Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Relations: Three Policies We Can Adopt

By Mangala Samaraweera

Mangala Samaraweera -Minister of External Affairs

The Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute is the training ground for our future ambassadors to the world. Started twenty one years ago, its courses have rightly emphasized the importance of professional competence in our diplomatic corps – focussing on training in negotiations, public speaking, economic diplomacy and policy analysis. These are key tools that every diplomat aspires to perfect. It is with this in mind that I’d like to briefly outline some ideas on the theme “Sri Lanka at the cross-roads of the Asian Century” that could serve as an opportunity for you to exercise your newly acquired skills.

But before we can begin to consider policy, we must first survey our context. One of the sweeping changes of this epoch is the rise of Asia. On almost every measure the world’s centre of gravity is shifting towards the East, so there can be no doubt that this is the Asian Century: by 2030 Asia is projected to become world’s largest economic region and in 2013, for the first time in modern history, Asian defence spending exceeded Europe’s.

Any period of change generates new opportunities and new risks. And a historic shift of this magnitude is no exception. But it is timely to remember that changes around us, and even changes within, do not profoundly alter our fundamental foreign policy objectives. Ensuring the security of all Sri Lankans and advancing their development will always be at the core of a government’s duties in the foreign policy realm.

Over the last few years, Sri Lanka’s foreign relations were not aligned to our country’s needs – the interests of the few were served, while the needs of the many were ignored. As we reset our foreign policy, we should gear our strategy and policies towards harnessing the opportunities the Asian Century has to offer, while navigating and minimizing the risks that will inevitably accompany her rise. In this speech I will offer a few ideas to start a broader discussion on how this can be done, starting with the risks and then suggesting three policies we can adopt to begin tapping this Century’s potential.

Asia’s rise has heralded the end of the post-Cold War unipolar world order. The United States will remain the preponderant power for the foreseeable future but the balance of power is shifting in Asia’s favour. China and India are emerging as global power centres and Japan remains an important power. Together they are home to just over a third of the world’s population, generate an estimated 26 percent of global output and are among the top ten defence spenders. Historically, the the rise of new powers has almost always led to a period of flux and instability – the old order gives way, but the new order is yet to harden. In these fluid decades Sri Lanka will have no choice but to make strategic choices in her global positioning.

Both ancient history and contemporary experience suggest that Sri Lanka’s success will depend on maintaining friendly and intimate ties with India. India is our closest neighbour, one of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies, the world’s most populous democracy, our largest source of tourists and a country with whom we share ancient and contemporary civilizational ties. Thus the imperatives of security and economic development both make the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s thesis that Indo-Lanka relations must be that of “irreversible excellence” almost self-evident.

Similarly, China is rapidly becoming the world’s economic powerhouse. Experiencing rapid growth over the past few decades on some measures she is now the world’s largest economy – a position China has held for much of the last 2000 years.  China’s export-driven rise means that it has large surpluses of capital which enables it to invest abroad and play an increasingly important role in determining the architecture of global capital allocation. China is also now the world’s largest source of tourists. So Sri Lanka’s relationship with China needs to build on existing relations to zero-in on securing Chinese FDI, enabling access to Chinese markets and promoting Sri Lanka’s tourism.

The rise of a multipolar world system also makes preserving and developing the system of international rules and norms essential. This is especially true for a small island state. As a small state, international norms and the multilateral system of institutions help protect our sovereignty, security and give us a voice in global affairs. Similarly, as an island highly dependent on external trade, remittances and energy: ensuring open sea lanes, free financial flows and stable energy supplies is critical. While India is becoming a nett security provider in the region, it is the United States that is the primary architect, underwriter and sustainer of this rules based global order.

Having outlined the main risks and broad response strategies to them, we can now move on to the question of how we can leverage and harness the great potential of the Asian Century. While we must first put our own house in order, and there is a great deal of work that needs to be done on that score, it is also important to devote some time for blue-sky reflection. There are three main ideas I’d like to focus on today. The first involves the reconceptualisation of Sri Lanka as an Indian Ocean country, the second is exploring the use of paradiplomacy and the third is leveraging the tremendous resource of the Sri Lankan diaspora.

Throughout its ancient history, Sri Lanka had close links with the entire Indian Ocean rim spanning from Africa, the Arab Gulf, Persia, South Asia, South East Asia and Australia. Sri Lanka, geographically located the centre of the Indian Ocean and sitting astride major East-West and South-South trade routes, was at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean world. However, by and by, we came to be classified as a South Asian country and our own imaginations and those of others turned towards the Indian hinterland. Reclaiming our Indian Ocean identity helps us and others unlock the tremendous opportunities for attracting FDI, accessing markets and developing our tourism industry. For as a middle income country Sri Lanka can no longer depend on aid  to create jobs, generate growth and improve our living standards. As a result, for the modern Sri Lankan diplomat, salesmanship will be as important as statesmanship. Securing foreign investment, encouraging exports, promoting tourism and acquiring foreign expertise will be at the very centre of the foreign ministry’s role. (Of course that does not mean turning embassies into private tea trading centres as some Ambassadors did under the previous administration).

While we look towards the sea, the Indian hinterland and further away China also beckon. As study after study have noted, Sri Lanka’s failure to integrate into Indian supply chains and into the Indian economy in general has significantly hampered our economic development. In order to reverse this trend, we will have to begin seriously engaging with provinces and states that are playing an increasingly important economic decision-making role in India and China. The acceleration of paradiplomatic efforts by other countries has reflected these changes. For example, in the last two years alone Singaporean ministers have visited Indian states over a dozen times.

The third idea is not new. Per capita Sri Lanka probably has one of the largest diasporas in the world and it is also one of the most illustrious diaspora communities.  In fact, the late Lee Kuan Yew once said,

“In terms of numbers, the Ceylonese, like the Eurasians, are among the smallest of our various communities. Yet in terms of achievements and contributions to the growth and development of the modern Singapore and Malaysia they have done more than warranted by their numbers.”

But to our loss they have not featured prominently in our foreign policy making, and as a country we have done little to harness their capital, relationships and knowledge for our development. This is not true of many other countries. India has an entire ministry dedicated to Overseas Indian Affairs, while eight other countries also have diaspora affairs ministerial portfolios. Sri Lanka would do well to have a systematic approach and mechanism for harnessing the diaspora, which would also enable them to participate directly in the Asian Century.

Allow me to sum up by reiterating that our foreign policy must be aligned to the interests and welfare of all Sri Lankans. This of course means cautiously navigating the emerging multipolar regional order, while taking the initiative to harness the tremendous opportunities of the Asian Century. I trust that you will see your training here at the Bandaranaike Diplomatic Training Institute as an induction into a community of thinkers and practitioners, and as a foundation for lifelong involvement in Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs. With your support one day Sri Lanka can again be at the centre of the Indian Ocean world and at the crossroads of Asia.

Thank you.

*Foreign Minister Samaraweera’s speech at the Convocation Ceremony of the Bandaranaike Diplomatic Training instiute today

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