.
Pelosi as Human Rights Defender and Dragon Slayer
Pelosi seemed to be playing feminist defender of global Human Rights and dragon slayer, talking up a previous visit to Tiananmen Square. Meanwhile, the CIA assassinated Al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan, in a drone strike claiming that the elderly man on television heads Al Qaida.
Following the drone strike that violated Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and Zawahiri’s human right to a fair trial, President Biden announced that justice had been done, demonstrating America’s capability to defend its interests anywhere in the world!
Biden justified the strike in Kabul by claiming that history was repeating itself. Afghanistan had again become a base for “terrorists” with the Taliban back in power, just as Osama Bin Laden launched his legendary 9/11 attack on the Twin towers and other US targets.
Pelosi’s pivot to Asia is a bit déjà vu, a surreal courtship of disaster in the wake of the Ukraine debacle. After all, Mr Putin had demarcated Russia’s Red Lines vis-à-vis any expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include Ukraine at Russia’s Western border, well before the proxy war broke out in Ukraine with Mr Zelensky playing arch defender of “western values”; never mind Ukraine’s democracy deficit and corruption rates.
China’s claims on Taiwan are internationally recognised. Still, Pelosi seemed to relish her role as an agent provocateur of the slumbering dragon at this time of high tension. Was it to keep up the guessing game and prolong Asia’s shudder that the US also took out Egyptian-born Al-Zahrawi in an Over the Horizon (OTH) operation that the CIA had promised on the eve of the disastrous US exit from that country last year?
These operations seemed designed to tell the world that the American Eagle still has landing capacity with all guns blazing—another attempt to play Superpower although the sun has long set on the imploding Empire now teaming up with another expired empire to reboot colonialism and Cold War 2.0 via their South Asian and Afro Diasporas amid the Covid-19 and ‘Climate Catastrophe’ Great Reset?
Rishi Sunak, the front-runner in UK’s Prime Ministerial battle, increasingly looks like the Canary in the British Coal mine as he promotes corporate interests, debt for nature swaps, and greenwash in former colonies!
Gonna be a long war in the mythical ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’
It’s gonna be a long war in the rapidly militarising “Free and Open Indo-Pacific!” Indeed, it promises to be an endless war as the geographic reconfiguration of two Oceans into a construct called ‘Indo-Pacific’ indicates.
The “Indo-Pacific” is an American neologism which splits and partitions the historical, cultural, and civilisational unity of the Indian Ocean World in two. It connotes the re-jigging of our Oceans’ geographical imagination to serve US perspectives with a long-term horizon, and the Quadrilateral Group (QUAD) and AUKUS in tow!
Way back in Grade school, we learned that there were three great oceans in the world: The Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Atlantic. At the north and south poles, there two other, seemingly lesser oceans—the Arctic and Antarctic. There was no such thing as the Indo-Pacific in our geography class!
The Indian Ocean Region has been recently partitioned and re-christened an extension of America’s recently invented “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” which connotes a de facto partitioning of the Indian Ocean World. This fluid boundary between an imaginary Eastern and Western Indian Ocean is roughly where Sri Lanka sits longitudinally at its centre. Has the US engineered a split in our imaginary geography of the Indian Ocean world right down the middle with Sri Lanka as a magic marker?!
The island, due to its location, was always a prized possession for those who wished to control the Indian Ocean Sea Lanes of Communication. If adequately taxed, the Undersea Data Cables (UDC), which lie in Sri Lanka’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone, would render the country currently caught in the US and EU-based International Sovereign Bond (ISB) Debt trap super rich overnight! BlackRock tops the list of Sri Lanka’s Odious Debt holders!
With the current focus on China, the Western Indian Ocean has almost ceased to exist in geopolitical and media discourse, but for France’s Imperial ambition and fisheries empire, which landed Somali fishermen to piracy after their fishing grounds were over-fished and livelihood destroyed by French fleets stationed in Seychelles. The Government of France has claimed a huge extent of the Indian Ocean, although France is an Atlantic state, fronting colonial island territories like Reunion and Mayotte.
Wither the Dragon in Sri Lanka?
Amid Pelosi’s pivot to Asia to reaffirm historic ties with East Asian Satellites Japan, Korea and Singapore, with a whistle-stop in Malaysia, a Chinese research vessel—the Yuan Wang 5 headed west to Sri Lanka. The island’s Defence Ministry confirmed that the ship would dock at Hambantota port between August 11 and 17.
Reportedly involved in space and satellite tracking, the Yuan Wang 5 is one of China’s latest generation space-tracking ships, also used to monitor rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, built at the state-owned Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. Indian sources explained that such vessels start their movement when China or any other country is carrying out missile tests.
China had been missing in action in Sri Lanka since the new Cold War proxy war in Ukraine started and Mr Wang Yi’s visit to Delhi. There was speculation that the Dragon had conceded ground in the strategic isle to the Washington Consensus (IMF and WB) after it staged a default in April this year when Sri Lanka was targeted for debt-trap diplomacy and became the first Domino to succumb to the geopolitical standoff.
As Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan stirs the Dragon, Sri Lankans long islanded and schooled in Cold War historical geography and Area Studies silos are waking up to geopolitical realities of geopolitics as the centre of the Indian Ocean as the Washington Consensus makes a bid for the island’s economic, trade, energy, transport infrastructure and cyber security through debt re-structuring. Indeed, Sri Lanka, which defaulted in April, seems to be the first domino to have fallen to Covid-19 lockdown-induced Odious Debt as Cold War escalates.
** Dr Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake is a social and medical anthropologist with expertise in international development and political-economic analysis. She was a member of the International Steering Group of the North-South Institute project: “Southern Perspectives on Reform of the International Aid Architecture”. [IDN-InDepthNews — 03 August 2022]
Image credit: Peace Palace Library
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