Diplomacy at work | Sunday Observer

Diplomacy at work

30 July, 2023

The past two weeks saw a flurry of diplomatic activity centred on Sri Lanka, which is following a strict neutral foreign policy, without getting involved in the affairs of global and regional superpowers. Although the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has lost much of its lustre following its glory days in the 1960s and 1970s, the principles that it espoused are still valid. Small countries must not hitch their fortunes to those of more powerful countries, as there could be negative repercussions. In this context, Sri Lanka must be rather careful not to take sides in any rivalry between regional or global superpowers.

It would, however, be naïve to suggest that Sri Lanka can ignore India’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India is physically and culturally our closest neighbour, a fact that we can only ignore at our peril. The two countries share a history that goes back more than 2,500 years and historical and geological evidence suggests that they were physically linked via the Adam’s Bridge, vestiges of which are still visible today. Buddhism was India’s greatest gift to Sri Lanka. In this context, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to India helped to reaffirm these age-old bonds.

It must not be forgotten that India provided us with emergency assistance worth more than US$ 4 billion at the height of the economic crisis, on very concessionary terms. It is probably this aid that helped to avert an even bigger calamity in the island. But aid can only go a certain distance. There are other mechanisms that can help a country emerging from an economic slump. It is this aspect that has been discussed extensively during the President’s visit to India.

Sri Lanka and India are well connected by air, though there is room for many more flights. The ferries are also about to be restarted, providing an even cheaper means of passage between the two countries, separated by just 25 Km at certain points. But countries which are this close generally have a land connection as well. France and the UK is the best example (Channel Tunnel), though there are plenty more examples from Scandinavian countries (Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden) and closer home, the causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. A land bridge between Sri Lanka and India has been suggested decades earlier, though the idea resurfaced a few years ago. Now, the joint statement issued at the end of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to India has revived the idea.

There are many benefits of having a land connection, probably a combined road-rail bridge, between the two countries. The first is that the cost of goods and passenger transport would decrease by a considerable margin. Bus and train services can be started linking Colombo with South India and private motorists too would be able to drive over to each other’s countries after paying a toll and completing the CARNET documentation. With an Indian-Thailand-Myanmar road coming up, it will even be possible to drive all the way to Singapore by car from Colombo. We must look at such positives, without thinking negatively about the potential of the bridge.

Building bridges has very much been the theme this week, as French President Emmanuel Macron flew in for a brief visit. Despite the misgivings of certain other Western nations still hounding Sri Lanka at international forums, France has maintained robust ties with Sri Lanka regardless of the Governments in power in Paris and Colombo. France is playing a leading role vis-à-vis Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring process, apart from a slew of other French-assisted projects. This visit, the first to the island by a sitting French President, will no doubt result in even stronger ties.

The diplomatic overtures did not stop there. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi arrived in the island almost simultaneously on Saturday, during a six-nation Asia tour. Japan has been a true friend of Sri Lanka, especially since then Finance Minister J.R. Jayewardene uttered those famous words of the Buddha “hatred does not cease by hatred – it ceases by love alone” at the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951.

In fact, this speech was alluded to in Minister Hayashi’s remarks delivered in Colombo. This visit is especially significant as Sri Lanka-Japan ties have been strained somewhat due to certain actions of the previous Government, such as the unilateral cancellation of the Japan-funded Colombo-Malabe Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, citing no justifiable reason. Now the Cabinet has in principle approved the recommencement of the project with Japanese assistance. Like France, Japan is also a key partner of the debt restructuring process and its help will be essential as we navigate those waters.

There are many other fences that we have to mend in the diplomatic world. As Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, said recently, Sri Lanka entered the bad books of the Muslim world following the flawed decision taken to cremate the bodies of Muslim Covid victims. Fortunately, in President Wickremesinghe we have an experienced statesman who can regain Sri Lanka’s diplomatic clout.