Groundviews

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Trends since January 2015: Some Critical Thoughts

<> on March 26, 2015 in Beijing, China.

Photo courtesy The Foreign Policy Initiative

Full text of the presentation made at the Panel Discussion on “Sri Lanka in Global Affairs: The Journey Since January 2015″, held at the BMICH on 13 June 2016.

My views expressed here today do not represent positions of any political party, or any power center. I do not have any personal or political stake either at the ways in which how the government makes its foreign policy decisions or conducts its policies. Not being a political insider, I am not privy to valuable political gossip that can help place in context, and even alter, most of the points I would be making in this presentation. I am only a student of politics, and not a political actor, before or behind the scenes. I look at Sri Lanka’s foreign policy issues and challenges purely from an academic point of view.  Therefore, I will take every precaution not to allow my analysis and arguments naïve, although some may see them exactly to be of that quality.

One thing I have learnt recently – and this is a lesson I urge all of you also to think about — is that foreign policy making is infinitely more complex than what politicians in the opposition, or those who are aspiring to come to power, want the public to believe. Leaders of this government seem to have been learning this simple, yet fundamental lesson, since last January. That is why the foreign policy positions of this government seem to have been in a continuous state of flux.

There is a good reason for it to be so. The government has been compelled to negotiate a number of factors and pressures in steering its journey in order to establish its on ‘foreign policy identity.’ I do not think that there is yet evidence to suggest that the government wants to have, or been able to establish, a firm ideological identity in its external relations, as it has been the case with many governments in the past, particularly the previous one. Avoiding an ideological identity as such to its foreign policy strategies seems to be a key defining feature of the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wikremasinghe administration at present.

Some see this flexibility as a weakness of the government. There is, however, another way of looking at it. It represents the essential dimension of pragmatism in foreign policy, necessitated by a range of complex domestic, regional and global factors. Muddling through is not necessarily a sign of weakness, or prelude to disaster, in a context where the government has been experimenting different responses to some key foreign policy determinants.

What are the key determinants that have impacted on the shaping of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since January last year? We can put them in two groupings.

The first is electoral and regime change compulsions. Any new government would want to steer a new path of foreign policy. Given the atmosphere of extreme hostility between the two camps, the new government was compelled to abandon immediately the foreign policy orientation of its predecessor. The new orientation was seen in the restoration of closeness with regional as well global powers that had earlier been marginalized. This core dimension of the foreign policy continues with only a slight change.

This change is felt primarily in the relations which China. China had maintained a close political proximity to the previous government and its leadership. China’s aloofness to the emerging opposition during even the last few months of the year 2014 was somewhat inexplicable too. All this had led to the new government to adopt a policy of distancing itself from China, both politically and economically. One could even detect some degree of tension between Sri Lanka’s new government and the Chinese government, as it had become somewhat noticeable with regard to the Port City development project. The government has passed that initial phase of uncertainty and now appears to have refined its core foreign policy stance to be ‘friendship with all; enmity with none.’

The second was a theme that showed the continuation of the central role that the ethnic conflict and civil war had played in bringing together in a symbiotic framework Sri Lanka’s domestic politics and external relations. New York, Geneva, Washington DC, London, Brussels and New Delhi were the key cities that constituted the centres of its global geography. Geneva in March and October 2015 symbolized this process of re-configuring Sri Lanka’s global relations and strategies. For the first time since 2009, we could see the Sri Lankan government, the UN, the EU and Western governments – the West-led managers of the global political system – sitting and talking to each other as friends, committed to a shared goal of post-war peace-building and development in Sri Lanka.

This reconfiguration of the external seems to have run into some difficulty by late last year. Its cause was primarily domestic. And it entails Sri Lanka’s severe balance of payment crisis, triggered off by the mounting debt crisis and the poor record of incoming private foreign investments. The new government has also come to realize that its newly found Western allies were not really ready to assist Sri Lanka to manage the emerging economic crisis in any substantive way. Understandably, for the Maithripala Sirisena – Ranil Wickremasinghe government, there was no free lunch coming from Europe or America!  Whatever little that came had political conditionalities attached. Faced with potentially disastrous economic downturn, the government seems to have decided to re-recalibrate its external relations.  This is the only way to explain the government’s perusal, of late, of a policy of closer and robust economic relations with China, despite continuing domestic criticism, coming from allies as well as opponents.  There is no free lunch from Beijing too, though!!

A point that may interest the observer is that the government has so far been careful to emphasize the economic dimensions of its closeness to China, thereby playing down the possibility of any political and ideological closeness. This is one point by which this government seems to sharply differentiate itself from the previous one. There was a strong view in the country that China was backing the authoritarian project of the previous government’s leadership, closing its eyes totally to issues of democracy, human rights and corruption. The Chinese leadership is unlikely to abandon their personal and political closeness with Sri Lanka’s former President. In foreign policy matters, China is also known historically for its utmost pragmatism to serve national interests. What seems to be happening is that the China has regained the initiative in restoring its relations with the new Sri Lankan government at a conjuncture when it can define the terms of engagement from a position of advantage. This perhaps is the only foreign policy setback the new government has experienced.

Meanwhile, domestic issues seem to continue to maintain the upper hand in defining the trajectories of Sri Lanka’s external relations. Let me explain this point by citing just one prominent example.

This government’s overall record of domestic policy and policy reforms has been one of marginal achievements. Its major victories in the domestic front continues to be negative ones – negative in the sense of achievements made by not doing certain things, rather than doing things with aggressive intent. Therefore, this government’s exemplary record of restoring and maintaining a open, democratic and non-repressive political ambience in the country, is more a product of preventing the state agencies doing certain things, than doing positive things such as the abrogation of PTA, or taking concrete steps towards demilitarization. There are of course good reasons to explain this poor positive democratization record. Yet, they hardy justify the government’s continuing record of negative achievements. Thus, the government has already begun to lose the loyalty of its ‘natural’ domestic constituency, the democratic civil society movement.

Meanwhile, only in three areas the government seems to have been successful. As already mentioned, managing external relations through a strategy of policy flexibility is one. The other two are, (a) arresting the process of Sri Lanka’s drift towards hard authoritarianism, and (b) keeping the opponents — the so-called joint opposition — at bay, preventing its growth into an imminent political threat to regime stability. Actually, this government’s strength lies in the weakness of the lose coalition of its parliamentary opponents, who incidentally are MPs of the UPFA coalition which President Sirisena himself heads.

The success in the external relations front is primarily characterized by the government’s ability to establish a policy regime of equilibrium vis a vis major regional, continental and global powers. However, that success runs the risk of being undermined by a failure in a crucial domestic issue with international consequences. This refers to the proper implementation of promises and pledges made in the Geneva resolution last year on post-war peace building, ethnic reconciliation and state reform.

The evidence so far suggests that the government might try to defend its poor performance record, or the weak report card, because it has to do it any way in Geneva by citing domestic difficulties. To defend it internationally, the government might also need to recalibrate its external relations and seek new domestic as well as global allies who are skeptical of, and even opposed to, the Geneva process. This is the topic which Sri Lanka’s foreign policy watchers of domestic political developments, me included, would monitor with great interest during the next few months to come. While seeking new allies, President or the Prime Minister should not ignore the broad coalition that made possible the regime change of January 2015. Nor should they turn their back on the reform agenda for good governance, democracy, and peace building. Now it is time for them to take some serious steps towards course correction. Revisiting the January 2015 reform agenda will certainly be helpful.

Meanwhile, the government’s external, or foreign, policy activities seem being conducted through two centers, President’s office and Prime Minister’s office. This is an extremely interesting new development. The thinking and action at both centers seem so far seem to be complementary, although there is no proper public acknowledgement of it by the leaders themselves. In fact, re-negotiation of economic relations with China appears to have been undertaken by both the President and the Prime Minister.

There seems to be policy convergence between the SLFP led by the President and the UNP led by Prime Minister Wickremasinghe. Both centers show signs of being non-ideological, non-combative and principled in their perceptions of the world and global affairs.  Quite significantly, and refreshingly, they don’t have advisors who give long lectures to Western diplomats in their capitals on international law, politics or colonialism.  President Sirisena’s modest and simple personal demeanor is an added asset. It is the policy of ‘friendship with all; enmity with none’ that in my view has made it possible for the President to be invited to the G-7 Summit.

The government’s foreign policy strength perhaps lies in the position of equidistance it is now maintaining with regional, continental and global powers. In a world where (a) there is no bipolarity, and there are old and emerging global powers in rivalry as well as acting in cooperation, and (b) regional centres of power emerging as important players in the global arena, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy can, and should, not be informed by dogmatic adherence to ignorance. This government has taken Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to a post-ideological, post-egoistic, and post-confrontational phase. Some critics may not see the value of it. Yet, the realization of it is no mean achievement for any government.