What the change of Government means for Sri Lanka’s foreign policy

Thursday, 1 November 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

China has taken a more impartial stand, has emphasised its commitment to not meddle in internal affairs, and met with both the former PM and the new PM 


By Amila Wijesinghe

The appointment of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister has undeniably been a huge surprise for most people in Sri Lanka. Scenes of celebration have been seen throughout the country, with fireworks and milk-rice. 

The international community has also been caught by surprise – but their reaction seems far less jubilant. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum people may be on, the naming of a Cabinet and several defections from the UNP to the MR camp means that it is worth considering what this new Government’s impact will be on Sri Lanka’s foreign relations. 

Previously, the MR administration faced souring relations with the West, and eventually with India. The pro-LTTE international lobby managed to demonstrate significant influence and funding, which gave them the upper hand in the PR battle. 

Driven into a corner, China seemed to be the only major power willing to provide assistance and investment without it being conditional on permitting interference in internal affairs. The effect that this had in terms of agitating relations between the West and India was unfortunate, and perhaps could have been better countered. 

A new foreign policy

The MR camp has indicated that they wish to redefine their approach to foreign policy and learn from previous mistakes. The first sign of this was at a meeting organised by former Ambassador Sarath Wijesinghe in July. The meeting was well attended by senior diplomats and politicians – where the discussion centred on the problems with Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and how to improve it. 

The former President made clear that a new approach was essential and highlighted the importance of good relations with all countries. Many excellent suggestions for the formation of a new foreign policy were made by the attendees, and a framework for this plan was drafted by the group. 

So far, there have been two indications of this change in policy. The first has been the appointment of Dr. Sarath Amunugama as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. As a highly-qualified and successful civil servant, his appointment places the Ministry in capable hands. The second is the new PM’s clear intention to work on improving relations with India. One of the first things he did after being sworn in as Prime Minister was to call the BJP Leader Subramanium Swarmy. 

Swarmy went on to appear on Indian media to discuss the changes in Sri Lanka and expressed his confidence that the appointment of Rajapaksa as PM would be good for India. He described the good relations he had with him, and the commitment to friendly ties with India that Rajapaksa had expressed whilst visiting India. 

Rajapaksa has described China as a friend and India as a relative. Interestingly, Swarmy went on to comment that India had previously made a mistake by taking sides – and that this was a failure of Indian foreign policy in the past. 

The West and China

The other hurdle is of course relations with the West. This is not an easy challenge and repairing relations between the MR administration and the Western nations will require a great deal of diplomacy and hard work. 

The Western nations seemed to have stumbled in their handling of this change in government by failing to appear impartial. Appearances matter in the game of international diplomacy, and the suspicions of the public have been heightened by the response of the embassies. 

Lecturing Sri Lankans on the need to respect the constitution is one thing, but many locals remember a glaring discrepancy in their response to a PM being appointed in 2015 with only 46 MPs, the delaying of Provincial Council elections for two years and the biggest public financial scam in the history of the Central Bank. Their mistake is in focussing on the Colombo elite, whilst forgetting that blatant partiality has bred hostility and suspicion in the minds of the general public – which in turn affects political will. 

Mending relations with the West (whilst difficult) is not an impossible task. The deferential treatment that dictators in countries such as Saudi Arabia are given shows that Western posturing often does not truly come from a genuine position of morality. They have their own agendas – and diplomatic negotiation without sacrificing sovereignty is the solution. If President Sirisena’s decision has demonstrated anything at all, it is the truth of the famous quote that in politics ‘there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests’. 

China on the other hand, has wisely taken a more impartial stand. They have emphasised their commitment to not meddle in internal affairs, and met with both the former PM and the new PM. This was a prudent diplomatic decision on their part, as there would be no benefit in cutting ties with either side at the moment.  China has a great deal invested in Sri Lanka and they will certainly be very interested in further developing relations between the countries. Sri Lanka is of great strategic importance to President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative and Jinping has had close ties with the MR administration in the past. The failure of the RW Government was in antagonising China through their political decision to suddenly halt big money Chinese projects. When economic realities meant they had to again turn to China – they faced a much tougher negotiation.

Overall, Sri Lanka can expect to face a more hard-line stance from the Western countries – something that must be handled with diplomatic tact. Even many critics of the new PM will concede that he will be very unlikely to compromise on national sovereignty in these negotiations. 

The MR administration has already shown a willingness to learn from previous foreign policy mistakes, and to work towards a new approach. This new policy needs to be pragmatic, to be able to recognise and handle the competing agendas of the major powers, and above all – ensure the sovereignty of the nation. 

(The writer, LLB (Hons), LLM (Public International Law, University of Nottingham), is Partner at the West End Law Centre.)