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How Australia Can Help Sri Lanka

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Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update identified the northeast Indian Ocean as part of Australia’s “immediate region,” also including Southeast Asia and the southwest Pacific. This area has been deemed to be “of most direct strategic interests” and “within it, Australia must be capable of building and exercising influence.” This is a bold claim, given that the overwhelming bulk of Australia’s population and capabilities lie on its Pacific coast, and Canberra is investing a considerable amount of its limited resources on maintaining its influence through the Pacific Islands. 

Yet Australia’s ambition is to be a two oceans power. With the longest Indian Ocean coast line, and largest maritime jurisdiction, this is not an unreasonable desire. The concept of the “Indo-Pacific” – which seeks to understand the Indian and Pacific oceans as a single strategic zone – has been enthusiastically embraced by Canberra. Australia’s continent-sized land mass straddling these oceans makes the country feel like it is at the center of the Indo-Pacific, even if it lies too far south to be a pivotal actor in the region. However, this doesn’t mean that Australia cannot expand its influence.

If the northeast Indian Ocean is to seriously be considered a direct strategic interest for Australia, then the current economic and political crisis in Sri Lanka should be considered a pressing concern for Canberra. Sri Lanka’s location along the busy Indian Ocean shipping lane – which handles almost all maritime trade between Asia and Europe – gives the country critical importance in geopolitical affairs. This is something that hasn’t been lost on China in recent decades as it has sought to expand its own influence in the northeast Indian Ocean. 

It’s a cliché to state that crisis often presents opportunity. However, Sri Lanka is currently in desperate need of friends, and the new Australian government is seeking to present itself to the world as a moral middle power. There is an opportunity for Australia to not just shift tone, but take action. If the northeast Indian Ocean is truly to be part of Australia’s immediate region, then now is the time for a demonstration.

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Australia has provided $34 million in emergency assistance to address Sri Lanka’s immediate food and healthcare needs. This is important, but what the country will require going forward is resilience against future economic and political shocks. Although the Sri Lankan economy has suffered from events like the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that were far outside the country’s control, these only compounded what were longer term failings of the country’s political elite — in particular the capture of the state by a single family. 

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Institution building has fallen out of fashion as a mode of development assistance. It can often be seen as patronizing, and at worst a form of neocolonialism. It can also frequently be hypocritical, with many Western countries housing their own corrupt behavior, as well as major democratic flaws. Aside from this, Australia’s recent approach to aid has been influenced by China’s model of big infrastructure projects that stand out as obvious generous contributions, with Canberra feeling like it has to follow suit.

Yet the sense from many of the protesters, for example those interviewed inside the presidential palace, is that the Sri Lankan public are desperate for competent, ethical governance. This is an uncontentious expectation, but one that is often difficult to achieve. The types of people who are attracted to being public representatives are also the types who are most easily susceptible to the corrupting influence of power. Therefore what matters is having strong institutions that can prevent these people from doing significant damage. 

Australia can’t claim to be immune from power-seekers who work solely in their own personal interest, but it does have institutions that provide a bulwark against their excesses. Australia has remained an incredibly stable society and economy despite the recent internal turbulence within its governing political parties. Finding a way to export its institutional strength to Sri Lanka could be a way to significantly enhance the relationship between the two countries, and consolidate Australia’s ambition of being a major actor in the Indian Ocean. 

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Australia’s foreign policy in recent years has embraced many of the ideas from feminist foreign policy, without actually using the phrase itself. Given that women’s empowerment is a strong counterforce against corruption, helping to build a new generation of female leaders in Sri Lanka would be an important contribution Australia could make to the future stability, prosperity, and the overall resilience of the country. 

Given the intimate relationship that the Rajapaksa family developed with Beijing, public sentiment in Sri Lanka may now be less conducive to Chinese influence in the country. This presents an opportunity for Australia to be a genuine friend to a country in desperate need within what Canberra considers to be its immediate region. It also would allow Australia’s Indian Ocean strategy to be less focused on India. This approach would buy a lot of goodwill with other South Asian states, who are often overlooked in favor of their gigantic neighbor. 

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