By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
In meeting the present Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) Director Dr. Harinda Vidanage, ostensibly to interview him, I have an ulterior motive. I go to judge him. The BCIS is a tertiary educational institute offering study programmes in international relations. BCIS programmes promise to be potential gateways to careers in the Sri Lankan Foreign Service, foreign missions and international organizations. Leaving aside his dynamism, energy, leadership – standard baggage for any good administrator – how good is Harinda Vidanage’s discernment of international relations? Could he be a good mentor to students whose future career may involve interacting with the world to further the interests of Sri Lanka?
Test 1 – India- Sri Lanka Bridge
As the appointee of a government whose Prime Minister is reliably credited with numbering among his favourite projects, a land bridge between India and Sri Lanka, how would Dr. Vidanage interpret this issue? Would he use fancy footwork to remain elusive and non-committal or would he stand and bite the bullet like the Southerner that he is?
“So what do you think of this bridge between India and Sri Lanka?” I ask. “I have no idea” he retorts. Such instant evasion isn’t promising, I think discouraged. Perhaps if one were to approach him as a woman of the world on the subject of bridges… “I am not asking whether it’s going to be built or not. I am asking your opinion. All these bridges, the first time they are proposed there’ s always opposition, for example even for the Channel Tunnel, between France and England, when it was proposed 100 years ago, it was opposed. But eventually it was built. Even the Korea-Japan Tunnel, it’s opposed now because of nationalistic and xenophobic concerns, but don’t you think all these bridges will be built eventually?”
Harinda Vidanage places his answer at a midpoint between the two extremes that are polarizing the current debate. He doesn’t say the bridge is bad down with the bridge, nor does he say the bridge is the greatest thing since the World Wide Web, let’s have it. He tells me that he is trying to answer my question in a unconventional way. His answer has three parts.
Part one – The real issue is connectivity with India. For connectivity with India, a bridge is not really necessary. You have enough means of connecting these two countries already.
Part two – The bridge can actually harm India-Sri Lanka relations. The way we have grown up, the way the culture is, we are an island nation. It doesn’t mean we have to have an island mentality. We can accept that we can connect. But island nations are not comfortable with physical connections. They have never been connected to other countries physically. Physical connections will create unnecessary political unrest in this country. The real problem is that the bridge is a political symbol in Sri Lanka. What it symbolizes is that we are opening a corridor for invasion. We were actually invaded by India so many times. The bridge is a symbol which is being used to further divide our society.
Part three – The bridge is a non-issue and a nonstarter because the SL Government has said, they will not build the bridge. Therefore if one is a true nationalist, a true patriot one should not use this issue to divide our society because the strength of Sri Lanka is the way the disparate elements of the society work together. While all over the world, one sees societies being ripped apart, Sri Lanka has a more connected society despite the war. The bridge is a useless debate. It’s a political trap by opportunists to further divide this country.
A Political trap by opportunists? In an interview with Ranil Wickremesinghe published on 24 August 2015, in The Hindu, former editor N. Ram asked our Premier “Since there is so much on your plate by way of domestic issues, will you be able to devote time to some of your favourite projects, like the land bridge between Sri Lanka and India? Or will that take some time?” I point out to Dr. Vidanage that what was conspicuous in that interview was the deafening absence of a denial by our PM that the bridge was a favourite project of his. The Sri Lankan PM gave a non-committal answer to that leading question, which was so very far from a repudiation of the bridge. “We will first have to get the country moving – that’s the priority – and then to look at all other issues.”
Discarding my offer to make the answer off the record, Vidanage answers bravely enunciating each word slowly and carefully as if speaking to a slow witted person; “Irrespective of the bridge India-Sri Lanka connectivity will not decrease. It will increase. Managing that would be our major foreign policy challenge. When we have things like these controversies it’s not helping policy makers. Because now you have to deal with a massive bridge concept which the people are terrified of. It’s taking our attention away from how you deal with India. Dealing with India has been a serious foreign policy challenge for Sri Lanka; a 21 million population handling 1.3 billion people of a nation which has the youngest people on earth.”
Test 2 – Are SL and US ‘seeing each other’?’
“So you think the US is going to set up a base in Trinco?” Harinda Vidanage asks me, clearly amused. “No but many people, many conspiracy theorists, connect all these dots and say it’s leading up to something” I reply. The ‘dots are recent public manifestations of US-SL military links. They are persuasively connected by certain commentators to form sinister and menacing shapes. When I mention these dots to Dr.Vidanage, I watch him carefully to see if he realizes their menace. Apparently not.
My very first dot – “There was this inaugural Operational Level Bilateral Defence Dialogue between US and SL Armed Forces hosted by the SL Navy on 8-9 August at the Naval HQ? It’s supposed to generate solid engagement calendars for the next three years from 2016 aiming at bilateral training and exercise between two armed forces.” – elicits the response, “Yeah So?”
The point I am trying to make to Dr. Vidanage is maybe there has been a major shift in SL foreign policy since the new presidency, maybe a new pattern more open to US interventionist agendas was emerging. Three US warships had docked at Colombo Port in 2016; USS Blue Ridge, USS New Orleans and USS Frank Cable (which arrived after my chat with Dr. Vidanage). Operation Pacific Angel, a humanitarian assistance programme conducted by the US Pacific Command, concluded on 23 August 2016 and bringing around 70 US military personnel to Sri Lanka’s intransigent North, also fed into the general paranoia. One local newspaper commentator not noted for his general knowledge or sophistication wrote; “It was not US medical men and women who were airlifted all the way from the States for the event but the whole thing, personnel and all, was dubbed the, Operation Pacific Angel. The supplies and personnel were flown in by? You guessed it! the US Pacific Command’s Operation Pacific Angel (PACANGEL).”
Showing a more educated and elegant paranoia, another columnist wrote in an international forum, “The exercise was part of the expanding links between the US military and Sri Lankan security forces, under the guise of providing humanitarian assistance.” There’s also the fact that US Pacific Command officials keep dropping in- Rear Admiral Colin Kilrain, Commander, US Pacific Special Operations Command met SL Navy Commander last April, presumably to discuss future schedules of a long joint training association going back to 1995 between US Navy SEALS and SL Navy Special Boats Squadron.
I put it to Dr. Harinda Vidanage, “So some people connect dots, which include the bridge between India and SL, and say we are moving towards US and India, who are trying to corner China”. In fact the dot connecting done in forums such as the World Socialist Web Site predict outright war; “The latest PACOM operation is to increase its political influence in Sri Lanka as part of its military-strategic goals in the Indo-Pacific region in preparation for war against China.”
“Washington’s regime-change operation in Sri Lanka and its expanding military operations with Colombo’s security forces make clear that the US is determined to use the strategically-located Indian Ocean island nation as one of its bases in the event of war with China.”
These concerns are shared by commentators in local newspapers “…even though many neighbouring countries, including India may find it difficult to believe the possibility, it is expected that the US will station its Pacific Command in the Indian Ocean with the assistance of Sri Lanka. The first sign of this was US Navy’s Seventh Fleet Flagship, USS Blue Ridge, arriving in Colombo on 26 March for a five-day port call, with 900 sailors on board…” One septuagenarian local commentator had even slipped in the whopper that USS New Orleans was nuclear armed.
“Ok, let’s go back and connect some of these dots” Harinda Vidanage tells me soothingly and suavely. Then he proceeds to connect the same dots and the shape that emerges is US’s Pivot or Rebalancing into Asia. As Dr. Harinda Vidanage talks, something becomes clear to me. He has some vital ingredient of perspective denied to the general public, who are dependent on the average newspaper commentator for their international relations updates. The average newspaper commentator merely lists out the bilateral engagements between US and Sri Lanka arising out of a declared and publicized geo political strategy such as Pivot to Asia and interprets them as harbingers of SL being sucked uncontrollably into US orbit, a US base in SL from which US will wage war (possibly nuclear war) with China and an end to SL sovereignty. In Harinda Vidanage’s mind the dots add up to a certain shape which he refuses to stretch.
Demanding more dots before he agrees to an extension of the obvious shape, Vidanage tells me; “US Administration in 2012 or 13 made a serious change in its foreign policy-Pivot to Asia, which meant the US was trying to concentrate most of its military presence in Asia Pacific as a response to a rising China, to a resurgent Korea, to a powerful Russia. A lot of people forget the map. The US is far more worried about Korean nukes than of China and of course Russia. Americans realize that most of the challenges to their geo-political dominance will come from this region.
“Security Policy is very much linked with economic prosperity. Asia Pacific has the world’s largest middleclass, 600 million and rising. That’s where everyone wants to be. If you are a country who wants to be economically prosperous and be in a region, you should always be backed by strategic thinking. So the US, realizing the economic as well the security dimension announced Pivot to Asia, which they changed to Rebalance into Asia.
“I am sure they find countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Australia very important to them. They established a marine base in Australia. They are kind of talking of having a base in Vietnam, which is unthinkable. Yes the US is very much interested in developing presence in the region. And they will take any opportunity to develop bilateral relationships, security relationships. Because, for them the prosperity of this region is very much tied to ocean systems. And countries like SL feature a lot. That’s again the hub concept. For US to have bilateral relationships in SL makes a lot of sense from a US perspective. And from an SL perspective. When the US says we want to have some kind of bilateral thing going, it’s strategically disadvantageous to say ‘No we are not interested’.”
“But shouldn’t we be afraid of interventionist agendas?” I ask paranoia well to fore. Sounding like an innocent, unsophisticated, naïve, wholesome person or an ingénue, Dr. Vidanage says “Now you are talking like Wimal Weerawansa. What do you mean by interventionist agendas?”
What do I mean by interventionist agendas? How do we reap benefits from geo-political agendas such as US’s Pivot to Asia and China’s new Maritime Silk Road without drowning in US, Chinese or Indian Imperial swamps with military bases and bridges around our necks? Will Harinda Vidanage tell me in a manner that validates his current status as a leading Sri Lankan educationist in International Relations? Let’s see in our continuation next week.