Colombo Telegraph

India-USA-China: The New Government’s Foreign Policy

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

“…we’re going to talk today about President Sirisena’s thoughts about how to move Sri Lanka away from 30 years of war with the Tamils…”– Secretary of State John Kerry, Feb 12, 2015

Given that India is Sri Lanka’s only neighbor and that it is a huge country and an Asian power, it is correct that Sri Lanka regards the management of its relations with India as the top priority. Therefore, it is appropriate that the President Sirisena, preceded by the new Government’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera should make New Delhi their first destination. President Sirisena is quite correct to follow this up with a visit to China in March.

However, the new Foreign Minister visited Washington DC, and indeed London, before he visited Beijing. This is most unfortunate, given that Sri Lanka’s main identity should be as an Asian country and that China is perhaps the most important Asian power and certainly one of the two top Asian powers, with the other being India. Given the multifaceted strategic partnership, support and solidarity that China has always and unhesitatingly extended Sri Lanka for decades, it would have been both sagacious and ethically correct for Foreign Minister Samaraweera to visit Beijing after his visit to our neighbor New Delhi and before his visit to any other capital, and most certainly before he visited Washington DC. His failure to do so and his visit to the UK and USA prior to China is a clear indication of the external relations doctrine of the new Cabinet.

I emphasize the term ‘the new Cabinet’, because I believe that notwithstanding his occasional pronouncements during the elections, President Sirisena is naturally inclined to be a friend of China and to balance between India and China, rather than tilt to India, the USA or any emergent Indo-US axis. However, the new Cabinet is emerging as an autonomous power center, because President Sirisena has chosen not to exercise his Constitutional right to chair Cabinet meetings, and it is the Prime Minister who does so.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s welcoming remarks on the occasion of his meeting with Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister revealed two basic truths. Firstly, that even at its most friendly, the US has a slightly prejudiced, if not warped perception of Sri Lanka. Secondly that Foreign Minister Samaraweera is no Lakshman Kadirgamar, the man he succeeded during his first stint in the post under President Rajapaksa.

Speaking in Washington DC on February 12, 2015, Mr. Kerry concluded his remarks of welcome with the line “…we’re going to talk today about President Sirisena’s thoughts about how to move Sri Lanka away from 30 years of war with the Tamils to a country that is inclusive and prosperous and peaceful.”

Earlier in his remarks, Secretary Kerry talked of the January 8th election as a “vote to move Sri Lanka in a new direction, to open up greater accountability…and putting together a government that will speak for and to the people…”

Mr. Kerry is a highly intelligent man, and in any case the LTTE or Tamil Tigers are sufficiently well known, for him to have been aware that Sri Lanka did not wage or experience “30 years of war with the Tamils” but with a separatist terrorist army or militia. So, either the US views the LTTE as being representative of the Tamils or it thinks that Sri Lanka waged a war for 30 years against the Tamil community. Whichever it was, it is damaging, distorted, insulting and dangerous.

One can imagine that had he faced a similar welcome, Foreign Minister Kadirgamar would have, in his own remarks, gently but clearly set the record straight, rectifying the egregious error. He would certainly not have let his country and its contemporary history be misrepresented; he would certainly not have taken it lying down.

For his part, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera not only failed to diplomatically correct the utterly false perception of and unfair reference to our country and implicitly its armed forces, he failed to mention the 30 years of war at all!

Secretary Kerry’s referred to the election as a vote to move Sri Lanka in a new direction “opening up greater accountability”. This demonstrates that the hypocritical invocation of accountability hasn’t stopped and that it remains on the front burner of the US agenda on Sri Lanka. There is therefore a gap between US expectations of Sri Lanka under the new administration, and the national, state and security interests of Sri Lanka, not to mention the views of the majority of Sri Lankan people.

Of course Secretary Kerry’ remarks were ironic in the extreme because the person who “moved Sri Lanka from 30 years of war”, was not President Sirisena but his predecessor President Rajapaksa, and that was five years ago. It is nice of Mr. Kerry to hope that President Sirisena would move us to a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka, but we’ve been peaceful and prosperous for five years, on President Rajapaksa’s watch.

Following her visit to Sri Lanka, Asst. Secretary of State Nisha Biswal and more importantly, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice referred to assisting in Sri Lanka’s transition. At one level, the US view rests upon an interesting inaccuracy because Sri Lanka is not really in the kind of transition that the other countries named in their officials’ statements are or were. Sri Lanka is not in transition from a military or any other kind of dictatorship or autocracy. It was always a multiparty democracy in which competitive elections were held. This time the Opposition won and there was a smooth transfer of power following a peaceful election. So Sri Lanka is not a transitional state or society. However, the use of the term ‘transitional’ by the US official reflects the view that Sri Lanka is in some kind of a transition. This can only be a transition from one kind of external relations paradigm which was realistically oriented towards Eurasia, mainly but not only Russia and China, to a competing paradigm which incorporates Sri Lanka into the Western orbit, specifically the US pivot to Asia and most concretely, the Indo-US condominium in the Indian ocean region.

The US usage of the term ‘transition’ with respect to Sri Lanka may have an internal dimension too, in that the new Government may restructure the state, transitioning it from a strong centripetal unitary state structure with a powerful center and an executive presidency, to one which is essentially a parliamentary and quasi-federal system, less able to resist centrifugal ethnic pulls from Tamil separatism and the neighboring South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and withstand external pressure. Sri Lanka seems to be in transition to a State form and model that is less able to safeguard national sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. The US may be happy to assist in transition to such a looser, weaker State.

The new Cabinet is overwhelmingly a United National Party cabinet. The UNP under the leadership of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is officially a member of the International Democratic Union (IDU) which is a collection of rightwing parties headed by the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives. As such the UNP government is more likely to be oriented towards a potential US-India axis. The Foreign Minister seems to represent the view of the UNP dominated government, rather than of President Sirisena who is the new leader of the centrist-nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

While it will be in Sri Lanka’s national interest that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) wins the upcoming parliamentary election and re-balances the country’s political equation, it is unlikely at the moment. This is because there is ideological and political confusion in the ranks of the SLFP. Right now, the UNP has been given the advantage by President Sirisena because he has appointed the UNP leader as Prime Minister and a predominantly UNP Cabinet, despite the fact that the UNP has not won an election nor has the support of a majority in parliament. It is ironic because President Sirisena is the new leader of the SLFP. But he has conferred an unfair advantage on the rival UNP by empowering it. He and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga have further confused the SLFP by collaborating with the UNP and attacking ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa who won the majority of the Sinhala majority at the recent elections, though he lost in the island as a whole. Mr. Rajapaksa won 58% of the 75% of the population who happen to be Sinhalese. The SLFP needs Mr. Rajapaksa’s popularity to win the upcoming election but the new SLFP leader seems determined to attack him politically. In this deliberate confusion, it is likely that the UNP will win. The only thing that could change that scenario is if ex-President Rajapaksa makes a political comeback at the parliamentary election through the SLFP or an effective new nationalist formation. If the SLFP wins, especially with a Rajapaksa component, then the foreign policy of the SLFP will be closer to that of the Rajapaksa years, though there would be greater balance between China, India and the USA, and especially between China and India. However, if the UNP wins, foreign policy will continue its present shift sharply towards the US, the West and a Washington-Delhi axis.

India can play a very constructive role in the economic, political and diplomatic arenas. Just recently the elected semi-autonomous Northern Provincial Council of Sri Lanka’s Tamil majority area passed a Resolution with the outrageous and aggressive allegation that successive Sri Lankan Governments since Independence in 1948, committed “genocide” against the Tamil community. India can help Sri Lanka’s rehabilitation process by helping oppose trends towards political and ethnic radicalization and polarization. It can do so by making it very clear to Sri Lanka’s and South India’s Tamil politicians that Delhi strongly opposes such a Resolution and will not countenance such anti-Sri Lankan and potentially separatist postures on the part of the Tamil politicians. India can also assure Sri Lanka of support for the island’s sovereignty in any effort to counter moves by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to move forward with an inquiry into Sri Lanka’s successful war against separatist terrorism in 2009.

Problems of a tactical nature between India and Sri Lanka, such as the issues of illegal fishing and Tamil refugees, can be dealt with jointly. What may prove more problematic are two strategic issues, namely India’s concerns about Sri Lanka-China equation and Sri Lanka’s political handling of its Tamil Question.

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