From left: Carnegie India Director Dr. Raja Mohan, Centre for Policy Alternatives Executive Director Dr. Pakiyasothy Saravanamuttu, Hayleys Group Senior Economist Deshal de Mel and The Asia Foundation International Relations Programmes Director John Brandon
Pic by Kushan Pathiraja
By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
South Asia may have to retrace its steps and make fresh attempts at regional economic and security integration to fill the vacuum stemming from the isolationist policy of the US led by President Donald Trump and an increasingly interventionist China, experts opined.
“South Asia has to look inwards towards regional integration (but) we’ve got to see how much retrenchment and downsizing will take place in the US,” Carnegie India Director Dr. Raja Mohan told ‘Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia’ seminar in Colombo, organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka and The Asia Foundation. However, Centre for Policy Alternatives Executive Director Dr. Pakiyasothy Saravanamuttu, who was also a panellist at the seminar, reminded that such efforts have been a failure in the past.
“The states of South Asia in particular have not succeeded entirely in resolving their differences,” he said and also recalled how the super powers interfered with the regional issues in the past, as a result.
Sri Lanka has become a hotbed for soft power projection—or economic warfare—for China on the one hand and the US, India and Japan on the other.
Institute of Policy Studies Executive Director Dr. Saman Kelegama—a champion of South-South trade—this week wrote in a newspaper column how much economic integration in the Bay of Bengal has slowed down, after calling it disappointing earlier this year.
Special Projects Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama had called South Asian economic integration ‘a bit of a joke’.
According to economists, the major obstacles to South Asian economic integration are the non-tariff barriers, such as anti-trade bias, corruption, lack of policy consistency, refusal to harmonize standards, bureaucratic inefficiencies and sanitary and psychosanitary issues.
Dr. Mohan was keen to promote India-Sri Lanka relations or India-Japan-Sri Lanka relations.
Carnegie India officials have been promoting such views in Sri Lanka fervently this year following the isolationist policies communicated by the Trump-led US and the renewed influence China has started wielding on Sri Lanka.
Dr. Mohan said he was not attempting to rationalize Trump and it doesn’t matter whether he is a good or bad guy. He said what matters is how others react to the prevailing uncertainty in a transitional period.
He added that China’s dominance is not yet assured, going through past examples such as the failure of Japan during the World War II period and the Soviet Union during the 20th century.
“It’s not as if the game is over. It’s not like that. If China continues to rise and the US continues to withdraw, Japan—historically the number one power in Asia—is not going to roll over and play dead and India’s not going to accept. They’re willing to take action,” he said.
The Asia Foundation International Relations Programmes Director John Brandon opined that the US isn’t stepping back from Asia and that Trump is a ‘transactional’ President, who will make decisions based on how good a deal is. However, he noted that the US has been falling behind in the region, as it lacks projects such as China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative and has fallen behind China in terms of trade with the region.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Chinese state-run businesses invested in projects in Sri Lanka running into billions of dollars, while the US-led bloc showed reluctance to compel its businesses to invest in Sri Lanka during the previous Rajapaksa administration.
Hayleys Group Senior Economist Deshal de Mel noted that the US businesses may now take up investment opportunities in Sri Lanka to manufacture and sell goods and services to the rest of Asia by depending on Sri Lanka’s logistical advantages.
Brandon’s organisation has recommended the US government to continue its economic soft power projection into Asia, while he said that India could play a bigger role in South Asia and also in the Asia Pacific region, both economically and militarily.
However, Dr. Saravanamuttu stressed that India has to overcome internal pressure to rise without systems present in China.
“India has to show that economic prosperity and democracy go together,” he said.
He added that the future depends on how the balancing powers come to equilibrium in the region.