The country seemed to be enthusiastic over the reception that President Sirisena received in Japan as media reports started to emerge. There is nothing more exciting for an International Relations person like myself than seeing Sri Lanka gain positive global spotlight. However, given the kind of strategic interests of different powers at play over Sri Lanka, it is important to provide a comprehensive yet easy to understand explanation to the public. Public situational awareness and judgment is an essential element in developing civic participation in our foreign policy exercise. My intention is to provide the public with a simplified understanding away from technical and key words.
There is no doubt that the reception that President Sirisena received in Japan is significant. It shows how much the Western powers (G8 minus Russia) value Sri Lanka in their camp. Sri Lanka as the doorway to any government with ambitions to dominate the Indian Ocean is a very attractive grapefruit. No matter who is in power in Sri Lanka (from Chandrika, Ranil, Mahinda to Sirisena), foreign governments that have strategic interests in maritime trade and naval affairs always had their say over our standing in the global structure. The public is well aware of the international power games played during the conflict with the Tamil Tigers. It is the responsibility of the government to use our geostrategic standing in a way that ensures our sovereignty through prosperity.
Therefore it is important to understand what kind of opportunities and risks come with the spotlight that we are getting since January 2015. Sri Lanka is among a group of countries that make up the essential elements of China’s Maritime Silk Road (the single most important initiative in recent history that can shift the balance of power in favour of the Global South). This is the best shot we have to become what we were some centuries ago – the trade and knowledge hub of the Indian Ocean.
Because of its importance, the project ended up dragging the island into an ugly power game played in the region. This is why the change of presidency in January 2015 was influenced by these external powers as much as it was by the public’s will (the public interest is in the opposite end of what the external powers desire). It is a clear indication that some world and regional governments intend to make us an ally to their strategy to keep China cornered, or at least checked. There are great Western and Pacific interests to keep us neutral or part of their camp. Particularly the America-Japan-India and South Korea military alliance to counter Chinese naval and maritime trade is clearly showing signs of wanting to keep Sri Lanka within their realm of influence.
It is our national interest to make Sri Lanka the hub of the Indian Ocean. The economic strength and our foreign policy game would directly affect our future ability to grow as an independent nation. The previous government of President Rajapaksa correctly placed us as a strong partner to China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative and developed key infrastructure that can help Sri Lanka to exploit such a beneficial position. Even the public that is highly critical of the nature of his rule, the influence of his sons and certain brothers, agrees that these strategic initiatives are to the benefit of the country’s long-term vision of economic stability and growth. His government however didn’t do the minimum required to provide leadership to the foreign ministry. Typically a haven for intellectuality, flexibility and creative skills, the Sri Lankan foreign ministry was similar to a rag tag travel agency and place of experiment for unqualified appointments. As a result the foreign ministry became a haven for failure after failure. In the absence of a comprehensive action plan and lack of incentive for talented experts to do their job, the Sri Lankan foreign policy exercise totally collapsed.
Some in Sri Lanka seem to be promoting the factually incorrect view that after the January 2015 elections, the international community accepted us with much good will and all problems were now solved. Nothing can be further from the truth. After January 2015, the voters gave significant space for foreign powers to maneuver in Sri Lanka, thus allowing them to gain policy influence besides our traditional allies like China, Russia and Pakistan. The public intention was to give room to these powers in order to gain vital breathing space and avoid the immediate threat of international political interference and economic sabotage, as President Rajapakse’s government failed to deliver essential reforms as demanded. While today there is criticism on how China, one of the most important allies of Sri Lanka, is handled so far, and on the mismanagement of the current government, credit should be given to those in the new government who ensure transparency and flexibility in our foreign policy that has already resulted in some mouth sweetening results.
The biggest mistake here would be to assume that we should aim at establishing Sri Lanka as a strong partner for the Western block that sees the Maritime Silk road as a challenge to their neocolonial hegemony. Instead Sri Lanka must further its existing partnerships with the Maritime Silk Road and use China’s massive economic power in order to prepare Sri Lanka to exploit the geostrategic importance of the Indian Ocean, while at the same time showing a more non-aligned face of our foreign policy by allowing a fair maneuvering space for parties like the US, India and general west including G7 who have strategic desires and needs in the region.
President Sirisena successfully managed to regain positive recognition from the traditional world powers after a period of mistrust towards Sri Lanka. His diplomacy as a statesman will help our country to protect its sovereignty while exploiting our geostrategic location. Today we are able to move our non-aligned foreign policy into a new era. We can stop destabilization by foreign powers through providing alternatives that don’t threaten our sovereignty.
Through a very successful first 15 months in office, President Sirisena led us to this position with the same bureaucratic capacity as President Rajapaksa’s government and thereby greatly fulfilled the Middle Class expectations to change the way we implement our foreign policy. Today Sri Lanka stands before the challenge to become a stabilizing force in the Indian Ocean where all strategic interests can melt and mutually beneficial cooperation can take place. Through a flexible and rigid approach, we must strengthen our relationship with the West and Japan, while at the same time not betray cooperation with our traditional progressive partners in the Global South – especially China, Russia, Latin America and Africa. This means that we cannot become a party to any military axis or a market for anyone’s military-industrial complex.
My approximation is that all segments of UPFA are yet to properly understand and work with such a flexible foreign policy agenda. Even if they understand the type of challenge ahead of us, some clearly have other personal agendas dictating their behaviour, which has denied the president the vital strength to balance the neoliberal tendencies of the right-wing conservatives.
It is of utmost importance for our future existence that the Sri Lankan foreign policy infrastructure is rebuilt from the ground up and kept well oiled by giving it all the skills it needs to strengthen our global standing. This requires a strategy well rooted in the interests of the Global South in order to carefully manage G7’s counter-interests.
The mandate given in the last two elections is to take the country along the agenda set by the populace as they elected President Sirisena. This agenda however is not supposed to have neoliberal tendencies just as it is not supposed to take the path of former President Rajapaksa. Given that a change of the current unity government is not yet realistic, all progressive and anti-imperialistic actors must strengthen the path for the agenda they set throughout 2015. The current period of relaxed international pressure must be used for reforming the foreign ministry’s age-old system and strengthen its capacity to make sure it can further the achievements shown as well as making it effective in facing possible future droughts. This includes among other things the introduction of a system to hire the brightest in the country, restructuring, resourcing, as well as allowing greater flexibility to operate.
An important step in strengthening our armory to face our foreign policy challenge is to make Sri Lanka’s governance more transparent and “just” based on participatory democracy, leaving no room for external powers to exploit and manipulate the popular will. Participatory democracy does not mean devolution of powers to ethnicities or religions, but to individual people. Devolution must be secular as well as “just” and not strengthen religious or cultural institutionalization, hence totalitarian control. We must not make the public believe that accusations of alleged humanitarian violations are over. They are far from over, and Sri Lanka must establish a local mechanism to hold the responsible individuals accountable. This again does not mean that LTTE terrorists and those who helped them in their unprecedented carnage can get away with crime in order to satisfy external powers. In fact the spotlight and recognition that we gained in the West should be fully utilized to hold LTTE and its partners accountable just as others involved in such acts.
We must also take the opportunity to strengthen our relation with the African, Asian and Latin American nations, just as we build relations with the West. The stronger we will be in diplomacy, the more effective we can build our nation’s role as a balancing force in the Indian Ocean and provide a much needed platform for different geostrategic needs to work together. Until this happens, Sri Lanka’s long-standing dream of becoming the hub of trade and knowledge in the Indian Ocean after 600 years will not become reality. Therefore, we can clearly say congratulations to President Sirisena, but there still is a long way to go.