The road to isolation

When 6.9 million voters decided that regime change was the need of the hour in November 2019, it is likely that at least some of them based their decision on the work programme or manifesto put forward by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate. What is quite intriguing is that in what appears to be a comprehensive policy document running into 80-odd pages, only a couple of paragraphs, or less than half a page, has been utilised to spell out the proposed foreign policy, stoking suspicions that no serious thought had been given to the all-important subject and that its inclusion may have even been an afterthought. 

Given Sri Lanka’s geopolitical importance based on its strategic location and the not-so-secret manoeuvring of global superpowers to gain a foothold here ever since the end of the war, the glossing over of what should have been a comprehensive outline of where the administration stood, at least with regard to the vultures at the door, may have, in hindsight, helped avert the looming foreign policy crisis that is threatening to shake the mighty SLPP political edifice to its very foundation. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority decided to gloss over this bit of intrigue in exchange for the goodies promised in the rest of the policy document titled “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”. Now, a good 15 months down the line, a closer look at the few lines outlining the regime’s foreign policy makes interesting reading. 

First and foremost is the stated commitment to a friendly and non-aligned foreign policy. “We will not fall on our knees before any country in maintaining foreign and trade relations. We will always be mindful of our national sovereignty and maintain friendly relations with other countries from a standpoint of equality…We will ensure that ownership of strategic assets and economically important natural resources are not transferred to any foreign country.” Easier said than done it seems, going by the recent controversy surrounding the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Port of Colombo, the oil tank farm in Trincomalee, and the divestiture of land surrounding the Chinese operated Hambantota Port. 

It is to be appreciated that the current imbroglio is one that has more or less been thrust on the administration given the status quo with regard to these assets prior to November 2019, but one that has certainly been aggravated by the regime’s cavalier approach to diffuse geopolitical pressure. To the average Sri Lankan, the current operational foreign policy seems ad hoc at best and dictated by economic compulsions rather than non-alignment which has served the country well over the last half a century, primarily helping to keep the foraging big boys at bay. The administration is learning the hard way that suspension of such policy, even for the briefest of periods, in favour of economic benefits has its share of pitfalls, and if not handled well, can quickly and easily snowball into a geopolitical storm. 

It is in this backdrop that the regime’s stated policy in its political manifesto bears significance. “We will adopt a non-aligned policy in all our foreign dealings and work with all friendly nations on equal terms…Given the fact that economic power is now shifting towards Asia, our focus will be on developing strong bonds and reciprocal commercial ties and trade relationships with our Asian neighbours…We must work closely with India to ensure regional security and also engage with other SAARC and BIMSTEC nations.” Certainly not music to the eager Chinese ears, but despite the public posturing, it is no secret that Indo-Lanka ties have hit rock bottom, last experienced during the infamous “parippu drop” in the run up to the Indo-Lanka Accord that paved the way for the equally infamous 13th Amendment that spawned the provincial council system. Despite the passage of time, the average Sri Lankan still looks at India with a jaundiced eye, owing to what continues to be perceived as an indiscretion on the part of big brother. 

Ever since Sri Lanka opened up its economy in 1977, it has been a thorn in India’s flesh which has long prided itself on its regional economic dominance. Upstart Sri Lanka trying to one-up its big brother never found favour in Delhi and various interventions have since been launched both overtly and covertly to stifle Sri Lanka’s progress and keep the global investment spotlight firmly focused on India. To its credit, unlike its easily pliable southern neighbour, Delhi has maintained a razor-sharp focus on its economic and development agenda, more often than not at the expense of its neighbours, even though governments have come and gone. Sri Lanka’s current cold war with India over the ECT is unlikely to thaw anytime soon with the Government rubbing salt into the wound by planting China at its southern tip by leasing out three islands off Jaffna for a Chinese power project. 

Whether such in-your-face diplomacy is a sign of aggression or naiveté is yet to be seen; but either way, it is likely to get temperatures rising in New Delhi while ironically, flying in the face of the Government’s own stated policy. One is compelled to wonder what really is going on in the corridors of the Republic Building where the Foreign Ministry is located, on how best to extricate itself from the hole that the Government has decided to dig for itself. If ever there was a case of the right hand not knowing what the left was doing, this should come out as one. 

One thing that the previous Government was good at and succeeded in was mending the broken fences it inherited. Strict adherence to the sacred policy of non-alignment brought with it its rewards, with the easing of international pressure on multiple fronts, most notably at the UNHRC and on the economic front with the EU and US reinstating the GSP-Plus programmes for Sri Lankan exporters. However, within a matter of 15 months, Sri Lanka seems destined to head back to square one and with it, the plethora of accompanying headaches. 

The regime can only blame itself for the foreign policy mess it finds itself in today owing to the seemingly juvenile, unco-ordinated approach to various domestic issues that have been allowed to snowball into issues of regional and global significance. For instance, the SLPP manifesto states that it “will strive to develop enhanced trade relationships with the Middle East”, but the cremation-only policy pertaining to Covid-19 fatalities has ruffled feathers in these predominantly Muslim countries to the extent that even their support at the UNHRC, which was considered a given in the past, now hangs in the balance. Ditto with India and Japan, albeit for different reasons. 

In an increasingly polarised world where the mantle of global leadership is up for grabs thanks to four years of abstinence from the role by Trump’s America, new contenders have appeared on the horizon and it will be in Sri Lanka’s interest to play its cards close to the chest. To revert back to the SLPP manifesto, “the basis of our foreign policy will be to ensure that Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity and independence are respected and protected in the interests of the citizens and future generations of this country…Our foreign policy will be based on non-alignment, mutual friendship, and trust among nations”. All that the Government has to do to get out of the current mess is to revert back to its own manifesto and practice what it has been preaching, of remaining non-aligned to any nation, a tried-and-tested formula that has won the day for the country many a time. On the contrary, continuing on the current path will only lead to further isolation and into the arms of the waiting dragon.