A cohesive approach to foreign relations
Dinesh Gunawardena, a veteran politician, experienced at cabinet level, took office in November, as Foreign Minister. He has the task of steering Sri Lanka’s relations with foreign countries and with international bodies back to the straight and narrow.
At a press conference following taking up his duties, Minister Gunawardena said that the new government was committed to maintaining the non-aligned policy while giving utmost priority to national security. These two items figured importantly in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto.
“The non-aligned nations have had very close relations with us,” the Minister said. “We should give priority in rebuilding these relations… The main task at hand of the new government is to strengthen national security and rebuild the lost confidence both domestically and internationally.”
He must implement the Rajapaksa Government’s neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, while attempting, at the same time, to maintain friendly relations with all countries. This may prove difficult, given the detours taken since 2015.
For the past four years, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been ill-defined and disjointed, and many observers perceived it as detrimental to the national interest; by deviating from non-alignment, it alienated many non-aligned countries.
The Government also went against Sri Lanka’s long-standing policy of supporting the rights of the Palestinian people, by abstaining from voting on the 2016 resolution on Al Aqsa at UNESCO, which called upon Israel to stop its continued excavation of East Jerusalem to heed previous Resolutions on Jerusalem.
Sri Lanka’s abstention, in the UN General Assembly on 22 May this year, highlighted the extent to which the previous Government had veered away from neutrality and non-alignment. The vote was on a resolution, welcoming an International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the legal consequences of separating the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965, and demanding that the United Kingdom unconditionally withdraw its colonial administration from the area.
The significance of the abstention lay in Sri Lanka’s historical role in supporting resolutions on de-colonisation and, more specifically, its sponsorship of the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace proposal, which would mean the removal of the USA’s military base on Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Archipelago.
Obviously, the former Government bent over backwards to placate the Western bloc. Nevertheless, when the same Government leased the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years, the West took affront, although they intended merely to escape from the foreign exchange crisis in which the country found itself.
A similar situation prevailed in 1952, when the UNP Government entered into a Rubber-Rice pact with China. This was at the height of the Cold War and, notwithstanding the then Government’s overtly pro-West and anti-Communist stance, the USA put the country under sanctions – which it only removed following the visit of the pragmatic Vice President Richard Nixon.
This time around the USA did not place the country under sanctions. However, it did engage more intensely with the Sri Lanka. In 2016, the two nations began a high level “partnership dialogue”. The highly controversial ACSA, SOFA and MCC agreements now took centre stage.
These agreements contributed in no small way to the downfall of the Yahapalana regime, being important topics of discourse amongst taxi drivers and Buddhist monks alike – both vital parts of the informal news media. Notwithstanding the assertion last week at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars by US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Wells that the MCC agreement would be “launching soon in Sri Lanka”, it is difficult to see how the new Government can agree to it.
“There is no doubt,” Minister Gunawardena told the press, “that we have to review and carefully go through all bilateral agreements inked after 2015 and remove any line, clause or paragraph detrimental to our national security, sovereignty, well-being of our people and negatively affect our economy, trade and industry…”
Sri Lanka must tread carefully in its relations with the USA and the other countries of the Western bloc. In expressing the country’s sovereignty and independence, the new government must not tread on any sensitive toes.
Alice Wells’ remarks at the Wilson Centre are not indicative of a softening of US attitudes toward enterprises such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is unfortunate, since the BRI is vital to improving Sri Lanka’s economic standing, and to developing alternative markets for its goods and services.
The new administration will explore more alert foreign policy approaches, bearing in mind that the centre of world gravity has shifted from Europe and the Americas to Asia – which now accounts for almost a third of world income and world trade but, crucially, 40% of world manufacturing. Of course China and India are the biggest emergent powers in the region.
China and India
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa expressed the new government’s attitude towards Chinese investment very clearly, when he invited other countries not to leave investment in Sri Lanka only to China, but to come in themselves.
The President has been quite clear that Sri Lanka’s neutrality does not mean playing power games. By acknowledging India’s importance in the region, and especially by recognising that Sri Lanka cannot act in such a way as to put in jeopardy India’s security, he is not engaging in a balancing act. Both India and China are important to Sri Lanka.
The former Rajapaksa administration, after building up a strong relationship with India, allowed this bond to weaken. Many Sri Lankans consider India as a “big brother” – more in the Orwellian sense than as kin. However, the Government must develop the connection across the Palk Strait, to underwrite the unitary structure of the country.
It is in this context that we should look at another item in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto, which said his government would “work closely with India to ensure regional security and also engage with other SAARC and BIMSTEC nations.”
The second part of this statement shows that the new Government intends to pursue a multilateral security framework for the region. Sri Lanka has been an active member of both SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation), and engaging with these nations could mean a comprehensive security framework, enveloping the area stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Thailand in the east.
The latter has particular importance at present, since President Rajapaksa occupies the BIMSTEC chair. Consequently, he is strategically placed to carry through this part of his manifesto. The grouping has tended BIMSTEC has the added significance of encompassing two South East Asian nations, Myanmar and Thailand, which also have strong religious ties with Sri Lanka, and could be useful in developing religious-based tourism. Meanwhile, the Bay of Bengal is crucial to Sri Lanka’s eastward commerce, and serves as a convenient bridge between the economies of the littoral states.
In the context of the growing importance of Asia, Sri Lanka should perhaps also place more emphasis on is the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), of which it has dialogue partner status and of which it has applied for observer status. China and two SAARC countries, India and Pakistan are members. India, in particular, has been engaging with the SCO vigorously, especially with the security aspect.
The seas of diplomacy which Sri Lanka must navigate in the coming period are treacherous, but President Rajapaksa has picked a good pilot in Foreign Minister Gunawardena. He possesses the requisite diplomatic skills, and has engaged with the representatives of foreign governments almost continuously for the past two decades.
His background suits the post as well. He understands the Western mind-set, receiving his tertiary education in the Netherlands and the USA. He has excellent relations with both China and India.
His parents, Philip and Kusuma Gunawardena, were involved heavily in the Quit India movement, which led to Indian independence, and maintained ties with their fellow freedom fighters. They were also pioneers in Sri Lanka’s relationship with China. He has maintained the goodwill they generated, and has expanded on it. He also has excellent relations with other Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.
He will, of course, need to rely on all those skills and connections in order to keep Sri Lanka’s foreign policy on an even keel through choppy waters. He will, of course, have one great advantage over the previous administration’s foreign ministers – a coherent, cohesive foreign policy.