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Amid the U.S.-China Confrontation, What Should Countries Like Sri Lanka Do?
The Famous Sigiriya Lion's Rock fortress and his landscape. (GETTY IMAGES)

Amid the U.S.-China Confrontation, What Should Countries Like Sri Lanka Do?

Satoru Nagao

Countries like Sri Lanka are now in crisis because of escalating the U.S.-China confrontation, which has forced other nations to choose sides. What are Sri Lanka’s choices? This article will analyze the confrontation and discuss what has happened, what is likely to happen, and what kinds of choices Sri Lanka has.

What Has Happened?

American pressure on China began at least a year ago. In December 2017, the National Security Strategy of the United States stated explicitly that “China and Russia challenge American power,” and in January 2018, the U.S. imposed tariffs on China. This led Beijing to retaliate by imposing its own tariffs on the U.S., which in turn led to additional American tariffs on Chinese goods.

Moreover, in October 2018, Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech at Hudson Institute, noted that “Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” Although the United States and China reached a ninety-day trade cease-fire in December 2018, Washington asked Canada to arrest Meng Wanzhou, the CFO and vice chair of Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Beijing then retaliated by arresting three Canadians and judging a death sentence against another.

A Long-Term Trend

These recent U.S. actions are part of a long-term trend. One example is the United States-China high-tech war and the United States ban on products made by Huawei and Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer ZTE. The process started some years ago. In 2012, the House Intelligence Committee published, “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE,” which led later led to an American ban on Huawei and ZTE from U.S. government procurement. As Republicans and Democrats share a pessimistic view of China, we can expect further escalations in the near future.

But if American action was part of a long-term trend, why has the United States only recently stepped up its efforts? The first reason is that China’s activities are too challenging to ignore. The second is that the United States has a chance to emerge victorious only if it acts now. Some simple facts confirm this.

For example, according to figures published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in July 2018, the United States spends $476 billion for research and development, compared with China’s $371 billion. This means that the United States still has an advantage in developing new technology.

Similarly, the United States maintains a clear and decisive economic advantage over China, with an economy of $19.4 trillion compared to the Chinese economic of $12 trillion (according to figures published by the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database in January 2018 ). As for military power, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, the United States defense budget is $603 billion, compared with China’s $150 billion.

Thus, based on current technology, economic strength, and the military balance, the United States would be likely to win a competition with China in any of these areas. But the time is now to apply pressure in these areas, before China closes this capabilities gap.

Located Between Two Giants

When countries are located between two giants, what kinds of choices do they have? There appear to be three: side with the United States, side with China, or engage with the two sides at the same time for maximum benefit. But for these countries, there are at least two nightmare scenarios. The first nightmare scenario is to be the grass under two fighting elephants. For example, after World War II, Germany, Vietnam, and Korea were divided in two because they became front lines in the U.S.-Soviet confrontation. And if countries belong to the losing side, this is another nightmare scenario. For example, after the Cold War, Soviet bloc countries endured great suffering because their patron lost the “war” to the United States.

From these historical facts, can we learn what the best choice is? In November 2018, at the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is reported to have stated, “I think it’s very desirable for us not to have to take sides, but the circumstances may come when ASEAN may have to choose one or the other. I am hoping that it’s not coming soon.” Because the United States would be likely to win a competition with China, Sri Lanka should limit China’s influence in its islands and cooperate with the United States and its allies, first and foremost Japan and India.

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