20 April 2022
Sri Lanka crisis
Sri Lanka is facing an economic crisis that has forced it to suspend debt repayments as it struggles to pay for food and fuel from abroad. The crisis could also add to tensions between India and China, which both may see this as an opportunity to consolidate their influence. Australia – whose 2020 Defence Strategic Update identified the northeast Indian Ocean as part of its own “immediate region” – will be keenly observing what mechanisms Sri Lanka uses to emerge from this current situation.
Sri Lanka’s strategic location along the busy Indian Ocean shipping lane – which handles most maritime trade between Asia and Europe – means it has the opportunity for economic and political leverage. Eighty per cent of China’s imported oil passes by Sri Lanka and through the Strait of Malacca, and as a result Beijing has developed a significant Indian Ocean naval capability to protect its interests. Yet China’s presence conflicts with India’s belief that it should be the natural security provider for the Indian Ocean.
China’s strategy has found willing participants in the Rajapaksa family, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for almost two decades. Currently, brothers Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa are president and prime minister, respectively. Prior to the recent resignation of the cabinet, the extended family held nine ministerial portfolios, overseeing an estimated 75 per cent of state expenditure. The family also happens to be significant landholders in the Hambantota region, where, in 2010, China financed the construction of a new port, and the state-owned enterprise China Merchants Port subsequently acquired a ninety-nine-year lease to operate.
Sri Lanka has reached out to Beijing to secure a US$2.5 billion rescue loan, while India has already offered a US$1 billion line of credit.
Last week, Palau, with the United States, hosted the seventh iteration of the Our Ocean Conference, which seeks ways to better manage marine health and resources, and increase resilience to climate change. This was the first time the event had been held in the Pacific, offering the opportunity for Pacific Island countries to showcase their unique knowledge of the ocean.
Central to the collective diplomacy of Pacific Island countries is the concept of the “Blue Pacific”, which seeks to reframe these countries as “large ocean states”. The Blue Pacific is built on a recognition that the ocean is the primary influence on the region’s way of life – shaping its history, values, practices and cultural identity.
But other imperatives can divide this collective will.
Coinciding with the conference, a group of Pacific MPs formed the Pacific Parliamentarians’ Alliance on Deep Sea Mining, which opposes mining the ocean bed due to the unknown environmental costs. The alliance consists of politicians from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Guam, Solomon Islands, French Polynesia, Tuvalu and Palau, with the notable exclusion of Nauru.
The current governance of deep-sea mining is complex. Companies need to operate in partnership with a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is yet to devise further procedures, although a clause in its charter stipulates that if a request is made by a state, it will finalise regulations within two years. Desperate for new sources of income, Nauru, partnering with a Canadian-owned mining firm, triggered this clause in June 2021, setting up a conflict with its Blue Pacific brethren.
The Rwanda solution
The United Kingdom recently announced a plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda – a proposal that looks to be heavily influenced by Australia’s offshore detention policies, particularly the reliance on a false distinction between a “legal” and an “illegal” asylum seeker.
During committee hearings in the House of Commons in September, Australia’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, George Brandis, appeared as a witness to answer questions on Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders. In February, Home Secretary Priti Patel appointed Alexander Downer to oversee a review of the UK’s Border Force. Last week, echoing Australia’s language, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated, “Those who tried to jump the queue or abuse our systems will find no automatic path to set them up in our country ...”
It appears Australia’s approach also inspired Demark. In 2016, a delegation of Danish politicians was allowed access to Australia’s detention facilities in Nauru. Last year, the Danes passed a law that would allow asylum seekers to be deported outside of Europe for processing. Rwanda is also considered to be the prime candidate for hosting.
Given that the UK’s proposed legislation will face opposition in the House of Lords, and will almost certainly be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights – which still has jurisdiction over the UK after Brexit – this may be just one of Johnson’s infamous “dead cats”. But like the strategy of distraction itself, this offshore processing idea is one of Australian breeding.