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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2673

China and Sri Lanka: A History that Stretches Back into the Mists of Time – Trade, Religion and Diplomacy

By Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona

Sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean at the southern tip of India and the meeting point of the monsoon winds, and swirling ocean currents, Sri Lanka occupies an enviable strategic geographical position. A blessing that, with judicious handling and long term vision, can be leveraged to contribute to its aspirations to achieve prosperity but, mismanaged, a curse that has and will attract the unwelcome attentions of global and regional powers seeking to use the island's incomparable location to their benefit, especially to dominate the Indian Ocean.

Throughout history, Sri Lanka has captivated the interest of a multitude of sailors, traders, holy men, adventurers, empire builders and invaders. The Chinese were well represented among them through the centuries and from the time of the Han Dynasty used Sri Lanka as a lucrative central link and emporium in their trading ventures along the southern Silk Route.

At times, we elegantly parried and benefited hugely from the attention that our location gave us, especially in trade. At other times we faltered.

Our location confers on us a solemn responsibility to ensure that the interests of the other users of the sea route to the south of Sri Lanka is also safeguarded. Having overcome a terrible terrorist threat, nine years ago, Lanka is again confronting one of those seminal challenges in its history.

Responding to and prudently managing these advances and ensuring that the national interest is safeguarded, including its territorial integrity and sovereignty, should remain a priority. While we protect our interests, our geographical location.

Today an additional factor must impact on Sri Lanka's deliberations. Sri Lanka possesses a 200 mile exclusive economic zone and, possibly, a vast area of sea bed to which it has lodged a claim with the United Nations since 2009. The wealth of this area, both in the water column and trapped in the sea bed, with careful management, could make Sri Lanka a highly prosperous nation. The biodiversity in the water column which is now the subject of a UN sponsored initiative could also become another attraction to Sri Lanka’s suitors.

Challenges Confronting Sri Lanka and the Region

The Indian Ocean region is experiencing a much anticipated luxury. Almost every one of the economies of the region is expanding at a rate that generates hope in the future of the countries of Indian Ocean rim, and especially for its poor and marginalised. The promise of prosperity so enthusiastically proclaimed at independence from colonial rule, many decades ago, may at last becoming a reality. India is powering ahead with a rapidly expanding economy and now leads China.

But the region continues to be confronted by an inexcusably massive burden of poverty, literacy and technology deficits, malnutrition, disease and deprivation. South Asia has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest concentration of the poor in the world. Inadequate policy frameworks, corruption, military rivalries and internal conflicts, among others, drain resources which could be devoted to economic advancement. Some internal conflicts are encouraged from the outside.

The countries of South Asia have been taking faltering steps to collaborate with each other on economic matters, but ever so tentatively and in fits and starts, having slowly recognised that there is much to be gained through cooperation thanthrough rivalry. The initial warmth generated by the election of Imran Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan augurs well for the future. There is still considerable progress that could be achieved through cooperative efforts. However, in the past, good intentions and idealistic talk have not been matched by adequate constructive action.

The South Asia region, is still to secure international acceptability, as a unity. Its leaders need to be more imaginative and ambitious in their desire to develop together. A common desire to advance with each other is still sadly lacking, despite a long history of shared cultures, religions and people movements.

Belt and Road Initiative

Against this background, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), unveiled in 2013, has provided the countries of the wider region with a new challenge as well as a unique opportunity to fast track their economies along the path to development. An investment bonanza is being made available under the BRI, especially for the countries along the ancient Maritime Silk Road.

Coupled with the investment driven BRI, China has also subtly begun to underline its cultural and religious links in the wider region. A soft power caress of the region!

According to Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China, President Xi Jinping has embraced religious faith as part of his “Chinese Dream” and the “Belt and Road Initiative”. The nominally atheist Chinese Communist Party has now recognised that religion in Chinese history was a powerful tool in domestic governance and international diplomacy. For Xi’s “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation and national culture after the “Century of Humiliation”, this mix of faith and politics constitutes a “re-imagining of the political-religious state that once ruled China”. When Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was head of the party’s religious work beginning in 1980,

China’s Central Committee issued the famous Document 19 warning party members against banning religious pursuits because it would isolate the Chinese people. Ever since, China has been restoring places of worship destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Thus, the BRI and the softened global outreach of China, provides an opportunity that can be exploited by those seeking mutual benefit. Judiciously managed and sensitively implemented, the BRI could revive the glory days of the ancient Silk Route. President Xi Jinping was quoted in the state news agency Xinhua saying, "The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic cooperation initiative, not a geopolitical or a military alliance. It is an open and inclusive process, and not about creating exclusive circles or a China club."

Sri Lanka, sitting at the hub of the ancient Silk Route, has embraced this concept at the highest levels. From the President and the Prime Minister downwards, and numerous ministers, the BRI has been enthusiastically welcomed by the Sri Lankan leadership. Hardly a week passes without a Sri Lankan delegation visiting China.

It has been said that China’s BRI investment ambitions, focused on cooperative infrastructure and connectivity enhancement, has the potential to make a greater impact than the post-World War US Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan provided financial assistance to the war devastated economic giants of Europe and was a major factor in their quick recovery. But the funds available under the BRI make the Marshall Plan pale in to insignificance. The Marshall plan provided over $140 billion, at 2017 Dollar values, to assist Western European economies recover. The BRI intends to make available a stunning $ 4 – 8 trillion. While the Marshall Plan achieved much, the BRI funds are expected to achieve substantially much more by creating a vast region of shared prosperity stretching from Africa to East Asia, the clear beneficiaries would be a large number of developing countries.

Adding strength to the BRI, the Chinese Yuan has now been recognized as a reserve currency by the IMF and China appears to be increasingly moving towards international payments in Yuan. The IMF elevated the Yuan, also known as the renminbi, or “people’s money”, on the same day that the Communist Party celebrated the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Yuan joins the U.S. Dollar, the Euro, the Yen and British Pound in the IMF’s special drawing rights (SDR) basket, which determines currencies that countries can receive as part of IMF loans.

It is not only the vast accumulation of foreign reserves in China that makes the Chinese outreach tempting. China is also gradually becoming a force to reckon with in Information Technology which, coupled with its massive financial clout, makes it a formidable proposition as the world moves further in to the 21st century. IT is expected to form the foundation of the next industrial revolution. Live steaming which has caught on rapidly in China, now has an audience which is about the entire US population. China has 700 million internet users and web development has become a cottage industry. It has become the biggest e-commerce market in the world. Over half of the most valuable companies in the world are now Chinese.

China started the electronic bike exchange and has rapidly progressed with electronic payments. Other countries are simply playing catch up. (An entrepreneur has initiated an electronic car exchange in Sydney!). Baidu is the largest search engine and China’s Alibaba is bigger than Amazon and Ebay combined. Tempted by the huge Chinese market, Google, which once left in a huff, is now hankering to return to China. Much has been written about the massive progress made by China in the transport industry with over 18,000 miles of high speed trains already in use delivering over 1,7 billion passengers in 2017. China is the biggest global market for motor cars and its production reached 23.7 million units in 2017 which exceeds that of the US and Japan combined. Tesla, with its cutting edge electric car technology, is expected to set up a plant in China. China’s construction industry has also climbed dizzying peaks with some city sky lines looking as if they were plucked out of science fiction movies.

The outward looking Belt and Road initiative, with China’s advances in IT, could have a massively transformative impact on the economies of the vast Asian and African regions encompassing 68 countries, home to over 65% of the world’s population. The BRI, is backed by China’s substantial economic clout and massive reserves, including through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which claims 61 state members at present, and possesses the potential to create significant opportunities for the entire region. Australia is a member of the AIIB.

The BRI will be a closely related factor as Sri Lanka seeks to realise its own Vision 2025. Vision 2025 (or is it Vision 2030) provides the development blueprint for the country for the next seven years and infrastructure development and IT will play a central role in it.

It is against this background that the successful SEIC 2017 was organized in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in November last year. The objective was to highlight Sri Lanka as a trading centre and an investment destination. A significant number of the participants at SEIC 2017 came from overseas, especially from China. Others came from Wall Street, London, Geneva, Dubai, India, Hong Kong, Singapore and Amsterdam. The follow-up conclave will be held in Beijing in September this year.

Historical, Religious and Trading Relations

A peek into history would be appropriate at this point. Historically, traders, holy men and casual visitors recognised Sri Lanka’s potential, both as a desirable destination to visit, a spiritual magnet and a trading hub. The country attracted waves of traders, businesses and holy monks seeking the sublime teachings of the Buddha over the centuries, from far afield as ancient Rome on the one side and Khan Balik on the other, not to mention rapacious invaders. Ibn Battuta, the Moor from Tangiers, who visited the island in the 14th century, was not wrong by much when he observed that this was the most beautiful island on earth and was only 40 leagues from paradise. That paradise, must be preserved despite the race to modernize, and achieve a higher level of sustainable prosperity for the people of the country as they seek to climb up the development ladder.

Sri Lanka, like other countries of South Asia, had developed important relations, religious, trading and social, with the Middle Kingdom from early days, and the writings of scholars, soldiers, monks, travellers and traders suggest a strong Chinese interest in Lanka from times immemorial. The earliest records indicate that the interchanges along the Silk Road, especially along the sea route, had begun to flourish from the time of the Han Dynasty, from 207 BC, and continued for centuries afterwards. It was not only trade that boomed along the Silk Road, but also cultural and religious exchanges bringing lasting changes to countries and societies. Technologies, food habits, agricultural practices and even diseases, like the plague, crossed borders along the Road.

Dozens of wrecks of Chinese sailing vessels lie off the coast of Sri Lanka suggesting a thriving sea-borne trade. If dozens sank in bad weather, hundreds of Chinese vessels, if not thousands, are likely to have called at our ports. It was then the natural point for sailing vessels wafting before the North Eastern Monsoon winds to stop for rest, food, water and trade.

While foreign ships came to our shores by the hundreds, Lankan sailors also appear to have sailed to foreign ports and left an imprint. A Chinese mandarin, Li Chao, reported that among the many foreign ships that arrived at An-nan and Kuang-chou, the ships from the Lion Kingdom were the largest with stairways for loading and unloading, which are several tens of feet in height. A plaque in the Hong Kong Maritime Museum asserts that the Creole of Macao, a Chinese port frequented by foreign sailors for centuries, has Sinhala influences. The regular presence of Chinese in the Indian Ocean for trade is borne out by historical accounts left by many, including the Chinese monk Fa Xian (5th Century), Marco Polo, (13 Century) Ibn Battuta (14th Century), ending with the adventures of Admiral Zheng He, in the early 15th century.

Those visitors who came, especially from China, not only left detailed observations which have been used to corroborate Sri Lanka's own historical records in the Mahawansa and Chulawansa, but also bits and pieces of their own cultures, enriching Lanka's. The Chinese traders and Shaolin monks probably introduced Chinese martial arts. A term in Sinhala for the indigenous martial arts is Cheena – Adi. This is too much of a linguistic coincidence. The main focus of the Chinese also appears to be the shared religion – Buddhism. In addition to the traditional Confucianism and Taoism, the Chinese had begun to consider Buddhism to be part of their national religious tradition and emperors, commoners and monks sought closer relations with countries to the West to enrich their spirituality. Sri Lanka had the reputation, even then, for safeguarding the pristine doctrine, especially after Buddhism fell into decline in India. Lanka was the first country to commit the Buddhist canon to writing. It happened in Alu Viharaya, in Matale, in 29 BC. Previously, the canon had been preserved as an oral tradition.

Chinese writings of the period suggest considerable knowledge of the island, including its politics and the religion, among Chinese scholars. Four embassies were sent from Lanka to the Chinese imperial court in the fifth century. Chinese records indicate that these embassies were sent during the reigns of King Buddhadasa, the builder of public hospitals in the early 4th century, Upatissa 1, his son and Mahanama (412 - 434 AD). The Lankan King, probably Mahanama, sent an embassy with avaluable Buddha statue and a replica of the Temple of the Tooth Relic to the court of Emperor Xiaowu. The Chinese account "The Biography of Bhikkunis" written in the sixth century details a visit by eight Sinhala nuns to Nanjing in 426 to inaugurate the order of nuns in China.

The copious writings of the fifth century scholar monk Fa Xian from China who spent a number of years at the Abhayagiriya Monastery, in the ancient capital, Anuradhapura, after a long sojourn in northern India, tell a tale of bygone prosperity and complex international diplomatic and trading relations. Fa Xian details the splendid pageant in honour of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which takes place to this day, but now in our last royal capital, Kandy. Fa Xian carried a ship-load of religious texts from Lanka to China. This also suggests that Sri Lanka, at the time, possessed a significant literature. The ship was large enough to accommodate 200 passengers. Ships that big were not constructed in the West almost until the 20 th century.

Chinese records indicate that in 456 AD, five eminent Sinhala monks called on the Emperor and one of them was an eminent sculptor. Undoubtedly, art and architectural exchanges followed interchanges involving the common religion. Two Buddhist texts, Karanamudra Sutta and Vimukthimagga were translated from Sinhala to Chinese in 489 AD and 505 AD. In the 8th century, another monk, Amogha vajra, a pupil of Vajrabodhi, travelled to Lanka and translated Karanda mudra Sutta to Chinese. King Aggabodhi sent him as an envoy to the court of the Emperor in 746 AD.

The Arab geographer Edrisi details the extent of Lanka's international trade during the time of Parakramabahu the Great who also sent a royal princess to the court of the Emperor. The trade between China and Lanka flourished during this period and Chinese vessels brought silk, porcelain, aloes, sandalwood, etc. to our ports. Traders from the western lands exchanged their products for the Chinese goods in Lankan ports which were had become international emporia. Lankan exports included gems, spices, filigreed gold, pearls, ivory, spices, textiles, etc. and are likely to have been carried in vessels built in the country. The great Kublai Khan dispatched an envoy in 1282 AD to Lanka requesting the alms bowl of the Buddha venerated by the Sinhala people but the Lankan king refused this request. The lions at Yapauwa are very much Chinese influenced. There is no doubt that Chinese sculptors and architects plied their trade in Lanka. The troves of Chinese coins and porcelain being recovered from various parts of the country suggest thriving trade.

Admiral Zheng He's repeated visits and his involvement in the replacement of the Lankan king with Parakramabahu VI who was later ousted by Parakramabahu vii, in the early part of the 15th century, are well recorded. Descendants of the Sinhala prince taken to China have been traced in Quanzhou. One Mrs Xushi claims to be a 19th generation descendent of the prince. Parakramabahu vii sent six missions to the Ming court. Cheng He left a pillar inscription in the port of Galle in 1409 AD, marking his second visit. Today it could be seen in the Galle museum. Chinese writings do not agree on the purpose of Cheng He's interventions in Sri Lanka. He was a Muslim eunuch. Some writings suggest that he sought to ensure the adherence by the King to the correct teachings of the Buddha while other writings suggest that he sought to take back the Tooth Relic to China. Cheng He on a subsequent visit made an offering at the shrine of God Upulvan in Dondra. This magnificent shrine was later destroyed by the Portuguese.

More Recent Interactions

More recently, particularly during the time of the domination of Asia by Western powers, and during China's "Century of Humiliation", many Chinese, tormented by incessant internal conflicts and starvation, migrated to other countries in search of a better life. Some came to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and settled down to become the Sri Lankan Chinese community. Many Chinese intermingled with the local community and for most purposes they identify themselves as Sri Lankans. Some continue to speak their native dialect. The well-known Darwin restaurant, Hanuman, owned by Jimmy Shu, a Sri Lankan of Chinese origin and a Thomian, recently received the award for the best restaurant in the Northern Territory.

In 1950, independent Ceylon became the 13th country to recognize the People's Republic of China and, since then, has conditionally endorsed the One China Policy. Subsequently, in 1952, with post Korean War rubber prices crashing, Ceylon breached a Western embargo and concluded the Rubber-Rice Pact with China to swap rubber (which was listed as a strategic material) for rice. China agreed to import 50,000 tons of rubber in exchange for 270,000 tons of rice. The rubber was purchased by China paying $5 per ton above the market price. The Chinese have never forgotten Sri Lanka’s risky diplomatic and commercial gesture. Prime Minister Zhou En Lai visited Sri Lanka in 1957 and established the framework for a lasting solid relationship which flourished particularly during the stewardship of Prime Minister Mrs Sirimao Bandaranayaka who visited China in 1972.

The Bandaranayaka Memorial Conference Centre stands proudly as a symbol of the bonds developed during this period. It is still the largest conference facility in Colombo. (And Colombo is crying for a bigger conference facility now). It is said that Chairman Deng Xiaoping sent a delegation to Sri Lanka to study the Greater Colombo Economic Commission before setting up the spectacularly successful Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

During Sri Lanka's conflict with the terrorist LTTE, China provided weapons and other assistance unconditionally while most Western countries progressively distanced themselves from Sri Lanka and withheld weapons and funding as a means of exerting political pressure on the government. Australia was an exception to this development. China's warm support contributed in no small measure to the eventual defeat of the LTTE and the elimination of the terrorist threat.

China also provided unqualified support to Sri Lanka at international fora, including the UN. As the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, I was a beneficiary of the Chinese diplomatic umbrella. Subsequently, as the country sought desperately to recoverand reconstruct and Western assistance continued to be frugal or heavily leaden with conditionality, an economically resurgent China, contributed magnificently to Sri Lanka's recovery efforts. In the absence of a willingness on the part of the traditional partners to come to the development party, Sri Lanka naturally turned to China.

BRI and Sri Lanka's Aspirations

While traders from distant lands sought mutual prosperity, invaders sought and succeeded in grabbing Sri Lanka’s wealth and stunting the development of the people. The BRI initiative can be compared to the multitude of traders who visited Sri Lanka in the past and gave us the opportunity to prosper.

In Sri Lanka, assistance provided by China has had a distinct impact on the development process. The sums provided have been estimated at $ 8 billion and China is the country's main provider of development funds now. About 10% of Sri Lanka's debt is owed to China and most of the borrowings have been at less than prevailing commercial rates. The Kandy/Kurunegala Highway, the Northern Expressway and the extension of the Southern Highway from Matara to Kataragama are examples. In addition, external connectivity has been improved through China’s support for the construction of the Hambantota Port Which The Economist suggested would become the leading port in South Asia, the Colombo South Harbour and the Mattala International Airport. The rapidly, emerging Colombo Port City is being built mainly with Chinese investments and others have been invited to join. The Colombo Port City has the potential to become another Dubai. The Norochcholai power plant, built by the Chinese, is now a major contributor to the national power grid. The Lotus Tower in Colombo is the tallest telecoms tower in South Asia, is expected to be declared open soon, again built with Chinese funds. It will be a significant boost to our communication capabilities. 350-metre-high Lotus Tower, draws inspiration from the Buddhist Lotus Sutra, and provides an incentive for China to formulate a sustainable and peaceful “soft power” strategy that would appeal globally.

The BRI's Regional Impact

Despite muttered reservations and orchestrated criticisms of the BRI, mostly about the Chinese debt trap, already the countries of the region, especially in Africa, are reaping substantial benefits from China's investments. Economists, including at the World Bank, agree that the recent rapid upward movement of the economies of a number of Africancountries has been the result of significant Chinese investments. Many African economies are prospering for the first time in years and analysts ascribe this development to Chinese investments in infrastructure in Africa. By 2014, that had risen more than 20-fold to $220 billion according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. It is likely that this trend will accelerate as China also learns from experience, irons out irritations and responds more to the aspirations of the people of the region.

Since 2000, Ethiopia has been the second-biggest recipient of Chinese loans to Africa, with financing for dams, roads, rail and manufacturing plants worth more than $12.3bn, more than twice the amount loaned to oil-rich Sudan and mineral-rich Congo. The BRI while raising some concerns, especially among the former colonial powers that ruthlessly ravaged Africa, can be used by countries of the Indian Ocean region and beyond to enhance their mutual prosperity without being constrained by fears and suspicions inculcated by the colonial past. More importantly, without territorial occupation, racial discrimination and forced alteration of cultures.

Further East, Australia received AUD 15.4 billion in Chinese investments involving 103 transactions. Australia has been a major destination for Chinese investments after the US and Europe and investors have acquired hotel assets, real estate, agri businesses, vineyards, health care institutions, infrastructure, etc giving rise to a latent xenophobic anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiment. Australia has slowly begun to take measures to restrain Chinese investments in strategically important sectors. Most recently, Australia excluded Huawei from participating in installing the proposed 5G telecoms network in Australia. Previously the acquisition of property by non-Australians had been made subject to punitive constraints and it is widely believed that these legal constraints were mainly aimed at Chinese real estate acquisitions. But already the port of Melbourne is controlled by a Hong Kong-Chinese concern. Darwin is also now controlled by a Chinese company. (Australia will have to tread carefully in restricting Chinese investments, as China which is a critical trading partner absorbs nearly 60% of Australia's commodity exports).

The major share of Chinese overseas investments has gone to Europe and the US. The EU, whose second largest trading partner is China, received EUR 35 billion in Chinese investments in 2016 alone. Iconic facilities like the Toulouse airport where the Airbus 380 is assembled (sold to the Shandong Hi-Speed Group and a Hong Kong investment firm while Emanuel Macron was the Finance Minister), and the Piraeus harbour (controlled 70% by COSCO) are now owned by Chinese companies not to mention a number of historic vineyards and buildings. A Chinese billionaire now owns Volvo, controls Lotus and London Black Taxis. Another, the AC Milan football club. The German robot manufacturer Kuka is now owned by a Chinese company.

Chinese companies are building the rail link between the Piraeus harbor and Serbia and Hungary. Chinese trains now travel to European capitals, including London, on the new overland Silk Route and also link up with Teheran bringing East Asian products to European markets, by-passing the bottle necks of the Malacca Straights and the Suez Canal. Natural gas from Central Asia now flows along four pipelines to China.

Pakistan, described as an all-weather friend by President Xi Jinping, has been promised USD 62 billion in investments for infrastructure projects. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the flagship project under this initiative. The Bangladesh-India- China-Myanmar corridor links China with the Bay of Bengal.

The Asian Railways Network Agreement negotiated under the auspices of the ESCAP provides South Asia also the opportunity to link up with the European network through Central Asia. Tremendous trade opportunities could open up with a high speed railway linking South Asia with Europe. Natural gas from Central Asia flows along four pipelines to China.

The US itself has received USD 90 billion in Chinese investments since 2007. The New York's revered Waldorf Astoria is now owned by a Chinese concern. However, China has also tightened overseas investments, especially in real estate, hotels, film and entertainment and sports clubs, to reduce excessive capital outflows and foreign exchange risks. Those countries seeking to benefit from the Chinese gravy train should be conscious of this development.

The US and China in Asia

The expansion of China’s economic and political reach has caused more than a few adverse reactions in certain international circles, especially among powers which had been used to dominating the global arena and find China’s emergence on the world stage difficult to accommodate. A torrent of adverse commentary has emanated from Western commentators, especially warning developing countries of an emerging Chinese engineered debt trap. (China has not pushed any borrower to the wall to date but instead has offered to write of certain debts).

Australia has begun to place limited restrictions on Chinese business initiatives in Australia and has also mobilised Japanese and New Zealand support to extend assistance to South Pacific countries which have now begun to bask in the in the long hoped for regional attention. A bid by Huawei to participate in the introduction of 5G to Australia has been rejected despite the low cost of the Huawei bid. France,

Germany and Italy are leading an initiative to require the EU to scrutinize Chinese investments in Europe more carefully. The US has begun a major tariff war with China forcing some companies to flee China in order to retain US market share. Recently, it has been said that America’s focus on terrorism as its main security threat has now shifted to Russia and China. According to a recent Pentagon strategy released by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the United States must build up its military to prepare for the possibility of a conflict with Russia and China. The US persists in viewing the world in terms of hostile competitors. Given that China and the US are closely intertwined in a complex economic embrace, the use of such terminology is curious. Both countries have benefited from this mutual embrace.

The US is China’s major trading partner. The bilateral trade in 2016 was worth USD 579 billion while the US trade deficit was over USD 379 billion. China is the main lender to the US and also holds over 1.7 trillion Dollars in US securities. China is the biggest market for US agricultural products and millions of Chinese tourists visit the US annually, not to mention the 750,000 plus students who study there spending over $11 billion annually. A further escalation of the trade conflict between the two countries, with both countries imposing prohibitive import duties, would do irreparable damage to both, not to mention the rest of the world. The current confrontation between China and the US is reminiscent of the way Japan was beaten in to economic submission in the 1980s but China may be a different proposition.

The two countries have a unique opportunity in history to get away from historical power based competition to cooperate for the common good. Former NATO Supreme Commander James Stavridis, perceptively observed “dialogue, diplomacy, economic instruments, private and public cooperation were necessary to initiate conversation with China, which could help to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region, while avoiding conflict". Cooperation may not be managed in a hurry but the opportunity is there. Many aspects of East Asian culture, including food, eating habits, traditional health care, yoga, Zen meditation and mindfulness, martial arts, dress, philosophy have been seeping in to Western and American life the years. The US has been an inspiration in liberal ideas, democracy, transparency, legal propriety, management style, sports, music, film, etc.

These ideas will not be adopted by the East overnight. Nor will the Eastern style of living, religion or doing business be adopted lock stock and barrel by the West any time soon. It will take time. There are clear opportunities for teaching the two to each other. Instead of breast thumping and posturing, it will serve humanity’s interests better in the long run if the giants of the world, both Eastern and Western, could cooperate for mutual betterment.

Dr. Palitha Kohona - Former Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the UN and Former Foreign Secretary and also
Former Head of the UN Treaty Section. (Paper prepared on the basis of a talk given in Sydney on 26 August to the Sri Lanka Association of Australia)

- Asian Tribune -

Dr. Palitha Kohona
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