Photo courtesy of Opoyi

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was in Sri Lanka last week as part of his Asian tour that included regional power India as well as the Maldives. Coincidently his visit came not too long after one by former Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to Colombo. It was also on the eve of the November 3 presidential elections in the US, which will determine if the Trump Administration is re-elected for a second term or if the Democrats take the White House under Joe Biden, President Obama’s former Vice President.

Regarding Sri Lanka the American diplomats, never known for their subtlety, were unusually blunt even by their own standards. Days before departing for their Asian tour, delegation member Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson, stated that the US would “urge Sri Lanka to make the difficult but necessary choices” on its economic and development partners. Although not mentioning China by name, the inference was clear. Goaded, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, proving that beneath the benign smiles and frequent bowing of its diplomats lay very thin Asian skins, had the audacity to issue a statement that declared, among other reasons, that because Sri Lanka was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we really shouldn’t be troubled at this time with a visit by the US delegation. So much for poor Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the ostensible host of the visit.

The US is the world’s largest economy and is Sri Lanka’s single largest export market. The EU is larger but that is made up of many nations. Over the past many decades, the US has provided more than US$ 2 billion in aid through various USAID projects while the multilateral institutions it effectively controls, such as the World Bank, have provided much more. Our export driven economy is quite dependent on its key export markets and we ignore their concerns at our own economic peril.

The focus of the US visit, being firmly fixed on Sri Lanka’s growing dependence and indebtedness to China, had largely to do with the Rajapaksa Administration’s foreign policy, which is viewed in global capitals and certainly in both Washington D.C. as well as New Delhi, as being solely and overly reliant on Beijing. This is a major departure from decades of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy that has always been a balanced neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, which was principled as well as pragmatic. Perhaps the best articulator of that policy in recent years was former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and, in an earlier era, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who cultivated a personal friendship with the Gandhi family in India but also succeeded in having the Chinese gift Sri Lanka the BMICH that enabled us to host the 5th Non-Aligned Nations Summit in 1976. A truly neutral non-aligned policy that served Sri Lanka well.

The world is changing from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a more multi polar world in which the Chinese, as well as other powers such as India and Russia, have real interests, strategic and economic as well as security, outside their own borders. Sri Lanka as a small nation and hence a threat to none but blessed with a strategic location and a highly literate population can, in our post-civil conflict era, well benefit from the various economic opportunities that arise thereby. However, this does mean that we must have a balanced foreign policy, as indeed we have had for much of our post-independence period.

Sri Lanka’s own foreign policy during our 30-year civil war was a very simple, single issue foreign policy; developing and maintaining international support and political space for the prosecution of a long drawn out conflict and indeed, in that context, we were successful. Sri Lanka won its war with no domestic armaments industry to talk of, with entirely imported weapons systems ranging from Israeli Kfir jets, American Bell Helicopters and Czech multi barrel rocket launches, among many others. Most importantly perhaps, the US led efforts to put an international squeeze on the LTTE’s money laundering and financing of terrorism efforts while Indian intelligence sharing and security cooperation were crucial in the interception and sinking of the LTTE’s rearmament ships in international waters by our Navy in 2009 that ensured the war ended.

However, post war, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has much broader strategic interests as well as strategic challenges. In terms of interests economic diplomacy, seeking to attract and increase foreign direct investment still at abysmal levels compared to regional peers and expand trade as well as access to new export markets, must surely rank first among our key interests while managing the challenges of an emerging multi polar world and its hot issues in our region, such as maritime security. In that context, it was very unwise for the former Rajapaksa Administration to allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock twice in the Colombo port in 2014. A similar Chinese request in 2017 was turned down by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Administration.

The post war Rajapaksa Administration of 2010 to 2015 performed very disappointingly. It abandoned Sri Lanka’s traditionally neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, despite paying lip service to it, and took us firmly into a debt trap, notwithstanding protestations to the contrary by the Government, from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves. Sri Lanka’s project financing from China is not concessionary and is very expensive, even more expensive than what we source competitively in international capital markets for budgetary support. Project financing needs to be much cheaper. The debt for equity swap that the former government effected with regard to the Hambanthota port was inevitable and bought us some time and space to pay off our other loans. Although President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, just after his election, wanted to review the agreement, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the face of Chinese protests, declined. It is surprising that the critics and pandits who decry the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s grant (not a loan) of half a billion dollars, that is, free money that does not need to repaid, are totally silent about the expensive loans for the white elephant projects – a port with no ships, an airport with no flights and reclaimed land from the sea for more apartments and hotels, as if we are short of either in Colombo.

Before its departure the visiting US delegation took pains to point out its commitment to our shared values as a democratic society and also reiterated support for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post war undertakings to then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of accountability, justice and reconciliation. Time will tell if the SLPP Administration will recalibrate its foreign policy to a more balanced and neutral one. Early indications are to the contrary.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 2016-2017)