FILE PHOTO: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before they hold a meeting in Xian, Shaanxi Province, China, 14 May 2015 – Reuters
By Raj Gonsalkorale
The Sri Lankan foreign policy conundrum cannot be overcome by attempting to please every Nation at every time. At one time, decades ago, what was then termed a ‘non-aligned’ policy appears to have worked, but the jury is out on whether that policy brought much economic benefit to Sri Lanka.
Today, Sri Lanka cannot be non-aligned. In fact, we never were really so, as we are in the vortex of two nations muscling their way towards dominance. One, which is the emerging super power, and the other, a regional power. We are the proverbial ‘girayata ahuwuna puvak gediya’ – the tiny areca nut caught in the giraya (a familiar object in most Sinhala homes, fashioned out of brass or steel, and used for slicing areca nut for a chew of betel). Of course, a giraya does not operate on its own, and the two sections of it has to be levered by a third party to slice the areca nut.
In the context of foreign interference, it appears that a third party has been and still is trying to lever the two arms of the giraya, China and India. It does not need much guessing to identify this third party, a country that dominated the post Second World War two-world, and which is now being gradually upstaged out of its dominance. Still a very powerful country, and still the world’s super power, the USA, and its allies were not pleased with Sri Lanka when we were in the non-aligned movement and playing a leading role in it. One reason was that contrary to the movement being non-aligned, it was aligned towards USA’s then competitor, the USSR.
A leading player in the movement, India, was at the time regarded as an ally of the USSR, and the election of a liberal, pro-western (meaning pro-US) leader, J. R. Jayewardene in 1977, did not please India and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had a close relationship with Jayewardene’s predecessor, a socialist-oriented Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a leading light in the non-aligned movement.
Many analysts have attributed that the real reason for India’s involvement in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka had more to do with their concern for Sri Lanka being drawn into the Western, and therefore US, sphere of influence under Jayewardene rather than pressure from Tamil Nadu in the Indian domestic political scene.
India’s involvement had grave consequences for Sri Lanka as the metamorphosis of the Tamil Tiger movement was assisted by India, perhaps with the hope that it will be a factor to be used to create a degree of managed instability in Sri Lanka. India did not bargain for the ‘Tiger cubs’ to become the ferocious adults who not only bit, but killed the hand that fed them.
The advent of the SLFP Government of Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994, and more so that of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, saw the entry of China to Sri Lanka, and this was a threat to the USA as well as India.
The USSR had disintegrated by this time and Russia had not seen Putin as yet. China’s assistance during the war against the LTTE, and their largesse with loans and gifts for funding infrastructure projects during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure from 2005 to 2015 were serious irritants for the USA and India. It is no wonder that both the USA and India considered Mahinda Rajapaksa an unwelcome hindrance to their interests and worked towards the regime change in 2015.
The popularity of Rajapaksa and the resounding electoral victory during the Local Government Elections in February 2018 for his political movement, the SLPP, would have raised red flags in New Delhi and Washington.
Irrespective of the current political crisis, there is a greater chance for a return of a Rajapaksa-led regime than a Wickremesinghe-led regime. Even a UNP-led by Sajith Premadasa will have less chances of winning at least at the next General Election, whenever that is held, as the UNP has lost touch with the grassroots under Wickremesinghe. It will take a concerted effort by Premadasa, who does have close links to the grassroots, to revive the fortunes of the UNP, and that will need time and a new outlook for the UNP, including a review and redefining of their foreign policy.
We now come to the essential part of this article, and that is the question of what our foreign policy should be and how it should be framed to serve us best.
Firstly, as it is in many countries, our foreign policy should at least be bipartisan. Meaning, it should be agreed in principle by the two main political combines, the UNF and the SLPP (which should include the UPFA). Foreign policy of a country should not become a political football to be kicked around and changed every time there is a regime change.
Secondly, it would have been ideal if the TNA (being the largest Tamil political combine), too, agreed to this policy. The disquiet that India and the Western alliance led by the USA has had with the Rajapaksa regime had provided opportunities for these forces to use other levers within the country to destabilise the Rajapaksa regime, and one that was used, which is perhaps still being used, is the unresolved ethnic conflict.
The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and its links to the western alliance is a well-known factor, and the international campaign to keep the ethnic conflict unresolved within current political settings but resolved only by way of Federalism, has and still has the support and backing of the Western alliance. The TNA is the local mouthpiece of this international effort, and it would have been counterproductive for the TNA to support a uniform bipartisan foreign policy that could leave the Western alliance in the outer rim of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.
So, what should be Sri Lanka’s foreign policy? It should be a policy that helps to reduce as much mistrust as possible between China and India and their intentions in Sri Lanka. It should be a policy that introduces a structured, regular discussion between the three parties. It should be a policy that recognises the global and regional interests of China and India, and one that, at least in Sri Lanka, does not advantage one at the expense of the other. It should be a policy that identifies the role Sri Lanka plays, and its limitations, in avoiding manifestations of power rivalry within Sri Lanka. In short, our foreign policy should be based on a tripartite agreement between the three countries, and we should have annual, if not more frequent, summit meetings to review the workings of the agreement. A permanent secretariat should be set up to identify any tensions as they happen and to resolve such tensions before they become major irritants to one or the other members of the three-party combine.
The agreement should shield us from any destabilising influences of the Western alliance and we should reach out and build bridges to the Western alliance based on this foreign policy. If there is relative peace between China and India, Sri Lanka, too, will have peace as various forms of destabilising machinations will cease as such activities will not provide a return on the investment for the instigators. Peace in Sri Lanka will open avenues for investments and provide equal opportunities for all Sri Lankans that could raise the living standards of all Sri Lankans. A strong economy which provides equal opportunities will pave the way for the country to extricate itself from its past and move forward to a confident future.