29 October, 2020

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Sri Lanka In Global Affairs: The Journey Since January 2015

By Jayadeva Uyangoda – 

Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda

Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda

My views expressed here today do not represent positions of any political party, or any power center. I do not have any personal or political stake either at the ways in which how the government makes its foreign policy decisions or conducts its policies. Not being a political insider, I am not privy to valuable political gossip that can help place in context, and even alter, most of the points I would be making in this presentation. I am only a student of politics, and not a political actor, before or behind the scenes. I look at Sri Lanka’s foreign policy issues and challenges purely from an academic point of view. Therefore, I will take every precaution not to allow my analysis and arguments naïve, although some may see them exactly to be of that quality.

One thing I have learnt recently – and this is a lesson I urge all of you also to think about — is that foreign policy making is infinitely more complex than what politicians in the opposition, or those who are aspiring to come to power, want the public to believe. Leaders of this government seem to have been learning this simple, yet fundamental lesson, since last January. That is why the foreign policy positions of this government seem to have been in a continuous state of flux.

There is a good reason for it to be so. The government has been compelled to negotiate a number of factors and pressures in steering its journey in order to establish its on ‘foreign policy identity.’ I do not think that there is yet evidence to suggest that the government wants to have, or been able to establish, a firm ideological identity in its external relations, as it has been the case with many governments in the past, particularly the previous one. Avoiding an ideological identity as such to its foreign policy strategies seems to be a key defining feature of the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wikremasinghe administration at present.

Some see this flexibility as a weakness of the government. There is, however, another way of looking at it. It represents the essential dimension of pragmatism in foreign policy, necessitated by a range of complex domestic, regional and global factors. Muddling through is not necessarily a sign of weakness, or prelude to disaster, in a context where the government has been experimenting different responses to some key foreign policy determinants.

What are the key determinants that have impacted on the shaping of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since January last year? We can put them in two groupings.

The first is electoral and regime change compulsions. Any new government would want to steer a new path of foreign policy. Given the atmosphere of extreme hostility between the two camps, the new government was compelled to abandon immediately the foreign policy orientation of its predecessor. The new orientation was seen in the restoration of closeness with regional as well global powers that had earlier been marginalized. This core dimension of the foreign policy continues with only a slight change.

This change is felt primarily in the relations which China. China had maintained a close political proximity to the previous government and its leadership. China’s aloofness to the emerging opposition during even the last few months of the year 2014 was somewhat inexplicable too. All this had led to the new government to adopt a policy of distancing itself from China, both politically and economically. One could even detect some degree of tension between Sri Lanka’s new government and the Chinese government, as it had become somewhat noticeable with regard to the Port City development project. The government has passed that initial phase of uncertainty and now appears to have refined its core foreign policy stance to be ‘friendship with all; enmity with none.’

The second was a theme that showed the continuation of the central role that the ethnic conflict and civil war had played in bringing together in a symbiotic framework Sri Lanka’s domestic politics and external relations. New York, Geneva, Washington DC, London, Brussels and New Delhi were the key cities that constituted the centres of its global geography. Geneva in March and October 2015 symbolized this process of re-configuring Sri Lanka’s global relations and strategies. For the first time since 2009, we could see the Sri Lankan government, the UN, the EU and Western governments – the West-led managers of the global political system – sitting and talking to each other as friends, committed to a shared goal of post-war peace-building and development in Sri Lanka.

This reconfiguration of the external seems to have run into some difficulty by late last year. Its cause was primarily domestic. And it entails Sri Lanka’s severe balance of payment crisis, triggered off by the mounting debt crisis and the poor record of incoming private foreign investments. The new government has also come to realize that its newly found Western allies were not really ready to assist Sri Lanka to manage the emerging economic crisis in any substantive way. Understandably, for the Maithripala Sirisena – Ranil Wickremesinghe government, there was no free lunch coming from Europe or America! Whatever little that came had political conditionalities attached. Faced with potentially disastrous economic downturn, the government seems to have decided to re-recalibrate its external relations. This is the only way to explain the government’s perusal, of late, of a policy of closer and robust economic relations with China, despite continuing domestic criticism, coming from allies as well as opponents. There is no free lunch from Beijing too, though!!

A point that may interest the observer is that the government has so far been careful to emphasize the economic dimensions of its closeness to China, thereby playing down the possibility of any political and ideological closeness. This is one point by which this government seems to sharply differentiate itself from the previous one. There was a strong view in the country that China was backing the authoritarian project of the previous government’s leadership, closing its eyes totally to issues of democracy, human rights and corruption. The Chinese leadership is unlikely to abandon their personal and political closeness with Sri Lanka’s former President. In foreign policy matters, China is also known historically for its utmost pragmatism to serve national interests. What seems to be happening is that the China has regained the initiative in restoring its relations with the new Sri Lankan government at a conjuncture when it can define the terms of engagement from a position of advantage. This perhaps is the only foreign policy setback the new government has experienced.

Meanwhile, domestic issues seem to continue to maintain the upper hand in defining the trajectories of Sri Lanka’s external relations. Let me explain this point by citing just one prominent example.

This government’s overall record of domestic policy and policy reforms has been one of marginal achievements. Its major victories in the domestic front continues to be negative ones – negative in the sense of achievements made by not doing certain things, rather than doing things with aggressive intent. Therefore, this government’s exemplary record of restoring and maintaining a open, democratic and non-repressive political ambience in the country, is more a product of preventing the state agencies doing certain things, than doing positive things such as the abrogation of PTA, or taking concrete steps towards demilitarization. There are of course good reasons to explain this poor positive democratization record. Yet, they hardy justify the government’s continuing record of negative achievements. Thus, the government has already begun to lose the loyalty of its ‘natural’ domestic constituency, the democratic civil society movement.

Meanwhile, only in three areas the government seems to have been successful. As already mentioned, managing external relations through a strategy of policy flexibility is one. The other two are, (a) arresting the process of Sri Lanka’s drift towards hard authoritarianism, and (b) keeping the opponents — the so-called joint opposition — at bay, preventing its growth into an imminent political threat to regime stability. Actually, this government’s strength lies in the weakness of the lose coalition of its parliamentary opponents, who incidentally are MPs of the UPFA coalition which President Sirisena himself heads.

The success in the external relations front is primarily characterized by the government’s ability to establish a policy regime of equilibrium vis a vis major regional, continental and global powers. However, that success runs the risk of being undermined by a failure in a crucial domestic issue with international consequences. This refers to the proper implementation of promises and pledges made in the Geneva resolution last year on post-war peace building, ethnic reconciliation and state reform.

The evidence so far suggests that the government might try to defend its poor performance record, or the weak report card, because it has to do it any way in Geneva by citing domestic difficulties. To defend it internationally, the government might also need to recalibrate its external relations and seek new domestic as well as global allies who are skeptical of, and even opposed to, the Geneva process. This is the topic which Sri Lanka’s foreign policy watchers of domestic political developments, me included, would monitor with great interest during the next few months to come. While seeking new allies, President or the Prime Minister should not ignore the broad coalition that made possible the regime change of January 2015. Nor should they turn their back on the reform agenda for good governance, democracy, and peace building. Now it is time for them to take some serious steps towards course correction. Revisiting the January 2015 reform agenda will certainly be helpful.

Meanwhile, the government’s external, or foreign, policy activities seem being conducted through two centers, President’s office and Prime Minister’s office. This is an extremely interesting new development. The thinking and action at both centers seem so far seem to be complementary, although there is no proper public acknowledgement of it by the leaders themselves. In fact, re-negotiation of economic relations with China appears to have been undertaken by both the President and the Prime Minister.

There seems to be policy convergence between the SLFP led by the President and the UNP led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Both centers show signs of being non-ideological, non-combative and principled in their perceptions of the world and global affairs. Quite significantly, and refreshingly, they don’t have advisors who give long lectures to Western diplomats in their capitals on international law, politics or colonialism. President Sirisena’s modest and simple personal demeanor is an added asset. It is the policy of ‘friendship with all; enmity with none’ that in my view has made it possible for the President to be invited to the G-7 Summit.

The government’s foreign policy strength perhaps lies in the position of equidistance it is now maintaining with regional, continental and global powers. In a world where (a) there is no bipolarity, and there are old and emerging global powers in rivalry as well as acting in cooperation, and (b) regional centres of power emerging as important players in the global arena, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy can, and should, not be informed by dogmatic adherence to ignorance. This government has taken Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to a post-ideological, post-egoistic, and post-confrontational phase. Some critics may not see the value of it. Yet, the realization of it is no mean achievement for any government.

* Speech made at the Panel Discussion on “Sri Lanka in Global Affairs: The Journey Since January 2015″, held at the BMICH on 13 June 2016.

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Latest comments

  • 2
    1

    “friendship with all; enmity with none’ that in my view has made it possible for the President to be invited to the G-7 Summit.”
    Brutus too was a friend of Ceasar. Hopefully “You too Brutus” will not be heard.

    • 3
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      Pacs

      Hang on, let’s make up our mind once Dayan the war monger has pronounced his verdict on foreign policy failure of present government.

  • 3
    1

    Prof.Uyangoda,

    Thank you for the profound and yet panoramic analysis of the situation prevailing in the country today. The following words have nailed the mast:

    “This government’s overall record of domestic policy and policy reforms has been one of marginal achievements. Its major victories in the domestic front continues to be negative ones – negative in the sense of achievements made by not doing certain things, rather than doing things with aggressive intent. Therefore, this government’s exemplary record of restoring and maintaining a open, democratic and non-repressive political ambience in the country, is more a product of preventing the state agencies doing certain things, than doing positive things such as the abrogation of PTA, or taking concrete steps towards demilitarization. There are of course good reasons to explain this poor positive democratization record. Yet, they hardy justify the government’s continuing record of negative achievements. Thus, the government has already begun to lose the loyalty of its ‘natural’ domestic constituency, the democratic civil society movement.”

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 2
    0

    We accept China is a powerful country. But we should be careful according to our recent past experience. Before foreign countries are attracted to our country we should be strong and peaceful. When others see some value within us they would be tempted to help us. We are the people who should love our country. Being harmonious we should be more and more strong. We should not suppress capable people and entities with jealousy. We should not merely criticize without showing the right path. We should not be selfish. Should concentrate more on long term success. Then only foreign parties would be automatically attracted towards us.

  • 2
    0

    Prof Uyangoda

    You have hit the nail on the forehead!. Yes doing nothing is not an
    Utopian solution for the country. Srilanka has been living on aids, loans , development grants and barrowed times for the past 60 years or so. Like you most right thinking souls thought 5 January 2015 was a new dawn. They have every reason to expect things to change for the better for all Sri Lankans. We are yet to see that promised paradise.

    I must say that we enjoy the press freedom to a point compared to the previous regime. Money can not buy “freedom of expression”. In my view this is a great bonus to ordinary citizens like you and me . For this we must salute and thank both MS & RW

    Coming back to achievements; we are almost 18 months down the road, what have we to show for either on the domestic or foreign scenes . Bare minimum is the answer. Whom to blame or who or what is responsible for the status quo , your guess is as good as mine. I have no desire to disturb the bonnets nest.
    Like you I have no axe to grind other than the fact that we want Sri Lanka to be a nation to be proud of , not necessarily on the merit of the “best tea” on the planet. Or the expatriates’ remittance , mainly from the middle-East living and working under appalling conditions and hardship. The horror stories one reads in the media is only a tip of the iceberg . As I hail from the plantation sector I hear lots of very pathetic and soul searching stories.
    It seems that as a nation we have lost our way and path. In my candid view we have become a nation of want , want from the top to bottom of the social ,political and economic spectrum “greed” is the by word. As we all know there is no cure, or panacea to date for this illness “greed”. May be some clever soul might come up soon with a genetic or biological solution. We can only live in hope

    Joking apart , it is time that the nation as a whole stop and do some soul searching and reflect on the past decade or so!!!

  • 0
    2

    The journey doesn’t look too good for some Yahapalana Architects .

    The latest casualty is poor Somawansa, although he tried to absolve himself in recent days.

  • 2
    0

    Beautifully analysed and presented.
    You are a real example of an academic.
    You’ve expressed your view in an unbiased manner. You are a REAL PATRIOT.

  • 2
    0

    I have been reading Prof:Jayadeva Uyangoda on Political issues over a long period of time,may be 20 years or so.Over that period of time,I have always marveled at his reasoning and objective analysis of issues and events.
    Therefore,I can vouch for his line…
    ….I am only a student of Politics,and not a Political actor,before or behind the scenes…..

    I very well remember how he moderated a debate,between Ashraf and Kumar Ponnabalam way back in the 90s at the YMCA Colombo.Not an easy job,though!

  • 4
    2

    “This change is felt primarily in the relations which China. China had maintained a close political proximity to the previous government and its leadership. China’s aloofness to the emerging opposition during even the last few months of the year 2014 was somewhat inexplicable too. All this had led to the new government to adopt a policy of distancing itself from China, both politically and economically. One could even detect some degree of tension between Sri Lanka’s new government and the Chinese government, as it had become somewhat noticeable with regard to the Port City development project.”

    China– or for that matter any country –will respond positively to friendly gestures. The UNP has historically been anti-China, because China was socialist, but recently it has been the pro-West attitude that prompted anti-China sentiments to emerge strongly during the election campaign. But China always sought good relations with any Sri Lankan government. (One may attribute any motive, but that is something that a political observer cannot ignore.)
    If China had showed interest in political changes in any country that was in the long past, especially the Cultural Revolution. Even then China has avoided being any kind of catalyst of change the way the West has almost always been, and India has been in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka, and up to a point Male.

    If there was any tension “between Sri Lanka’s new government and the Chinese government” that was more visible on the Sri Lankan side. Chinese diplomacy has lessons to offer to its global rivals– mainly the art of waiting.

    “For the first time since 2009, we could see the Sri Lankan government, the UN, the EU and Western governments – the West-led managers of the global political system – sitting and talking to each other as friends, committed to a shared goal of post-war peace-building and development in Sri Lanka.”

    I am not overjoyed by the prospect of the “interest in peace building” of the West, as I think that the West, as usual, has more interest in empire building than peace building.
    Peace building is an internal process. Communities of the country need to come together to achieve anything durable. Sadly we do not have political parties free of parochial thinking. And pressure from vested interests will achieve nothing productive.

    India has received a mention only in passing.
    I wonder why.

    • 2
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      SJ/sekara

      Alright, let us have a referendum on the future fate of this island.

      To merge or not to merge with China as another autonomous region.

      It would be fun to call China our mother country.

      Then what next?

      Go for a belated cultural revolution?

    • 1
      1

      “I am not overjoyed by the prospect of the “interest in peace building” of the West, as I think that the West, as usual, has more interest in empire building than peace building.”

      From my viewpoint, China has been the more responsible global actor, having decided against a policy of invasion and conquest. What is most shocking and even awe inspiring is the sheer stupidy of the Neo-Colonial western government, they can create nothing but a mess wherever they interfere it seems. Accoding to a former US official “thinking has now changed in Washington” about Libya for example. Too late.

  • 1
    1

    “The government’s foreign policy strength perhaps lies in the position of equidistance it is now maintaining with regional, continental and global powers.”

    Dear Professor Uyangoda.

    Is it really equidistance? It seems to me that Sri Lanka is a victim of “America’s pivot towards Asia’. Going back to the 1970’s, I recall Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government was more aligned with Russia and China at that time. Mr. JR J’s government changed all that, with a definite bias towards the United States, as I recall he was invited to the White House and met with President Reagan at that time. In recent years China has helped us immensely.

    Once again the pendulum has swung the other way. I am sure you are aware of which countries have helped Sri Lanka and which have hindered, even interfered in out internal conflicts, and which countries have refused to help us throughout our 65 years of independance. They must bear the responsibility for many of the perhaps unintended consequences of their actions.

    It would be best if Sri Lanka is strong enough to stand independently against all foreign interests that are not beneficial to us, however this is a near impossible task. The best course may be to muddle along, engage in frequent changes in government and confuse and frustrate the foreign interests as we have done in the past.

    I fear there is no middle ground in global politics.

  • 0
    0

    Dr Uyangoda has written well, but what about the Elephant in the room?

    Many nations are well disposed to the present government (and President), notwithstanding any shortcomings. But they are all well briefed on the ‘strange’ relationship we have with our closest neighbour to the north. They don’t wonder why; they know.

    Our foreign policy will suck, until we forge a good, viable, and lasting working relationship with India.

  • 2
    0

    Very balanced article. But, a friendship with all and enmity to none policy will not be possible for long. There are different alliances taking place with affect the balance of power. It is obvious that there is a US-India-Vietnam-Australia-Japan-South Korea axis which is in formation to counter the rise of China. The Trans Pacific Pact is as much a strategic alliance as an economic one. It includes Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand in a pact with the US. The isolation of China is what is sought. China’s recalcitrance in the South China Sea is a problem. The US answer is to create a strong buffer against Chinese adventurism. In this context, Sri Lanka cannot remain neutral. There would be pressure to take sides. There are levers to manipulate. The human rights record is still there hanging like a sword of Damocles, ready to fall, if need arises. As long as the Tamil problem remains unsolved, it also provides a leverage to the West, but especially to India. The Tamil diaspora could also be manipulated and encouraged. There are many reasons why it would be healthy for Sri Lanka to solve the ethnic problem. It festering will bring trouble of different sorts to Sri Lanka. Friendship with all will be meaningful if practiced internally first.
    Chinese aid does not come without strings attached. In Sudan and elsewhere, they have supported dictators. They feel comfortable with them because that is the system on which they operate. One has to be careful in walking into the Chinese parlor.

  • 0
    0

    We ,Sri lanakn are in the extremely critical and desperate political situation the country and people, is in as regards ensuring at least the mere Foreign policies of possible of our nation existence of majority of the Sinhalese population since 2015 January 8th “Revolution”.

    As the regards safeguarding National sovereignty, territorial integrity and Independent it form US, UK, EU and Indian it from political conditions after 2015 January 8th that counter-revolution conditions urgently demand achievement of very definite practical results for our country.

    There is no doubt of that ,but it will be able to do so only if in actual fact an absolutely strict account is foreign policy is taken of all existing relations with all countries and if it can be enlighten among the whole population with greatest political and democratic vision and carefulness.

    We suffer worst destruction by LTTE led WAR over 30 years.
    And what is most all necessary for the revival national political-economy and destruction of system of democracy by LTTE and JVP since 1965;the foundation of JVP anarchist outfit had been totally undermine ours democracy ,as well as foreign policy too.

    Our nation marked huge distance from ‘Rule of democracy’ last 50 years that inside and outside that the Parliamentary management of political parties and their affairs has been betray by leadership two main political parties and its values of democracy.

    Now, we have come to the turning-point when –without in any way ceasing to prepare the democratic of masses for the participation in governances of democracy of state and economic management and administration of all affairs of Sri Lankan society that unable move forward, even few steps.

    Without the way of political hindering by current leadership of “good governance” is unable to be fulfil challenging task of by the present regime led by MS UNP-Ranil and CBK.

    We have to have democratic functions of discussions and the airing questions foreign policies by public meetings and on the other hand the establishment of strictest responsibility organization for south-south corporation and emerging countries.

    Now it is impossible to postpone it or wait for it any longer delay ours new foreign policy move by change of government .Undoubtedly the opinion is very widely held by many elites that there can be no questions of compatibility that UNP-Party rule- one man absolute authority is incompatible with Parliament democracy survive in Sri lanka last 68 years.

    What I have to say it is necessary that current UNP regime led by Ranil W….for each executive functions we should know precisely what are the leader having been chosen to act as responsible leaders bear foreign policy for the responsibility and accountability in ministry of foreign affairs and its relationships.
    e need functions of foreign affairs organism as a whole.

    If we are not that an approach reality of new world balance of power by economically and politically in an objectively, that our new vision of democracy ,that we ignored trend this by our state will run towards to be ruin, collapse and decline by the UNP Neo-liberal leadership.

  • 0
    0

    Terrorism in Sri Lanka has purely internal causes. Both the JVP uprising and the LTTE wars were the consequences of purely internal factors. One came about as a result of the frustration of the falsely created hopes of the Sinhalese youth, promised equality and upward mobility and given only the Ashwa Vidyalaya and unemployment. The Tamil youth were similarly thwarted. These are purely internally caused situations. Calling them terrorism is unhelpful because it was invited by those in power. Instead of solving these issues, those in power, now exclusively Sinhalese, are compounding the situation. Rampant corruption once more engulfs Sri Lanka. Ethnic fundamentalism awaits in the wings ready to be aroused. There does not seem to be an end to this. The solution is not one that Sri Lankans by themselves can devise. It would be a good thing to hold war crimes trials with a hybrid court. At least the judiciary could learn to be independent. It is a start.

  • 0
    0

    Sri Lankan was fought for 30 years protected War against Terrorism that to be protected her national salvation and its sovereignty which that proxy war lunch by LTTE Tamil Terror outfit against dismantle key part of Democracy and its values in an Island.That was defeated of LTTE has gain new venture of foreign policies since 2009 May.

    Yes, no doubt that LTTE and JVP terrorist are internal matters, but exploited of politics rule by gun that terrorism of these two anarchist outfit are politically back by USA, UK and Indian has undermined our Non-aligned foreign policies prevailed since 1956.

    We are a Independent nation of 2600 except 425 western rule.
    Having rich culture civilization had been inherited by all Sri Lankans.

    Our foreign relationship with many nations was start even before Colonial power being to an Island. Nation has their own experiences foreign relation and state to state ties with by their own diplomacy long time ago.

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