Mending fences with Japan | Sunday Observer

Mending fences with Japan

28 May, 2023

Japan has always been one of the closest friends of Sri Lanka but these bonds were strengthened by former President J.R. Jayewardene’s call to the wider world to assist Japan to rise up after it was virtually decimated following World War II. President Jayewardene, the Finance Minister of then Ceylon, echoed the timeless words of the Buddha - “hatred does not cease by hatred, but by love alone” at the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951. Ever since, there is a special place for Sri Lanka in the heart of every Japanese.

In fact, when this speech was made, Sri Lanka and Japan had not even established official diplomatic ties. That would happen one year later, but the two countries already had close cultural, religious and trade links. The establishment of diplomatic relations marked a turning point in the bilateral relationship and Japan became possibly Sri Lanka’s biggest donorand investor. The number of projects funded by Japan and the amounts provided have been detailed in another article in this newspaper, but Japan has always gone beyond mere monetary assistance.

One example is its appointment of a Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, who made relentless efforts to achieve a viable solution. While many in the media and politics cast aspersions on the role played by certain other countries in the Peace Process, there were no such reservations when it came to Japan. Everyone knew that Japan’s commitment was truly genuine, with no vested interests or prejudices. However, it was not Japan’s fault that these efforts yielded no breakthrough.

All Japanese Emperors and leaders have been sincere friends of Sri Lanka, coming to our assistance with no strings attached. Japan convened a Donor Conference for Sri Lanka in 2003, when present President Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister, at which more than US$ 4 billion was pledged. Similarly, it helped Sri Lanka for reconstruction efforts after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

But some recent decisions taken by previous Sri Lankan Governments have strained this time-tested relationship almost to the breaking point. One such decision was perhaps the biggest blunder committed by a Sri Lankan Government in living memory. We are referring to the unilateral cancellation of the Japan-funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) project (initially from Malabe to Colombo) by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, based apparently on the advice of certain corrupt and incompetent officials who advocated an even more expensive road project. Somewhat unfortunately for Sri Lanka, a similar Japan-funded LRT project is already operational in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

That Government also unilaterally cancelled the India-Japan funded Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port, giving in to trade union protests. There was also an unfortunate development with regard to the Japan-funded Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) expansion project, which was inaugurated by the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This project too is in limbo.

Thus this week’s visit to Japan by President Wickremesinghe could not have come at a better time. There is no question whatsoever that Sri Lanka should mend fences with Japan and this is exactly what the President seems to have done during his extensive talks with Japanese leaders past and present. During talks with Japanese leaders including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the President has expressed the Sri Lankan Government’s sincere regret for the unilateral cancellation of the LRT and other projects. This gesture was absolutely necessary to put the Japan-Sri Lanka relationship back on the correct track.

Japan is already playing a leading role in Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring process and we hope that it will also back Sri Lanka’s bid to become a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the largest free trade arrangement in the region, as suggested by the President. Japan, faced with an ageing population and falling birth rates, is opening its doors to foreign labour (and possibly immigration) for the first time ever and the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLBFE) must work closely with the Japanese authorities to get more openings for Sri Lankan youth in the designated sectors.

Sri Lanka Tourism must also make an extra effort to get more Japanese tourists to come here, especially in the context of the common Buddhist heritage of both countries. The number of flights between the two countries should also be increased, with Japan Air Lines (JAL) too invited to operate flights to Colombo. More Japanese cities including Osaka and Nagoya should be linked directly to Colombo.

The President’s visit to Singapore is no less important. The late Singapore Premier Lee Kwan Yew was an ardent admirer of Sri Lanka and to this date, Singapore remains one of the few countries that Sri Lankans can visit without a visa. The President has tasked Singapore’s Surbana Jurong with developing a metropolis plan for the Western Province, which we hope will be implemented this time. There indeed are many lessons that we can draw from Singapore, including its success in ensuring ethnic amity and equality for all.

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