By 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?