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Charting a New Course: Sri Lankan Foreign Policy

Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images, via Time

There could not have been a better time to be a student or a professional of International Relations in Sri Lanka, given the geopolitical dynamics in the region. As one government official told me, “India and China are on the rise, we simply need to jump on this bandwagon.” However we should be mindful that the rise of these two powers mean that our neighborhood becomes more important in the geopolitical calculations of larger powers. The more important that our region becomes to them, the more policy options they would be willing to consider to get their way in our part of the world. In such an environment we should tread carefully always being mindful as to how our actions would be perceived by our neighbors and other more powerful states.

My foreign policy prescription for recently appointed Minister of External Affairs Mangala Samaraweera would be “India, India, India.” While Buddhism preaches that everything is bound to change sooner or later, one thing that is unlikely to do so for hundreds of thousands of years is Sri Lanka’s physical location in the world. No matter how much we complain about alleged “big brotherly treatment” from India, we should be mindful that India is here to stay with us permanently. We should seek to better understand India and strive to transform our relationship with them into one of partners. The decision taken by both Foreign Minister Samaraweera and President Sirisena to make New Delhi as their first international stop since taking office is a step in the right direction. By assuring India that its vital security interest of seeing Sri Lanka not being used as a launching pad for other military powers is secure, it would be easier for us to explain to New Delhi the need for our own space to deal with domestic issues.

The decision by the former government to allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock in Sri Lanka was highly inadvisable. We should understand that whilst the Indians have deployed a sizable security contingent on their disputed border with China, their Southern Coast lies completely exposed. A Chinese military capability in Sri Lanka would have been seen by New Delhi as a number one security threat. It would have been the type of threat that the Indians would have been willing to go very far to neutralize, farther than the policies that they pursued in Sri Lanka during the 1980’s. This does not mean that we estrange Beijing. The Chinese have been one of Sri Lanka’s closest friends and we should treasure and strengthen that relationship. Their military assistance during our war against terrorism was critical and they have made a significant contribution to the development of our country historically. However, we should explain to Beijing, that given that we are far more important to New Delhi than to Beijing, India will always come first.

Apart from restructuring our relationship with New Delhi and Beijing, President Sirisena’s victory means that we have the opportunity to once again mend our ties with the West. The willingness of the West to do this has been amply proven by the swiftness with which Prime Minister Cameron and President Barrack Obama were to extend their congratulations to President Sirisena. A new window has opened and President Sirisena and Foreign Minister Samaraweera should seek to use that window of opportunity to convince the West to reconsider the UN Human Rights Council authorized investigation against us. We should explain to them, that doing this on their part would contribute significantly to the rebuilding of our relationship with them and would greatly boost the image of the West amongst Sri Lankans. It is also in our best interests to strengthen our relationship with the West, given the increasingly multi-polar nature of the world. With the West relinquishing power to the East, the international playing field becomes more even making all major powers incredibly important for us.

So far we have been quick to suspect the West of insidious conspiracies, and events such as Operation Ajax in Iran gives us good reason to do so. However with the US soon relinquishing its global super power status, it is likely that it would be China that starts to take actions that increasingly resemble that of what the Americans did during the last 50 years. Acquiring global superpower status is one thing, but to maintain that position is incredibly difficult. The Chinese would be especially compelled to act as an expansionist power since the legitimacy of the rule of the Chinese Communist Party lies on delivering economic prosperity and championing “Chinese Greatness.” To achieve both of these objectives the Chinese have been scouring the world looking for resources and ways and means to secure their transportation back to the homeland. For all of China’s staunch talk about China’s non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states which they constantly accuse the US of doing, Beijing too would soon have to confront the same dilemmas that Washington had to face during their heyday. To secure access to resources in other countries, Beijing would inevitably have to interfere in domestic politics.

In this sort of environment, the West which would have taken a backseat becomes a critical actor for us for balance of power considerations. Furthermore unlike the Chinese, we have far more room to influence Western powers given the importance that is attached to the role of civil society in that part of the world. In the West, the broad space in which civil society organizations and interest groups operate in, provides us with multiple entry points into their state system. Engaging China however is confined solely to approaching Beijing. When playing the game of international politics, we should remember that the face of imperialism or external conspiracies does not necessarily have to be a white face, it can be a Chinese one, an Indian one or an African one. We should be mindful that there will always be conspiracies against us, as countries jockey against each other to advance their interests in an international system which is devoid of an overarching authority.

To succeed in this type of environment we need to be aware of both our capabilities and limitations given our resources. This does not mean that we resign ourselves to believing that we are extremely powerless. Far from it, in fact understanding our capabilities and limitations is the first step to us formulating a stronger more effective foreign policy. We cannot win against the big boys and girls at their own games of power politics. In these instances, we should seek to find innovative ways to navigate safely without undermining the vital interests of these powerful parties. The offensive game should be waged in the conference halls of multilateral institutions where smaller countries derive influence by being bridge builders. The mastery of Singaporean diplomats in being able to fashion an image for themselves as being a bridge between the East and the West is a fantastic case in point in this regard.

Another route that could be taken is to become an advocate of a particular issue of international relevance that gives the most bang for Sri Lankan interests. Security considerations pertaining to disarmament rank very high on the big power agenda. Current policy issues include Syrian Chemical Weapons, North Korean and Iranian Nuclear Programs and the possibility of terrorist groups acquiring a nuclear weapon. Sri Lankan advocacy of disarmament enables us to gain access to the big powers on issues that are very important to them, it is this importance which they attach to them that can be leveraged to satisfy Sri Lankan interests. In sensitive issues such as disarmament, smaller countries have a higher likelihood of getting “bridge builder” positions due to their perceived low stakes in the game. One of the reasons why the Norwegians became so interested in “Peace Diplomacy” was because it provided them access to big powers. For example a recent report released by the Norwegians assessing their involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process explains as to how this initiative enabled them to gain access to higher ranking officials in New Delhi and Washington.

Conclusion

The victory of President Sirisena allows us to once again reassess our foreign policy priorities and strategies. We should also be aware though, that our room for maneuver internationally is contingent on developments in the domestic sphere. There are limits to how far diplomats can defend their country. Shortcomings by the previous regime to meet our international human rights obligations led us to side with certain nations with similar credentials in order to defend ourselves against criticism from the West. However what this also meant was that we were beholden to the former and they used this as leverage to compel us to take steps that were counter to our national interests. Adopting an antagonistic approach towards the West only further strengthened their resolve and the resolve of other regional powers to tighten the noose against us. It is critical that if we are to tread delicately and get the best of what the game of international politics has in store for us, that we are at our best behavior at home.

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Yohan Senarath is currently a student of the Masters of Science in Foreign Service Program at the Edmund Walsh School at Georgetown University in Washington DC and a graduate of Clark University. He served as an intern with the Sri Lankan Mission and the Permanent Observer of the Caribbean Community to the United Nations in New York. Yohan is a member of the North American College Model UN All Star Team 2013-2014.