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  • Writer's pictureDr Chamindra Weerawardhana

Sri Lankan Foreign Policy in the New Decade

Colombo Telegraph, 9 March 2020

Part One: Managing Big-Power Relations: a story of rocks and hard places

In this series of articles, this writer seeks to shed light upon certain salient aspects of managing Sri Lankan foreign policy in the 21st century’s third decade. This series is penned from a perspective of foreign policy analysis and management, with a strong focus on realpolitik and the challenges that we face, right here and now.

Veteran diplomat and External Affairs Minister of the second Modi ministry, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar once noted that good foreign policy requires practitioners of diplomacy to be practical, hard-headed, but also ethical. In the sector of foreign policy, when it comes to ‘people-to-people’ ties between diplomats and policymakers, chemistry goes a long way. When it comes to relations between states, what matters most is credibility. It is in a spirit of this nature that Sri Lanka ought to navigate the current US-Lanka foreign policy ferment [which invariably includes defence and security agreements in the context of the ongoing US focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’, trade issues and people-to-people ties]. Credibility is an absolute must. This invariably involves being credible to the Sri Lankan people, to Sri Lankan interests, and also to our international partners. This is especially the case when it comes to the big powers we are forced to deal with. Managing foreign relations in today’s world requires tough negotiations, compromises, and a constant commitment to seek the best possible outcome for one’s country.

In articulating his foreign policy priorities during his first ministry, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to give high-level positions to Indians with years of experience in the United States. This also included the appointment of Dr Jaishankar as Foreign Secretary back in 2015. This move has multiple explanations – geopolitics and power politics in the SAARC region and in the broader South/Southeast Asian region being non-negligible factors. Strengthening Delhi’s relations with Washington DC and ensuring that the most qualified people were given the opportunity to manage India-USA relations can be considered as a key factor that has facilitated Prime Minister Modi’s political successes. In terms of ensuring the effectiveness of foreign relations, this principle can be further expanded. As Dr Shashi Tharoor has repeatedly noted in relation to the Indian Foreign Service [IFS], Sri Lanka could also hugely benefit by institutionalising entry into foreign affairs for mid-career professionals, and to people with country and subject-specific expertise.

Sri Lanka: No chance to pick and choose

In a multipolar world, a small country like ours cannot pick and choose one superpower over another [this, in hindsight, was a monumental mistake committed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, especially during its second term of office, and was a major factor that contributed to its nemesis]. Strategically speaking, there is a clear need to situate ourselves at a juncture in which we [re]adapt the old legacy of non-alignment to suit the needs, priorities and geopolitical trends of the present time.

Firstly, the foremost step in such a process is to take stock of the obvious - that we can no longer be non-aligned, in any reasonable respect.

Secondly, there is a clear need of constant revisiting and re-examining of how we manage our relations with big powers. While it goes without saying that we need to uphold Sri Lankan interests as much as possible, it is extremely crucial to take all possible cautionary steps to avoid scenarios in which relations with one superpower negatively affect relations with another. The task at hand is beyond challenging, to say the very least. Navigating it imperatively requires bringing together the best talent we can muster to manage our foreign policy. The appointment of Dr Jaishankar, a multilingual and seasoned diplomat as well as a strong negotiator, as Minister of External Affairs is an example of how the Modi Government works to maximise the best available talent. There are Sri Lankan precedents to such talent-maximising in high politics – the most notable from the last few decades being the appointment of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994. Indeed, having Kadirgamar as foreign Minister was a key factor that enabled the Kumaratunga administration to navigate foreign affairs against many odds, with secessionist terrorism holding sway and the Tamil diaspora’s anti-Sri Lanka mobilisation at its peak.

With, and not Against, Washington DC?

In terms of managing relations with global superpowers, there is one point that requires reiteration. It is absolutely crucial that Sri Lanka positions herself very clearly at a place where we work with, and not against, US interests in the Indo-Pacific. This does not, in any way, imply a call to sideline our relations with China or Russia, or for that matter with any other emergent superpower. What this means is a rational, realpolitik-based approach to foreign policy, in which situations of major collision are avoided with Washington DC, given the absolutely vital importance of Lanka-USA relations, in every perceivable aspect. Managing this relationship cautiously is inherently linked to national security and the upholding of Sri Lanka’s best interests on the world stage.

Above: During the Cold War years, Ceylon/Sri Lanka would veer from one side to another depending on who was in power in Colombo. President J.R. Jayewardene’s close ties with the USA do not require any reiteration. This article is also not the place to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of Sri Lanka-USA relations under the Jayewardene administration. However, this photo stands out as a crucial reminder of the good relations that have long existed, and of the importance of ‘taking due care of’ Colombo’s relations with Washington DC when managing Sri Lankan foreign policy. This photo was taken on the evening of the state banquet hosted by President and Mrs Reagan during President and Mrs Jayewardene’s state visit to the USA [17th to 20th June 1984]. The importance of this photograph is further increased by yet another factor that is suggestive of the work that needs to be put in: to date, this remains the ‘most recent’ state visit by a sitting Sri Lankan head of state to the USA (©Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, USA National Archives].

The challenge, then, is that of going about this task while maintaining and strengthening ties with other global superpowers, in a variety of areas. Managing relations with superpowers is always much more of a challenge to a small country than it is to a bigger and more influential power. Bargaining chips may not always be on our side, to say the very least. It is here that multi-pronged creative approaches intended at amplifying strong negotiating skills, soft power, and public diplomacy become highly useful. Even more importantly, it is vital to deploy civil society and ongoing rights movements within Sri Lanka to our distinct advantage in the sphere of foreign policy. Unfortunately, this continues to be a woefully unexplored terrain.

The Key To It All: Delhi & the Ethnonational Question

It goes without saying that maintaining healthy relations with any world power is nigh impossible in the case of shortfalls in our relations with Delhi. The best benchmark to measure how successfully [or not] we are managing our foreign policy is to look at the state of our relations with India. There is a clear need to take more steps to strengthen and enhance the productivity and vibrancy of Colombo’s existing relations with Delhi. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration has taken a very commendable first step – of providing a clear reassurance that it will not take any action that hinders relations with Delhi. This is an excellent basis for more work, in terms of bilateral cooperation, stronger trade ties, better sea and air transportation links and steps towards a durable, mutually beneficial and dignified resolution to the fisheries crisis of our northerly waters – to name but a few. Indeed, the elephant in the room here is Sri Lanka’s ethnonational question. It is an absolute imperative to work towards developing a consistent policy framework on post-conflict development, reconciliation, transitional justice, national language policy, the Sri Lankan diaspora, and political/constitutional reform. What policymakers are somewhat slow to take stock of is the extent to which domestic and external politics are intertwined. If Colombo is to communicate one message to India and to the wider international community and other [and oftentimes conflicting] messages to different demographics locally, the cracks and inconsistencies of such a policy approach will soon begin to show home and abroad, taking its toll on our credibility on the world stage.

To conclude, suffice to add a word about keeping the peace ‘closest to home’. When formulating Sri Lanka’s India policy, focusing on Delhi alone is far from sufficient. A key part of managing Indo-Lanka relations in the next decade ought to involve a series of cogent steps to change the deeply estranged dynamics of our relations with Tamil Nadu. Despite the long-standing presence of a Deputy High Commission in Chennai, we are yet to succeed in developing a mutually beneficial, cosmopolitan and well and truly 21st century brand of relations with Tamil Nadu. Envisioning Tamil Nadu in an antagonistic perspective is extremely unhelpful to bilateral relations, especially in the present-day regional and global context. In sum, minimal conflict with Delhi, passant par better ties with Tamil Nadu, and working with [and not against] Washington DC are absolute musts, if not the 2020 ground rules, if Sri Lanka is to keep herself on the right track, and avoid tragedies [such as that of Easter Sunday 2019], and externally orchestrated efforts to bring weak governments to power in Colombo.

To be continued.

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