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Focus on SL’s foreign policy

By Skandha Gunasekara

Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China during the last decade brought into question her neutrality and trajectory. Since Independence, Sri Lanka mostly followed a non-aligned foreign policy. Experts warn that if Sri Lanka does not signal her neutrality with actions, the country may be dragged further into a geopolitical tug of war – one that Sri Lanka cannot afford.

From the time of late Premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s administration, Sri Lanka adopted a non-aligned policy when it came to diplomacy.

While history has shown subsequent governments favouring one bloc or superpower over the other for political and economic reasons, never has Sri Lankan foreign policy tilted towards a superpower as much as it has in the last decade.

Sri Lanka in a precarious situation

Former United Nations (UN) Permanent Representative Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka explained how recent actions by the Sri Lankan State indicated to the world its clear preference towards Sino-Lanka relations.

He pointed out that recent remarks by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa regarding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) governance system was evidence of this favouritism, and that it put Sri Lanka in a precarious situation.

“Sri Lanka is certainly not following a policy of non-alignment, nor is it following a policy of neutrality, because the facts are very clear. For the first time in history, the President of Sri Lanka tells the Leader of China that he wishes to learn the governance experience of the CCP – that is a sign of alignment,” he claimed.

“While Sri Lanka has always had a very good relationship with China, at no time did any Sri Lankan leader confuse our relationship with China with the governance experience of the CCP. No matter how close we were to China, we belonged in the camp of democracy as far as governance systems went, and there was never an attempt to reach out and learn from the governance experience of a one-party state,” he said.

He added that by tilting so blatantly and heavily towards one great power at a time of competition and rivalry between great powers, Sri Lanka’s leadership had put the country in a very dangerous situation.

He noted that the Government’s attempts to showcase a sense of neutrality in its foreign policy by “giving away” domestic economic assets would not convince the major players in the region, particularly Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour India as well as America.

He noted: “I think the Government is trying to camouflage the deep dependence it has on China and the deep alignment with China. It is trying to do that with both the Americans and the Indians, on the assumption that Washington and Delhi both can be easily fooled.

“Sri Lanka, located where it is, is supposed to fall into the sphere of influence of India, which is the regional power. But on the island of Sri Lanka, clearly, the preponderant political influence is that of China. And this is because of a conscious choice made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It wasn’t so bad during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure.

“On the one hand, we fall within the sphere of influence of India at a time where India has partnered with the US, Japan, and Australia in what is known as the Quad, while on the other hand, within the Sri Lankan political leadership, the preponderant influence is that of the rival of India and the US, i.e. China. That is a very untenable situation to begin with, and no amount of gestures, camouflage, and eyewash is going to fool one side or the other.”

Dr. Jayatilleka elaborated that with Sri Lanka’s geographical positioning, it was clearly caught in a power struggle between the Quad and China with the tacit support of Russia, and that it was imperative Sri Lanka engaged in a careful balancing act and be equidistant.

Writer and former Minister Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha opined that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy began losing direction as far back as the latter stages of the last Mahinda Rajapaksa Government and possibly even prior, with a lack of professionalism being a key factor in deteriorating relations.

He said the then Rajapaksa Government failed to uphold various international commitments, particularly with India, and, likewise, did a poor job of communicating with its Indian counterparts while the following Yahapalana Government took poor diplomacy a step further by insulting China soon after winning the 2015 presidential election.

He said: “I think a part of the problem that has been there for the past number of years is the lack of professionalism in terms of analysis and discussion. I think the (Mahinda) Rajapaksa Government didn’t quite calibrate its responses to India well enough. When you commit to something with another country, you must either live to that commitment or explain why you’re not doing so. Then, the next Government bent over backwards the other way and insulted China, which was quite unnecessary and counterproductive, because they were relying on China.

“Maintaining a balance requires great diplomacy. However, there is a lack of professionalism in the foreign service. For instance, the Rajapaksa Government left the London High Commission empty for about two years when the Cameron Government was elected before they sent Chris Nonis; the Yahapalana Government failed to send a sensible high commissioner to England for a long period, and then sent (former Prime Minister) Ranil Wickremesinghe’s cousin; India was left vacant for one-and-a-half years until Milinda Moragoda was sent, which is a good thing, but it was far too late.

“As a result, the personal relationships that ambassadors must build were not done. I think both governments are guilty of treating the foreign service as a joke.”

He said that non-alignment as a policy was attainable, but Sri Lanka had squandered many an opportunity to be a leader in the region due to short-sighted decision-making as a result of incompetent officials.

Solid communication strategy crucial

University of Colombo (UoC) Senior Lecturer in International Relations Kulani Wijayabahu asserted that Sri Lanka needed to follow a proper communication strategy when it came to international diplomacy that would ensure that while Sri Lanka was able to gain economic advantages via bilateral agreements, it did not strategically align with one power over the other.

“We need to have a proper communication strategy. In this interconnected, interdependent world, we cannot remain an isolated nation. We have to depend on other countries in order to run our economy or to safeguard our national interests. But that doesn’t mean we have to strategically align with other countries’ intentions,” she said.

“For instance, we can have good trade relations with China, but we have to show the world that economic or trade relationships are just that, and not a strategic interest of Sri Lanka. Strategically, we are a non-aligned country, but economically, we have good relations with China,” she went on to explain.

She also said that forming and strengthening relations with other small nations would assist Sri Lanka, adding: “We are trapped in games of the great powers, but we don’t look at other alternative alliances we can be a part of. For instance, being a small country, we’ve never had good relations with other small countries. We can have alliances with Singapore or Switzerland, for instance.”

Wijayabahu noted that the Government should include social perception as part of its foreign policy, and it should also use public perception as a tool in various situations to negotiate deals so as to ensure the advantage lay with Sri Lanka.

She stated: “One of the problems with our current foreign policy is that we present a weak relationship between the State and Sri Lankan society. Countries like Myanmar, Malaysia, and Bangladesh use their public power or the power of people to leverage the external pressure on the State – which is not the case in Sri Lanka. I believe this needs to change if we want the country’s foreign policy to go in the right direction.

“The public also must understand what their duties and responsibilities are when it comes to these matters. Their political literacy should be enhanced, and the education system should serve more to produce more informed citizens in the country. Only then can they raise their voices and pressurise the Government to do the right thing.”