Colombo Port City, geopolitical realities and national interest

Thursday, 20 May 2021 00:19 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Port City will alter Sri Lanka’s domestic geopolitics and its domestic ‘geopolitics of emotion’. It is an enclave; a gated community for finance and the local 1% of the mega-rich; a Forbidden City. It will cause a huge socioeconomic imbalance in Sri Lanka—or to put it differently, it will unbalance Sri Lanka in more than one sense


  • “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” – Finale of Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ (1974)

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a good thing and in Sri Lanka’s economic interest. The Port City, not so much.

That is because the Port City is by no means a rational developmental priority and inflicts a heavy cost on Sri Lanka by painting a target on its back.   

The Port City project is radically different from any previous project funded/assisted by Sri Lanka’s foreign friends, including China itself. One reason is the behaviour of the Sri Lankan Government of the day. In the past, whichever the political identity and ideological complexion of the government, large-scale foreign support was always utilised for projects that directly, tangibly benefited the country.  

This was true from the steel and tyre factories funded by socialist countries, through the BMICH built by China, through to the Rupavahini television station and the new Parliament building funded by Japan, and the Victoria project funded by the UK. The Port City is a longer-gestation project which, if successful, will not mean a boost for the real economy. i.e., production, but the financial sector and the financial services sector. 

This indirect benefit will be at the expense of enhancing our profile as a strategic partner of China in a location that would make that profile a liability for Sri Lanka by rendering us more vulnerable to countermoves in the regional and global great power competition. The risk is too great a price to pay for Sri Lanka and its people. 

Worldview for Lanka 

Given that no one set of countries contains all that is good or helpful, though some do more than others at any given time, the world needs balance, which includes re-balance when that balance has been lost. In the 19th century, the Latin American icon Simon Bolivar, followed decades later by the great Cuban national hero Jose Marti rightly called for ‘world equilibrium’. 

Given the value of individual liberty which is best safeguarded in open democratic systems which Sri Lanka has belonged to for 90 years, it is existentially important that democratic values are the leading idea and democratic systems the leading element in such an equilibrium. 

Small countries such as ours would be especially well-served by world equilibrium. Since it is impossible for any small country to achieve it or even to help do so, though some have made significant, even crucial interventions in this regard in the second half of the 20th century, it is necessary for small countries to group together so as to preserve or restore the balance. 

Following the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas, the Biden administration was reluctant to truly universalise its own values and the spirit that animated the historic mobilisation after the George Floyd murder, summed up in the slogan ‘No Peace without Justice,’ and identify the protracted Israeli Occupation as the crux of the conflict—even setting aside what President Jimmy Carter has decried as ‘apartheid’. 

In such a situation, the (countervailing) capacity of China and Russia ensures balance and fair-play in the international arena. At the recent UN Security Council meeting on the matter, the diplomatic high-ground was clearly held by China, the current President of the Security Council, in the serious, comprehensive speech of Foreign Minister Wang Yi. 

What serves Sri Lanka’s national interest best is a multipolar world, as distinct from the unipolarity of either a Western or Eastern great power, i.e., either the USA or China. 

Sri Lanka’s national interest is also best served by a multilateral order, in which there are smaller plurilateral clusters, rather than a world order in which any great power operates unilaterally, seeking to impose its will.

Thus, a multipolar, multilateral world order must be the goal that Sri Lanka contributes to, together with like-minded countries, in its own national interest. It is good news that China landed a space rover on Mars a mere three months after the USA did.  Countries such as Sri Lanka need a world with options. A multipolar world provides those options. However, each option must be carefully chosen. Balancing between options is different from juggling them, as the Gotabaya administration attempts to.  

A small country such as Sri Lanka must contribute to the striving for global balance, through a foreign policy of balancing, always guided by an enlightened notion of our national interest. When Sri Lanka has been able to balance or collectively counterbalance, our strategic autonomy has been maximised and our national interest well-served. 

Our national interest is best served by a policy of ‘tous azimuths’ –General de Gaulle’s concept, meaning ‘all points of the compass’. He meant that the French nuclear deterrent should guard France from possible threats from all quarters. However, in Sri Lanka’s case, ours should be a policy of friendly relations – but not subservient or compliant—around all points of the compass. A more evolved version of this was Russian Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and iconic foreign policy thinker, Academician Evgeni Primakov’s concept of a “multi-vector” foreign policy.

It is only such a policy that can give Sri Lanka maximum space and multiple options in the global arena, thus enhancing our sovereignty, autonomy, profile, role and influence.

When we have tied ourselves to one side of two or more contending sides, or have been perceived to have done so, we have found ourselves vulnerable and have thus damaged our national interest.

The Port City and our neighbour

It has been the UNP that has conventionally made that mistake. The SLFP usually has not. Today for the first time it is the SLFP’s successor party, the SLPP, that has made and is making that mistake. The reason is that the SLPP which arose to fill the vacuum left by the displacement of the SLFP from its traditional centrist policies to the right, through its alliance with the UNP, has abandoned that democratic centrism and shifted to the ultranationalist extreme or come under the dominance of militarist-ultranationalism. It is therefore quite natural that the SLPP has fallen into the same trap of ideological extremism as the UNP, though the ideologies are different.

Ronald Reagan’s America was more powerful than China is today. J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP bet on Reagan’s USA to offset India backed by the USSR. National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali boasted of his friendship with hawkish US Defence Secretary Caspar (‘Cap’) Weinberger. He also brought into the mix his strong ties with Israel, which dated back to a stint of teaching at an Israeli university. The Jayewardene Government thought that it could dispense with a nonaligned foreign policy and a careful management of its relationship with India, thanks to the US-Israel axis. It proved a colossal failure and Sri Lanka wound up signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, replete with its annexures. 

Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, a close confidant of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, made a fascinating disclosure in one of his books, to the effect that after the Indian airdrop, President Jayewardene sent Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to China to shop for anti-aircraft missiles but failed in his mission (which was awkward in any case because it was after the event).

The UNP made a similar swerve in 2015, when it unplugged all the Chinese projects and worse still, its Foreign Minister of the day made insolently disparaging remarks about Chinese business practices and corruption in remarks to the foreign media at the Sri Lankan Embassy in China while on a visit. That story ended not with an airdrop, still less with the fate of Alakeshwara but with an economic equivalent: the UNP conceded the Chinese a bigger footprint in Hambantota than President Mahinda Rajapaksa had originally given them.   

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration has in its discourse and practice, given every reason to suppose that it has a quasi-alliance with China. This is imitative of the gross error that the Jayewardene administration made with the USA, but some way beyond it in terms of strategic real estate.  

The calculus is probably that India, a ‘soft state’ as Gunnar Myrdal called it, is reeling thanks to COVID-19. That’s true, but it’s also misleading in one sense and irrelevant in another. If the Sri Lankan regime thinks that this is proof of the superiority of the Chinese system over that of democracy it should look at the success stories of combatting COVID of the US (under Biden), the UK, New Zealand, Norway, Australia, etc. More to the point, India won’t always be COVID- stricken, and one thing that COVID doesn’t do is change the location of Sri Lanka in relation to India and China respectively. 

COVID-19 doesn’t change axiomatic geopolitical realities which will reassert themselves once the corona crisis passes. The Gotabaya administration may think that the Chinese strategic shield would have been solidly erected on and around the island during India’s COVID crisis, but the opposite may happen. The enhanced Chinese footprint on the island, when the Port City is added to Hambantota, may be perceived by India, the USA and the Quad as a whole, as a more serious threat than before, and when COVID clears, this island may be strategically less rather than more secure.

The Jayewardene regime violated those geopolitical realities and the country paid the price. The Gotabaya regime is doing the same with the only difference being that it is counting on the Chinese umbrella while the Jayewardene regime counted on the USA and Israel.

Prophetic warnings and wisdom

In 1984, three years before the Jayewardene administration’s foreign relations bubble burst with the Indian airdrop, there was repeated and ended cautioning by Sri Lanka’s best-known expert on international relations, Mervyn de Silva, whom I quote not because he was my father, but because, as legendary civil servant Bradman Weerakoon noted, “Mervyn made a very substantial and effective contribution, over many years and several administrations, to the making of public policy especially in the arena of foreign affairs…Mervyn maintained this vital and unique role over changing political administrations and some five decades of active involvement in the public arena.” (From SWRD to Premadasa: Mervyn de Silva’s role in defining foreign policy for a half-century | Daily FT –

Here Mervyn traces the parameters Sri Lanka should operate within, in the formulation and practice of its external relations:

  • “An independent nation enjoys the sovereign right to take its own foreign policy decisions in what is commonly called its ‘enlightened self-interest’—an intelligent recognition of what is helpful and advantageous, and what is harmful and likely to prove self-defeating. As in family and social life, so in the community of nations; as in the conduct of our affairs in the particular neighbourhood in which we have chosen to live or are compelled to live, so in the geopolitical environment which is not of our choosing but ordained by geography.” (Mervyn de Silva, ‘The Sri Lankan Crisis-International Dimension’, Center for Society & Religion, October 1984, republished as ‘The Marooned Elite’ in Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva, p 63)    

  • “The weaker and the more vulnerable the individual nation, the greater surely should be the care and intelligence with which choices of action and courses of conduct that incur suspicion and hostility, or are perceived by more powerful neighbours as hostile to their ‘self -interest’ are followed. It is ‘enlightened self-interest’ which dictates such commonsense in our approach to our foreign policy problems and options.” (ibid) 

In the run-up to the Geneva session this March, Admiral Colombage, Secretary/Foreign Affairs, told a television interviewer that he shared President Rajapaksa’s disdain for the notion that Sri Lanka was a “small island”. “We are a big power,” insisted Prof. Colombage. That was before the Geneva vote, but the Gotabaya Government doesn’t seem to have shed its belief in absolute sovereignty. Here too, Mervyn de Silva’s cautioning is useful:

  • “To amend Orwell, all countries are equal and sovereign, but some more sovereign than others. While in principle all nation-states enjoy equal sovereignty, the effective exercise of such sovereignty is contingent on several factors, some permanent and unalterable. These include the size and population of a country, its economic resources, its industrial and military strength and most of all, its geographic location and therefore the geopolitical environment.” (Mervyn de Silva, MARGA Institute 1985) 

‘No Island is an Island’ was the title of Mervyn de Silva’s Message in the 5th anniversary edition of The Island on Saturday 4 October 1986. Extending the metaphysical poet John Donne, it expressed Mervyn’s settled conviction that Sri Lanka and Lankans must imperatively be internationalist, abandoning illusions of immunity and impunity stemming from insularity rooted in a sense of splendid geographic isolation.

Mervyn was utterly unambiguous about what he recommended for Sri Lanka:


  • “…Any sensible Sri Lankan foreign policy has to be centred on an axiomatic factor: the nearness of our huge and powerful neighbour.” (External Aspects of the Ethnic Issue, MARGA Institute1985; Crisis Commentaries, p 75).

In the same text Mervyn goes on to identify the gross blunder made by the Jayewardene-Athulathmudali administration. The reader should note that this was not with the benefit of hindsight, after the airdrop and the Accord, but two years before that shock:


  • “Sri Lankan policy ignored geo-politics, the implications of the geo-strategic importance of India vis-à-vis the superpowers, and the significance of internal politics in India, especially in the South. Now we are paying the price of this folly…” (Ibid. p78.)  

The Port City project as currently configured must be viewed through that Realist prism of geopolitics and Sri Lanka’s enlightened self-interest. 

Eastworld, Chinaland or Sin City?

The Port City will also alter Sri Lanka’s domestic geopolitics and its domestic ‘geopolitics of emotion’ (to borrow Dominique Moisi’s phrase). It is an enclave; a gated community for finance and the local 1% of the mega-rich; a Forbidden City. It will cause a huge socioeconomic imbalance in Sri Lanka—or to put it differently, it will unbalance Sri Lanka in more than one sense. It causes a gash in the self-perception of sovereignty which is vital to a small island with an ancient civilisation and at least one community with a language and culture uniquely native to the island.

The ideological damage inflicted is exemplified by the strong Open Letter of dissent to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa posted on his FB by Eranda Ginige. He was a prominent speaker at the landmark Viyath Maga event at the Shangri-La in 2018, which was the de facto rollout of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy and policy platform. Ginige is not the only dropout from the Viyath Maga platform. An earlier dissenter was Arun Tambimuttu. Like the Terminator melting down to its robotic shiny skull-and-skeleton, the GR base—completely unlike the durable, organic, MR base—its melting down to its militarist-ultranationalist-crony capitalist skeleton, identifiable also by its exultant support on social media, for Israel, as it bombs Gaza.

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader and SJB leader Premadasa continues to carve out the middle-ground in his reasoned critique (in substantive TV interviews) of the Port City project’s parameters and contours.


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