China’s Rise May Change the International Rules by which Future Sri Lankan Governments will Play

May 17, 2018        Reading Time: 5 minutes

Reading Time: 5 min read

Image Credit: Maithripala Sirisena / flickr

Kadira Pethiyagoda*

The recent challenges that Sri Lanka has faced at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and in its communal relations, occur in a global context of shifting norms. The gravity of this particular historical moment is important to appreciate, to envision what forces will impact Sri Lanka’s future position in the world. Two of Sri Lanka’s most important relationships—the US and China—are significantly impacting the current geostrategic upheaval.

While the US is seemingly abrogating its position as the definer of global norms, China is abrogating its erstwhile implied promise not to upset the existing order—the narrative of a peaceful rise of China.1 In the long term, this may result in a world order where humanitarian interventions are less likely, changing the calculations of smaller states like Sri Lanka.

America’s Abrogation

The US is now seemingly less interested in maintaining the image it sought to project during the post-Cold War, unipolar moment. Throughout that era, America balanced pursuit of realist interests with an image of being the simultaneously omnipotent, beneficent and impartial global leader. The American people felt invested in this image of their country being great and good, and there was some belief amongst key foreign audiences that the US was well-intentioned. Then came President George W. Bush, whose Iraq War deeply damaged this reputation. Repeated unsuccessful foreign interventions under President Obama had, at best, failed to revive 2 support for an activist foreign policy at home.

Come 2016 and an American public, disillusioned by the regime-changing, nation-building project, put their faith in President Donald Trump. Like his (more popular)3 populist counterpart on the Left, Bernie Sanders, Trump campaigned on an agenda of retiring the US from its attempts to lead the world.4  While much of Trump’s foreign policy election platform has been blocked or even reversed,5 his positions that did not face powerful internal opposition have been arguably the most destructive to the US’s global brand.

Perhaps most symbolic was Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. For decades, Washington had positioned itself as an arbiter of the world’s most contentious conflict. Trump’s move, and subsequent threats of aid cuts to countries opposing Washington at the UN, and cuts to UN funding itself, signals that America no longer seriously purports to be the ‘indispensable nation,’6 but rather, as just another, albeit exceptionally powerful, nation competing among others. It is also seen in Washington’s withdrawal from, or threats to, leave key multilateral frameworks: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris Climate Accord, UNHRC, and UNESCO, to name a few.

China’s Abrogation

This brings us to the other great abrogation, that of the ‘peaceful rise of China’ narrative. Under President Hu Jintao, Beijing tried to avoid political controversies that were of little immediate-term or fundamental strategic benefit. This approach of incremental reforms to the international environment has now given way to an almost ‘populist’ vision by President Xi Jinping: muscular and assertive, with a confidence powered by ideological surety and touting millennia of civilizational ‘greatness.’

The year 2017 saw this vision manifest in policy in an unprecedented way. The trillion-dollar jewel8 in President Xi’s crown is, of course, the Belt and Road Initiative, which was launched at an event rivalling the grandeur of the Beijing Olympics. The project ticks the global leadership boxes: sold externally as supporting infrastructure needs for poorer nations, while pleasing domestic audiences by strengthening Beijing’s strategic reach.

On the economic front, at Davos, President Xi filled the void left by Trump to champion global trade.9 All this occurred against the backdrop of Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea while projecting the image of a calm broker in the rising tensions between the US and North Korea. More recently, Beijing repeated its call for the establishment of a Palestinian state 10 with 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital.

The less obvious outcome of Beijing’s rise is the ascendance of a set of values and norms that do not match those of the prevailing international order; norms like sovereignty above universalism and state-centred economics above free-marketism.

Implications for Sri Lanka

The increasing assertiveness of China’s normative and strategic offering could have multiple impacts on the Sri Lankan government, and particularly, for how human rights is safeguarded in Sri Lanka. Firstly, while the US and other Western states are still Sri Lanka’s largest export markets, China’s material power in the region makes it more difficult for the West to have leverage over Sri Lanka in regard to human rights, as seen during the civil war.

The more limited leverage of the West is also due to the fact that Western states are currently in varying levels and different types of conflict on multiple fronts. These include conflicts with non-Western states (itself nothing new), having China and Russia challenge Western normative dominance (which the West has not experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union), and fissures within the West itself, including in Western alliances like North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union (which is another renewed challenge). All these factors can reduce the incentive of smaller states to adhere to human rights norms, and make it more enticing for their governments to accede to domestic political pressures that call for more nationalist policy positions.

On the other hand, however, while China’s growing influence in smaller states may reduce the tools available to human rights activists, a world in which state sovereignty has greater normative power relative to human rights may have a silver lining for rights over the longer term. In particular, it could reduce the level of distrust in developing countries of norms like the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ which stem from the fear that human rights will be used as a pretext for intervention and regime-change.

Consequently, there will be less ‘siege politics,’ whereby, Western pressure fosters a nationalist backlash against human rights, with people growing sceptical of all ‘foreign’ norms (including human rights) and electing leaders most likely to push back against such pressure—a scenario which emerged over time in states like Iran11 and Russia.12 In addition, the normative contest between the West and China could help create space for other non-Western powers, like Japan and South Korea, for example, to become involved in supporting Sri Lankan civil society.


It is clear that international relations are undergoing a period of flux not seen since the Cold War. The shifting dynamics between Great Powers and their evolving global roles have significant implications for domestic politics in smaller states like Sri Lanka – particularly in relation to human rights. Astute leadership can ensure the country rides these waves in a way that maximises the benefits for ordinary Sri Lankans.


1Bijian, Zheng. (2005). China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status. Available at:

2Pethiyagoda, Kadira. (2018). Foreign Policy Populism: The Final Frontier. Available at:

3Sainato, Michael. (2017). As Donald Trump’s Popularity Dwindles, Bernie Sanders’ Surges. Available at:

4Neely, Bill. (2017). Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has isolated U.S. from World Leaders. Available at:

5Kelemen, Michele. (2017). Trump’s Foreign Policy Reversals. Available at:

6The American Presidency Project. (1980). Election Eve Address “A Vision for America.” Available at:

7Hui, Wang. (2014). Helmut Schmidt: ‘Why Chinese Civilization Has Lasted.’ Available at:

8Phillips, Tom. (2017). The $900bn question: What is the Belt and Road initiative? Available at:

9China Global Television Network. (2017). Full Text of Xi Jinping keynote at the World Economic Forum. Available at:

10Anadolu Agency. (2017). China Repeats Support for Independent Palestinian State. Available at:

11Erdbring, Thomas. (2015). Backlash Against U.S. in Iran Seems to Gather Force After Nuclear Deal. Available at:

12European Council on Foreign Relations. (2015). How Russia has come to loathe the West. Available at:

*Dr. Kadira Pethiyagoda is Research Director, Global Governance Programme, at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) and a Nonresident Fellow at Brookings Doha. This commentary was originally published in the Daily News on 16 May 2018. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.

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