Sri Lanka President bets for China-inclusive Asia-led economy

Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said many Asian nations have already made a choice between China and the United States in a polarizing geopolitical situation and that choice is Asia accommodating the ambitious projects by both Beijing and Washington.

Wickremesinghe made these comments when he addressed at “Nikkei Forum: Future of Asia‟ held in Tokyo, Japan today on Thursday (25) and highlighted the importance of Asian states having a voice in shaping the region’s role amidst the evolving geopolitics on the global stage.

“We in Asia don’t want to choose between the U.S. and China,” Wickremesinghe told the gathering.

“Many of us cannot make that choice because we have already made our choice, and that choice is Asia,” he said.

Future of Asia is an international gathering where political, economic, and academic leaders from the Asia-Pacific region offer their opinions frankly and freely on regional issues and the role of Asia in the world.

The forum has been held by Nikkei every year since 1995 and it is considered to be one of the most important global conferences in Asia.

Wickremesinghe, invited in his capacity as Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister for the forum , said that all the Asian nations have benefited from the cooperation between the US and China in the post-Cold War era, but the subsequent rapid rise of China and the inability of the two countries to agree on China‟s role on the international stage have led to rivalry, which he referred as “needless tensions in our part of the world”.

China has launched an ambitious Belt Road Initiative (BRI) covering mainly Asia and Africa while the US, as an alternative, has pushed for Indo-Pacific Strategy in the region, stretching from our Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean, home to more than half of the world’s people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy, and seven of the world’s largest militaries.

“We want an Asia that can accommodate the Indo-Pacific, the BRI, as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo- Pacific,” Wickremesinghe said.

“The BRI is a strategy to increase China‟s influence in Asia and Africa through economic means. We, the members of the BRI, have no security arrangements with China, nor do we intend to enter into any security agreements with China.”

“The Indo-Pacific is an evolving concept with unanswered questions.”

Center of Geopolitics

Sri Lanka has become the center of geopolitical war between China and the US in South Asia with India, the world’s sixth largest economy is being a strong ally of the US. The island nation has been under pressure by both India and the West for allowing Chinese investments into the country, citing possible security concerns in the Indian Ocean, government sources have said.

Wickremesinghe said the US – China rivalry has given rise to a number of responses by the West especially to economic coercion and weaponizing of economic vulnerabilities.

“Yet some of these responses may result in a setback to trade integration in the region. Unlike the West, Asia is dominated by middle-income and low-income economies.”

“Of the 12 high-income economies in Asia, only 6 are outside West Asia. The rest of us, including China, India, and Indonesia, are middle income economies. We have to overcome the middle-income trap of economic stagnation.”

In addition to economic coercion, Wickremesinghe said, economic decoupling in which different asset classes that typically rise and fall together start to move in opposite directions, and similar measures contrary to the World Trade Organization rules are other impediments to trade integration.

“Needless to say that we in Sri Lanka and many other Asian nations are opposed to economic coercion: whether it be by one country coercing another using its economic power; or by indirect methods such as de-coupling, or friend-shoring – manufacturing and sourcing only from geopolitical allies – contrary to the WTO,” he said.

“Thus, the WTO system put in place three decades ago should not be by-passed for short term geo-strategic gains. The rules of the game cannot be changed arbitrarily. The losers will be the middle-income Asian countries.”