9 December, 2022


Aligned, Then Non-Aligned, Now Re-Aligned?

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

Rajeewa Jayaweera

Post independent Ceylon, governed by the United National Party (UNP), comprising of western-oriented upper class, followed a foreign policy of alignment to the west, especially to its former colonial master, United Kingdom. The emerging cold war was used as the ‘bogeyman’ to justify a policy of close relations with UK, US and rest of western Europe besides discourage fostering relations with socialist countries. Among other things, it prevented Ceylon from gaining UN membership till December 1955.

A turn towards a non-aligned foreign policy was first introduced by SWRD Bandaranaike. His first policy statement as Prime Minister of Ceylon on April 20, 1956, outlining his government’s foreign policy and goals stated, “In its foreign policy, my Government will not align with any power blocs. The position of bases at Katunayake and Trincomalee will be reviewed. Consideration will be given to exchange of diplomatic representatives with countries in which Ceylon is not at present represented.” Bandaranaike negotiated the closure of British naval and air force facilities in Ceylon and initiated diplomatic relations with socialist countries which he considered vital for Ceylon’s new policy of non-alignment.

The 1960-65 and 1970-77 governments headed by Madam Bandaranaike followed her husband’s policy of non-alignment. She played a lead role in the Non-aligned Movement (NAM). Her initiative “The Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace” (IOZOP) proposal to declare the Indian ocean free of nuclear weapons was reflected in the summit’s final declaration in the third NAM summit in Lusaka, Zambia in 1971. “Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace” was then included in the agenda of the 26th General Assembly in 1971. The resolution was adopted with 61 votes for, zero against and 55 abstentions. China voted in favor whereas USA, USSR, UK and France all abstained. It was a time, North Korea, let alone developing a nuclear weapons program, did not even have a missile program on its drawing board. India’s attitude towards IOZOP, in view of its Friendship Treaty with USSR signed in 1971 was lukewarm. An Ad Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean chaired by Sri Lanka was established during the 1972 General Assembly and tasked with the study of practical measures to achieve the objectives of the Declaration. Madam Bandaranaike’s efforts also resulted in holding the fifth Heads of State or Government Summit of the Non-Aligned Countries in Sri Lanka in 1976.

Sri Lanka did not permit naval vessels with nuclear weapons of any state into its ports.

With the advent of the UNP government headed by JR Jayewardene in 1977, Sri Lanka once again adopted a pro-western foreign policy and showed little or no interest in IOZOP. President JR Jayewardene (JRJ) paid a state visit to USA in 1984. A baby elephant was presented to President Ronald Regan who hosted the Sri Lankan President to a state banquet in the White House. JRJ, during the presentation on the White House lawn reportedly stated, “I came here as a stranger, but I find — already I feel I am among friends”. An agreement was inked in 1984 between Voice of America and GoSL to establish a new relay station in Iranawila. The Colombo port was visited by all types of US naval craft on a regular basis. USS Kitty Hawk, America’s primary aircraft carrier at the time, accompanied by other elements of the 7th fleet made a port call to Colombo in 1985. 

Less than 24 months later, in June 1987, Indian air transporters accompanied by fighter jets violated Sri Lanka’s airspace and forcibly dropped food consignments in the North, compelled Sri Lanka to halt ‘Operation Vedamarachchi’ and force-fed the infamous Indo-Lanka accord. Meanwhile, JRJ’s friends, referred to on the lawns of the White House had deserted him. Sri Lanka reaped the ‘benefits’ of a foreign policy aligned to the west.     

In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President. Faced with a demoralized army fighting a half-hearted battle with LTTE terrorists, a central government in Delhi dancing to the tunes of the Tamil Nadu state government and less than friendly western governments who had imposed an embargo on offensive weapons, his choices were limited. He was compelled to turn to China, Pakistan and other arms producing countries for weapons for his armed forces. His administration’s gravitation towards China need be understood in that context. Matters were further compounded by the ineptitude of his choice of persons to head the Foreign Ministry. The second Rajapaksa administration, commencing 2010, obtained substantial financial aid to fund infrastructure projects, many of which were essentially vanity projects.   

In October 2014, two Chinese submarines docked in Colombo harbor for bunkering and supplies. It triggered an immediate protest from India and a visit to Colombo by Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to register Indian objections. In less than three months, the Rajapaksa administration, having lost the snap elections called by President Rajapaksa, was no more. One school of thought attributed President Rajapaksa’s electoral defeat to massive corruption, nepotism and lack of rule of law in the country. Another school of thought attributed it to a regime change project by India and US due China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka. 

Meanwhile, in the eternally changing dynamics of geopolitics, Indian opposition to US involvement in the 1970s and 1980s has undergone a paradigm shift. The two former adversaries had now become allies. 

‘We won’t side with either giant’, so said newly elected President Sirisena when he made his maiden overseas visit to India in February 2015. He is on record expressing “his government’s desire to be friends with both India and China but not be aligned to either. It will stay non-aligned vis-à-vis New Delhi and Beijing”. 

Since January 2015, Colombo has been visited by several Indian and US naval vessels. Joint military exercises are currently at an unprecedented level.   

In addition to regular goodwill visits by Indian naval vessels, in January 2016, Indian navy’s single aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, accompanied by a destroyer made its maiden overseas port call, to Colombo. Joint military exercises between India and Sri Lanka named ‘Mitra Shakti’ have been taking place annually since 2013.

The past twenty-four months has seen an increased US involvement in Sri Lanka. Noteworthy is the increased military cooperation between the two countries. Several senior US naval commanders have visited Colombo, unseen since the JRJ presidency. In September, air forces of US and Sri Lanka conducted the Pacific Airlift Rally. In October, Sri Lanka was inducted to Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercise (CARAT) involving US and Sri Lankan naval elements. In the last week of October, elements of the US 7th Fleet including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz with its 5,000 personnel made a port of call in Colombo.

Indian opposition to US military involvement in Sri Lanka in 1985 had evaporated. Its silence indicated approval. No National Security Advisor rushed to Colombo. Such are the vagaries of geopolitics. 

In May 2017, Sri Lanka rejected China’s request to dock one of its submarines in Colombo for supplies, on the eve of the visit to Sri Lanka by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Permitting a port visit by an Indian aircraft carrier but rejecting a request for a Chinese submarine was a reversal of President Sirisena’s statement ‘We won’t side with either giant’. Contrary to “will stay non-aligned vis-à-vis New Delhi and Beijing”, it was a sign of alignment to India. The refusal also does not compare well with a visit by a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

The Chinese government, to its credit, has so far opted to take a mature stand. Despite the submarine issue, its Foreign Minister has reportedly informed visiting Sri Lankan Foreign Minister “‘China is willing to enhance cooperation with Sri Lanka within the framework of the OBOR initiative”.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka would do well to bear in mind, whereas trade and commerce are of paramount importance, historically, politics is that what prevails eventually.   

US and India provided valuable intelligence support during the closing years of the conflict.

For nearly three decades, no aircraft carriers, submarines or even gun boats visited Sri Lanka. No joint military exercises were held when Sri Lanka was fighting for its survival and such training was needed most. What was received were meaningless platitudes and an arms embargo, other than from China and Pakistan.  The reasons for such activity during peace time can obviously not be linked to the well-being of this country and its people.

The government’s policy of permitting aircraft carriers of India and US into Colombo harbor whilst rejecting permission for a Chinese submarine, in the long term will not help in its endeavors in walking the tight-rope of balancing relations between the three powers to Sri Lanka’s benefit.

Developments since January 2015 makes one wonder, has Sri Lanka, that was once aligned, then became non-aligned, now become re-aligned?         

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Thanks for the writeup.
    I am not sure whether India opposed the 7th Fleet’s visit to Colombo in 1985. By this time, however, the US knew that India is a better ally than Pakistan irrespective of the old Indo-Soviet treaty. In 1987, both Ragan and Thatcher wrote to JR to sort out matters with India. Letters are in JRJ archives.
    I completely agree that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has to be properly balanced, non-aligned. One may perceive that while the US uses sticks, China offers carrots. However, BRI is more than a carrot to me. It may replace ‘commerce and trade’ instead of military/strategic policy in international relations. But it would take a long time. In the meanwhile, it is important for Sri Lanka to resurrect the call for IOZOP particularly as a nuclear free zone. Countries may keep their nuclear weapons onshore (at the first stage) but should prohibit carrying them in the Ocean or visit ports! Sri Lanka also should strengthen the Navy for peaceful purposes, to mean maritime security and law and order. Cooperation with India, China and US is important for these objectives.

    • 0

      Mr Fernando

      Yes, it is a fact Regan and Thatcher both advised JRJ to sort out matters with India. Despite India’s Friendship Treaty with USSR, US could under no circumstances ignore the Indian market of almost 1 billion souls to that of 15 million in Sri Lanka, further compounded by US naval facility constructed in Diego Garcia in 1971, reducing the significance of the Trincomalee Port in their strategic planning.

      You must no doubt be aware, the manner in which Regan declined to accept a desperate telephone call from JRJ immediately prior to the departure of the Indian flotilla carrying supplies for Jaffna stating, “tell him to talk to Spain” (then US Ambassador in Sri Lanka James W Spain). The flotilla was sent back by the Sri Lankan navy and the Indians returned with transporters accompanied by fighter jets. JRJ’s expectations of US prevailing upon India to desist came to naught.

      Indian objections to the presence of foreign military personnel, hardware, and naval craft were encapsulated in an intrusive and not much-publicized side letter signed simultaneously with Indo – SL Agreement and Annexure which specified, Sri Lanka would refrain from making available its land, ports and airports to any foreign power considered inimical to India’s security. It was a clear reference to visits by US naval craft including that of USS Kitty Hawk and presence of Israeli advisors.

  • 2

    Very observant article. Thanks. You could also have mentioned that it is disgraceful that a fleet of nuclear powered aggressive war ships were allowed to berth at Colombo harbour shamefully after 45 years since the Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace by Sri Lanka (Mrs. Bandaranayake) at the 26th United Nations General Assembly in 1971, and a resolution to designate the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace was passed. Americans have used corruption to convert both India and Sri Lanka to do their dirty work. They will continue to occupy the Diego Garcia base and dump nuclear waste in our backyard. Mrs B. will be turning in her grave. Shame on Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithreepala. . The pattern of these visits is only noticeable to those with keen eyes and ears to the world. They first came with an Indian ship in 2016 and in March this year, the flag ship of the 7th fleet came. Now six of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group! What next? The cunning and devious minds of American imperialists are systematically building up the region for a war against China, starting with 2015 regime changing in Sri Lanka and threats of UNHRC action against Sri Lanka if we refuse to do as told.. (They do not need it anyway with the boot licking Ranil Wickremesinghe in the power seat). Shame on you bootlicking Ranil and backboneless Maithripala.

  • 3

    Aligned or not with the West or East, our country needs an understanding among the different ethnic groups. It is important NOT to claim Superiority over another race or religious group and treat all equally.
    Together we could have become a rich, peaceful, progressive and well developed country in the world.
    Instead of being jealous of a race’s success in education and commerce and targeting them was worst thing the Sinhala Politicians did to the country.
    This has made it to carry a begging bowl and also sell it’s assets

  • 0

    Mr. Jayaweera,
    Our external relations, like any other country’s are based on our current interests.:
    1. India, where most of our parippu comes from (sometimes free) is only 20 miles away
    2. The US buys a hell of a lot of our stuff, without selling us much.
    3. China buys practically nothing from us and is very far away.

    Sentimental principles have their place, but given the above, whose warships would you host in Colombo? Or to put it another way, whose parippu would you prefer?

    • 1

      old codger

      I am not sure whether Rajeewa Jayaweera wants every country to send their warships to this island or wants none to sail within our shores.

      When foreign vessels anchor here Champa is very happy, her business increases by many folds.

  • 0

    US is working with India. India has over 1.3Billion people they to sell stuff. India is their second largest BUYER of US weapons. US is trying to sell Aircraft to SLAF; no point. We only need a few reconnaissance Aircraft and a few Interceptors. India will never allow State of the Art Anti-Aircraft systems in SL either. We need a patrolling Navy and not an Offensive Navy; we can have a limited blue waters capability in case Tiger Tamils start being queer again. But you can see CIA agent’s son VVIP is very much in the US hands.
    US gave $50million to UNP to win the election. They want a base to further encircle China. But reality is we need to go along with it; China has nothing in its arsenal that can last more than 24 hours against US might. Same with Russia but Russia is not interested. China is a good friend to us but cannot fight a conventional war with US; US has 11 Aircraft Carriers and no one else has anything matching that power projection capability.
    Keshap threatens in a sweet cherubic manner. The War crimes lies are now exposed as classified documents show the death toll of civilians was only around 7,000(That is far less than civilians killed in Yemen by US bombs dumped by KSA or far less than civilians US killed in Iraq in 2003 in the initial invasion).; It is “you better behave you darkies and do as we tell you or else”
    Almost every week there is a new US “military friendly visit”. US created a Marine force now AFTER the war. What’s the use? We can never go to war with India. So it is to be used by the US. Soon US will get a military foothold.

  • 0

    USTR.GOV data

    In 2016, Sri Lanka GDP was an estimated $82.2 billion (current market exchange rates); real GDP was up by an estimated 5.0%; and the population was 21 million. (Source: IMF) Sri Lanka is currently US’ 66th largest goods trading partner with $3.2 billion in total (two way) goods trade during 2016.

    Goods exports from USA to SL totaled only $369 million; goods imports from SL totaled $2.8 billion. The U.S. goods trade deficit with Sri Lanka was $2.4 billion in 2016.

    According to the Department of Commerce, U.S. exports of goods to Sri Lanka supported an estimated 2 thousand jobs in 2015 (latest data available)


    Sri Lanka was the United States’ 62nd largest supplier of goods imports in 2016.

    U.S. goods imports from Sri Lanka totaled $2.8 billion in 2016, down 3.6% ($103 million) from 2015, but up 29.9% from 2006.

    The top import categories in 2016 were: knit apparel ($1.1 billion), woven apparel ($869 million), rubber ($247 million), precious metal and stone (other stones not strung) ($89 million), and coffee, tea & spice (tea) ($65 million).

    U.S. total imports of agricultural products from Sri Lanka totaled $170 million in 2016. Leading categories include: tea, incl herb ($38 million), tropical oils ($32 million), spices ($29 million), tree nuts ($19 million), and essential oils ($13 million).

    Trade Balance favors SL . The U.S. goods trade deficit with Sri Lanka was $2.4 billion in 2016, a 4.3% decrease ($110 million) over 2015.

    China and India have a large trade deficits in their favor; Sri Lanka has a surplus with USA.

    Strategically as much as we may dislike it we have to bend to USA now in the anti-China coalition of US-India ..Trump is not Obama and will not care about the issues Power, and Desai raised.

  • 0

    Some more data

    Sri Lanka top 5 Export and Import partners 2016

    The top five countries to which Sri Lanka exported 2016 along with the partner share in percentage are:

    Sri Lanka exports to United States worth US$ 2,810 million, with a partner share of 26.65 percent.

    Sri Lanka exports to United Kingdom worth US$ 1,045 million, with a partner share of 9.91 percent.

    Sri Lanka exports to India worth US$ 753 million, with a partner share of 7.14 percent.

    Sri Lanka exports to Germany worth US$ 510 million, with a partner share of 4.83 percent.

    Sri Lanka exports to Italy worth US$ 429 million, with a partner share of 4.07 percent.

    The top five countries to which Sri Lanka imported goods 2016 along with the share in percentage are

    Sri Lanka imports from China worth US$ 4,271 million, with a partner share of 21.90 percent.

    Sri Lanka imports from India worth US$ 3,825 million, with a partner share of 19.61 percent.

    Sri Lanka imports from United Arab Emirates worth US$ 1,067 million, with a partner share of 5.47 percent.

    Sri Lanka imports from Singapore worth US$ 1,030 million, with a partner share of 5.28 percent.

    Sri Lanka imports from Japan worth US$ 950 million, with a partner share of 4.87 percent.

  • 0

    Mr Jayaweera, remember in the early 1960s, Ceylon foolishly nationalized the petroleum sector? USA retaliated via the Hickenlooper amendment and cut off aid?

    Right now, the US is the most dominant military force in the world; their ability to project power is unparalleled. If India invades SL again, US will not do anything(like how Reagan ignored JRJ). China will not stretch itself to help other people. SL has no choice but to get along with India and its new global partner USA.

    Here are the trade data for US-India.(USTR.GOV)
    U.S. goods and services trade with India totaled an estimated $114.8 billion in 2016. Exports were $42.0 billion; imports were $72.8 billion. The U.S. goods and services trade deficit with India was $30.8 billion in 2016.

    India is US’s new strategic ally in fighting Islamic terrorism too. But above all it the partner against China. China cannot hope to compete with US in terms of resources to fight a war with US. China is also a strategic trading ally being US’s biggest trading partner. Trump bitches about it and lies about “How china is raping us in trade” but the reality is it is the American consumer who is buying Chinese good. I will present their trade data later. Reality is China is expanding globally but they will not take on US in any way unless it directly affects them: such as a war in the Korean Peninsula started by Trump.

  • 0

    U.S. goods and services trade with China totaled an estimated $648.2 billion in 2016. Exports were $169.3 billion; imports were $478.9 billion. The U.S. goods and services trade deficit with China was $309.6 billion in 2016.

    China is currently our largest goods trading partner with $578.6 billion in total (two way) goods trade during 2016. Goods exports totaled $115.8 billion; goods imports totaled $462.8 billion. The U.S. goods trade deficit with China was $347.0 billion in 2016.

    Trade in services with China (exports and imports) totaled an estimated $69.6 billion in 2016. Services exports were $53.5 billion; services imports were $16.1 billion. The U.S. services trade surplus with China was $37.4 billion in 2016.

    According to the Department of Commerce, U.S. exports of goods and services to China supported an estimated 911 thousand jobs in 2015 (latest data available) (601 thousand supported by goods exports and 309 thousand supported by services exports).


  • 0

    It is the American consumer who benefits from cheap goods from China. Trump is lying again. Surely he knows the facts?
    China was the United States’ largest supplier of goods imports in 2016.

    U.S. goods imports from China totaled $462.8 billion in 2016, down 4.2% ($20.4 billion) from 2015, but up 60.8% from 2006. U.S. imports from are up 353% from 2001 (pre-WTO accession).

    The top import categories (2-digit HS) in 2016 were: electrical machinery ($129 billion), machinery ($97 billion), furniture and bedding ($29 billion), toys and sports equipment ($24 billion), and footwear ($15 billion).

    U.S. imports of agricultural products from China totaled $4.3 billion in 2016, our 3rd largest supplier of agricultural imports. Leading categories include: processed fruit & vegetables ($1.1 billion), fruit & vegetable juices ($328 million), snack foods ($213 million), fresh vegetables ($205 million), and tea, incl herb ($152 million).

    U.S. imports of services from China were an estimated $16.1 billion in 2016, 6.6% ($993 million) more than 2015, and 58.8% greater than 2006 levels. It was up roughly 350% from 2001 (pre-WTO accession). Leading services imports from China to the U.S., in 2015, were in the transport, travel, and research and development sectors.

  • 0

    more like de aligned

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