By Harsha Gunasena –
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka on Tuesday October 27 after visiting India. Thereafter he will visit Maldives and Indonesia.
He visits Sri Lanka after the recent visit of high-powered Chinese delegation, led by senior Chinese leader and top foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, who is a member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo and the director of the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission.
As a pre-curser of the visit, Dean Thompson, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs of the State Department said that “We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity” to which Chinese officials responded that it was cold war mentality and bullying the weak nations.
His visit comes a week before the US presidential election where President Donald Trump repeatedly emphasizing that he is being tough on China. Therefore, this visit can be a part of the election campaign as well.
During the early part of the Trump presidency the trade war with China was started violating the norms of World Trade Organization and now it has gone to the level of cold war. After resurrection in 2017 the alliance called Quad comprising of India, Japan, Australia and the US, emphasized the liberal rule based international order which was undermined by China and now it is openly anti-China.
The foreign policy of US is an extension of its defence policy. The US at present seems to be perceived that the existence of China is a threat to the US. Therefore, with the increasing relationships with China, Sri Lanka is likely to get trapped between the US and China unless Sri Lanka acts cautiously.
China entered into Sri Lankan foreign policy back in the 1960s. Neville Jayaweera, top civil servant in his autobiographical reflection on the ethnic conflict, Jaffna, Exorcising the past and holding the vision, comments as follows about the then powerful Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs N.Q. Dias.
“Dias also unfolded to me a brand-new foreign policy he was working on. He was of the view that basically Sri Lanka had no coherent foreign policy and was consequently too dependent on the West and trusted the bona fides of India which he said was a huge mistake. He emphasized the need for Sri Lanka to veer away from India and forge new alliances. He said that to this end he was planning to open up closer relations with China as a countervailing force against India and to set his project in motion, was plaining to send Mrs. Bandaranaike on an official visit to Beijing.”
“As for my role as GA of Jaffna, Dias said that while facilitating the construction of the propose military camps girdling the Northern Province, I should be “unrelenting” towards Tamil demands, and wherever possible “force confrontations” with them and established the government’s “undisputed ascendancy” (Pages 74-75)
The plan of Dias was to encircle Northern Province with a chain of military camps to contain a future Tamil revolt and the new GA Jaffna had to facilitate the construction.
Dias was trying to harass Tamils and made plans to contain a future revolt in the capacity of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and at the same time was trying to move away from the West and from India and trying to build up close relationship with China in the capacity of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs. This was the root cause of our subsequent dilemma in foreign policy.
When President Jayewardene moved towards the West ignoring India in 1980s when India was aligned with Soviet Union during the cold war, he was advised by the US to settle matters with India since US did not want to interfere with the affairs of a country which was in the backyard of India. Eventually India trained Tamil militants who revolted against the state, making the plans of Dias a flop. When the war dragged on, the West did not support Sri Lanka since there was a strong ethnic issue against Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka had to rely on Pakistan for the supply of arms. Eventually when the LTTE killed Rajiv Gandhi and became a power with naval and air force, the West supported to defeat the LTTE, but the arms came mainly from China. India also did not interfere as it did in Rajiv-JR era.
After the end of the war Sri Lankan government did not fulfil the promises made to India during the war related to a political settlement to the ethnic issue, which were helpful to neutralize India during the war. When the Indian pressure was building up Sri Lanka turned to China.
In 1980s Ralph Buultjens said that the pivotal point of Indo-Lanka relationship was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. This was changed with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi but the Center of India cannot ignore the sentiments of the Tamil Nadu towards the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
The situation Sri Lanka faces today is an complicated extension of the duel policy of N.Q.Dias. It is complicated because of the cold war of US and China. President Jayewardene also faced the same situation but during that time the Chinese factor, the other component of Dias’s formula, was not there.
It was evident that the US supported authoritative regimes around the world when those regimes supported to counter the overall defence concerns of the US. In those instances, the US was not concerned whether those regimes supported the liberal and democratic values, which were propagated by the US around the world. For the US, defence comes first and then the liberal and democratic values. Therefore, as a tradeoff at the negotiations it may be possible that the US may forgo the pressure to Sri Lanka to its commitment to the reconciliation process in exchange of the loyalty to the US against China. If so, Sri Lanka would not be able to come up as a Nation for generations to come. However, this is unlikely due to the concerns of India towards Sri Lankan Tamils. Sri Lanka would be stronger in the negotiations if we have resolved the ethnic conflict which means taking away the second component of Dias’s formula.
The other aspect is cash. Minister Cabraal said that at this juncture of the history China is the most cash rich country. During the war China supplied arms on loan. Thereafter China funded several projects where there were no economic returns in the short run. China is alleged of debt diplomacy around the world. Sri Lanka is a country which had inappropriate financial management for a long period. Sri Lanka turns to China at this point due to the same reasons a rural farmer turns to a local money lender instead of a bank. Therefore, choices for Sri Lanka is difficult so as the decisions to be made.