23 June, 2024


The South Asia Nuclear Threat And The Sirimavo Doctrine – II

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

In addition to the first part of this article there have been other articles indicating deep Indian anxieties over the issue of Chinese submarines docking at Colombo port. Noteworthy articles by Col.R.Hariharan and by Kanwal Siral a former Indian Foreign Secretary have been reproduced in the local press. There have also been statements by official spokesmen of the Sri Lankan and Chinese Governments claiming that nothing really untoward had occurred, but as far as I am aware there has been no strictly official statement by the Indian Government. Evidently all three Governments want to play the issue down. But the stark fact is that there has been a symbolic projection of Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean at a site that is in close proximity to India, the implications of which require assessment. Very probably the three Governments will work out an understanding regarding the projection of Chinese naval power at Colombo.

In the first part of this article I stated that I would focus on certain points, the first of which is that a successful foreign policy has to be based on an accurate perception of the world as it is, not on what we would like it to be, and further that its success would depend on its proper application in practice. A striking instance of the failure to perceive the world as it is, and the disastrous consequences that that could lead to, was provided of course by the assumption of the 1977 Government that it could turn to the US to counterbalance India. Instead it led to the Peace Accords of 1987 and the IPKF troops being invited into Sri Lanka, most unwelcome outcomes for most Sri Lankans behind which the prime mover was none other than the US itself, which far from being the counterbalance to India turned out to be its ally, as I have pointed out in earlier articles. But the conventional wisdom at present is that it was all a misunderstanding because President JR had in mind only the economic dimension, not the military one, in getting closer and closer to the US. But if that is so, why did he sign those Peace Accords which have so important a military dimension to them? We must be clear in our minds that basing our foreign policy on wishful thinking can lead to disaster.



By contrast, the present Government has based its foreign policy on giving primacy to relations with India over all other relations. That is sound policy, but there has been some amount of public unease about our ever-closer links with China, even though the Government has been insisting that those relations are purely economic without any military dimension to them at all. However, as we have seen, that position has been called into question by the visitation of the Chinese submarine. Maybe a policy change is taking place, a possibility that India clearly finds very upsetting. The change could arise out of a need to refurbish the President’s Dutugemunu image as I pointed out earlier, which of course is speculation though arguably plausible speculation. A more likely possibility, I think, is that our Government has not understood the implications of the symbolic projection of Chinese naval power in the vicinity of India. That would be an illustration of my point that a successful foreign policy has to be based on an accurate perception of the world as it is, and also on its proper application in practice.

I must now make a clarification about my use of the term “perception”. There used to be a school of thought way back in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties – as I found through my participation in seminars at that time – which gave central importance to “perception” in the analysis of international relations. Some would argue that Chinese naval power is negligible compared to that of the West and also of India in the Indian Ocean, and the question arises therefore whether India has over-reacted regarding that single nuclear submarine. It is possible, but I would say that it is probably a tactical over-reaction meant to counter a trend of growing Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean that could turn out to be dangerous for India. We must bear in mind the factor of perception in our relations with India. There are facts, there are perceptions of facts, and there are also misperceptions of facts. The crucial point is that the misperception of a fact is as much a fact as the fact itself. We must bear that in mind in working out sound relations with India. In practical terms there is a need for accommodativeness, transparency, and trust.

The second point on which I want to focus is that there is a distinct possibility of nuclear war between India and Pakistan. This of course is a worst case hypothesis, not something round the corner, but certainly a contingency for which we have to be prepared. Kissinger said some time ago that an Indo-Pakistan nuclear war was possible within the next twenty years or so. There is the perennially insoluble Kashmir problem which has already ignited two Indo-Pakistan wars. I believe that it is practically a certainty that Afghanistan, after the withdrawal of US troops, will become the theatre of a proxy war between India and Pakistan. A further factor to be taken into account is that extremist Islamic fundamentalists could come to power in Pakistan and get their finger on to the nuclear trigger. We must bear in mind in particular the fact that India is said to have nuclear installations in the South, which is supposed to be the reason why India has been concerned about the possible spread of Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka. Taking all these circumstances into account I cannot help wondering whether the recent symbolic projection of Chinese naval power was meant to convey to India that in connection with an Indo-Pakistan nuclear war China could become a factor to be reckoned with.

It might seem that I am taking a needlessly apocalyptic view of the nuclear threat. On the contrary I believe that I am being realistic in taking into account factors that are usually ignored in the analysis of politics and international relations. I believe that there is such a thing as human nature, which includes a propensity in some though not all of humanity to Evil in a secular sense, meaning a drive to harm and to destroy without any tangible benefits for the evil-doer. Freud’s death wish and Eric Fromm’s necrophiliac drive are about Evil in this sense, and there are accounts of Evil in action in great creative literature, in Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Melville and others.

The most horrifying instance of Evil in action in international relations since the Second World War was the Cuban missile crisis of 1961. Khrushchev positioned missiles in Cuba, but he agreed to withdraw them in exchange for Kennedy’s commitment to withdraw (superannuated) missiles from Turkey. It was only decades later that the world came to know that if not for Khrushchev’s willingness to compromise there really would have occurred a nuclear war – which earlier seemed doubtful – a war in which both super-powers together with a good part of the globe would have been destroyed. That would have illustrated the thesis that nuclear war would be MAD –Mutual Assured Destruction. It would also have fitted in with my conceptualization of Evil as a drive to harm and destroy without tangible benefits for the evil-doer. After the missile crisis the next most horrible instance of Evil in action in international relations was the second Iraq war. Bush and Blair lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because they wanted an excuse to harm and destroy Iraq. Neither the US nor Britain gained tangible benefits worth speaking about from that war, certainly nothing commensurate with the destruction they wrought on Iraq.

I come now to the third point on which this article has to focus: we have to forge a foreign policy that takes into account the possibility of a South Asian nuclear war, and see how best we can secure our legitimate interests against that possibility. I believe that the answer has to be found through a reconceptualisation of the traditional notion of “spheres of influence” and the application of the Sirimavo Doctrine. These are matters that require in-depth treatment at considerable length. But I have to be brief and I shall therefore limit myself to making the essential points.

The problem underlying the Cuban missile crisis was that of spheres of influence. The Soviet Union in positioning missiles in Cuba was intruding into Latin America, territory that the US had grown accustomed to regard as its backyard, its sphere of influence, ever since the enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine in the nineteenth century; while the Soviet Union in securing the withdrawal of missiles from Turkey was laying claim to its own sphere of influence. The deterioration of relations between the US and the EU on the one hand and Russia on the other also derives from the problem of spheres of influence. Russia “annexed” the Crimea and took tough action in other parts of the Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere because it is asserting its right to its sphere of influence.

The rest of the world has not properly understood the Russian position. During my period in Moscow from 1995 to 1998 it was impossible not to notice a very deep sense of Russian disappointment and resentment over the fact that the US was trying to conscript all Russia’s neighbors into NATO. That seemed gratuitously hostile because Russia had voluntarily dismantled its huge Soviet Empire and shown by concrete action that it had no in-built aggressive drive towards its neighbors. Furthermore there is in Russian historic consciousness a messianic universalist notion of Russia as the Third Rome which would usher in a period of peace and prosperity across the globe. Russia was looking forward to co-operation with the West in building a better world. Instead it was being treated as a potential pariah state. It is the disappointment and resentment over that fact that is to be seen in Gorbachev’s recent statement on an impending new Cold war.

The term “sphere of influence” has negative connotations because it implies an unequal relationship between countries which could range from outright domination to a lose hegemony. But the world is changing, imperialism is today anathematized, and it has been becoming more and more difficult for the big and powerful to dominate the small and weak. Over a very long period the US dominated the whole of Latin America through corrupt and brutal dictatorships, but that is no longer possible. The US and Britain can destroy Iraq but they can’t dominate the Iraqis. It is possible today for a small and weak country to have an equitable relationship with a big and powerful neighbor without the intrusive presence of a third power protecting the former. That is precisely the kind of relationship that Sri Lanka has had with its big neighbor for most of the time since 1948.

We must assert what I call the Sirimavo Doctrine. She used to say, “We must never do anything that might harm another country”. I thought that was pukkah. It seemed to me that an ancient civilization, based on sound Buddhist morality, was speaking through the voice of one of its finest daughters. Probably her precept antedates Buddhism and goes right back to the ancestral human group of around 50,000 years ago which discovered that human survival required relations of trust and reciprocity. That has to be the basis on which a society holds together, and it has also to be the basis for any new world order worth the name. In practice that precept means for Sri Lanka that – in particular – it does not do anything that might harm India. On India’s side, it has to continue the fundamental principle on which it has been conducting its relations with Sri Lanka: as a small and weak country Sri Lanka cannot pose a threat to India by itself, but it can do so if it gets together with a powerful country against India. The Sirimavo Doctrine, and its application in practice to our relations with India, could help sort out Russia’s troubled relations with some of its neighbors

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    Was there such a thing as a Sirima Doctrine at any time? If she said “We must never do anything that might harm another country” the inexperienced lady was being naïve and simplistic. Was it not this reluctant political leader, who on the one hand was fooling her people boasting of the “special relationship between the Bandaranaikes and the Nehrus” while simultaneously endangering India’s security and contributing to the Pakistani war effort in the war between those two countries in 1971 by foolishly allowing Pakistani attack planes to refuel at Katunayake then. That was an occasion she could have announced to the world the importance of Non-alignment.

    In totally keeping away from her funeral and that of her son, Anura, India was sending the message this so called “relationship” is nothing but a one-sided claim.


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