Sri Lanka diligently navigating relationships - Ali Sabry | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka diligently navigating relationships - Ali Sabry

10 September, 2023

Good progress on FTAs:

Indo-Lanka connectivity will spur growth:

Ties improving with Muslim world and Japan:

In a world where international diplomacy shapes the destiny of nations, the spotlight falls on Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Ali Sabry, PC, as he sheds light on the intricacies of the island nation’s diplomatic relations and foreign policy in a candid interview with the Sunday Observer.

Against the backdrop of President Wickremesinghe’s recent visits to India and an upcoming trip to China, along with the granting of permission for a Chinese research ship to dock in Hambantota, the Foreign Minister navigates the challenging waters of balancing Sri Lanka’s neutrality in the face of rising geopolitical tensions between two global giants, China and India.

With a commitment to upholding peace, promoting economic growth, and rebuilding strained relationships, Sabry paints a comprehensive picture of Sri Lanka’s role on the world stage and the strategic steps taken to safeguard its interests and foster international cooperation.

Excerpts from the interview

Q: With the President’s recent visits to India and an upcoming trip to China, along with granting permission for a Chinese research ship to dock in Hambantota, there are concerns that Sri Lanka might find itself at the crossroads of geopolitical tensions between China and India. What steps are being taken to uphold our neutral stance in the face of these developments?

A: Sri Lanka has consistently conveyed its position of neutrality. We are open to engaging in business and cooperation with all nations. Our fundamental priority is to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It is unequivocal that we will not permit any country to utilise Sri Lanka as a military base, which could potentially escalate tensions in the region. Our aspiration is for both sea and air to remain peaceful, a heritage we have embraced since 1971.

Balancing this stance is challenging but essential. We are in the process of establishing a Standard Operational Protocol (SOP) to provide clear guidelines on the types of ships, military or otherwise, that are permitted to dock in our ports.

This SOP will guide our decisions regarding visitation requests, ensuring they align with our objectives of scientific research, freedom of navigation, and peace. Our commitment to Indian security concerns, which are legitimate, remains steadfast.

Q: In today’s world, is a neutral or non-aligned foreign policy a viable approach?

A: The world has evolved, and so have our diplomatic strategies. We have learned from our history that aligning too closely with any one nation can leave us isolated when we face challenges.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is not about being non-aligned but rather multi-aligned. We engage with a multitude of nations, maintaining multiple choices rather than being confined to one or two specific options. This approach is not unique to us; it is a fundamental aspect of diplomacy.

Our goal is to navigate this complex web of relationships, managing it carefully and diligently. It’s a challenging task, but our foreign policy is rooted in the principle of putting Sri Lanka’s interests first and foremost. We understand that we cannot afford to take sides or become unduly close to any one nation. We prioritise our nation’s welfare above all. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is pro- Sri Lankan.

Q: As Sri Lanka prepares to take over the chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), how can the country contribute to the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific?

A: Sri Lanka’s assumption of the IORA chairmanship is driven by a diplomatic vision. We believe in the power of diplomacy and negotiations to resolve differences among nations. Our aim is to promote a predictable, rules-based order. This means creating rules that are agreed upon by all parties, transparent, and not subject to arbitrary changes. A predictable, negotiated order can foster peace, commerce, integration, and reduce tensions.

Q: Can you provide an update on Sri Lanka’s progress with various Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with regional countries and the possibility of joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)? Is there any consideration of applying for BRICS membership?

A: FTAs are crucial in today’s world, where trade plays a pivotal role in economic growth. Sri Lanka is actively pursuing FTAs with several countries. Many countries in the recent past who have developed quickly are based on FTAs.

Because no foreign entities will come to Sri Lanka to invest, because Sri Lanka is relatively a very small market, which I think has about 0.07 percent of the world economy. So,it is about 1 out of 10,000. That’s the size of Sri Lanka’s economy. So, nobody is looking at Sri Lanka and trying to grab Sri Lanka. This is a misnomer.

We need to know a really quick assessment of our strengths and our size. If anyone comes into Sri Lanka, they are coming and looking at the markets to export. For that we need FTAs.

Initially, we are looking to finalise agreements with Thailand and implement the existing FTA with Singapore. Negotiations with China are underway, and we are also expanding our economic cooperation with India.

Regarding RCEP, we have submitted our application and are engaged in discussions with the decision-makers in ASEAN countries. We are eager to explore the opportunities it presents.

As for BRICS membership, we have not embarked on that path yet, but our foreign policy is built on engagement and open relationships. So, we keep our options open, and our decisions will align with Sri Lanka’s best interests.

Q: Many are critical of the recent agreements with India which will connect the two countries’ power grids and even pave the way for a land bridge. What are the benefits of these agreements to SL?

A: Connectivity is the name of the game in today’s world. Sri Lanka connects with the rest of the world by air and sea. So, why not add land connectivity to the mix? It does not mean we are throwing open our borders.

There will be standard border control, just like what happens at airports. In fact, it is a step towards reducing threats. It’s about normalising our relationship with neighbouring countries, allowing people to travel freely on established roads.

The United States shares borders with Mexico and Canada. Western countries have common borders with nations they once fought against. The Middle East is interconnected. ASEAN nations have strong connections, and India is well-connected.

This connectivity brings opportunities. India is on a growth trajectory, set to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2050 and possibly the second-largest by 2075, rivaling China.

This means more people-to-people contacts, Indian investments in Sri Lanka, potential real estate growth, increased tourism, and the possibility of establishing international universities in Sri Lanka. It could become an educational hub.

Let’s not forget our abundant natural resources, like wind and solar power, which have been underutilised for centuries. Someone finally wants to harness these resources, and that’s seen as a threat? It does not make sense.

The benefits are substantial. Sri Lanka could become a regional transportation hub, particularly for the southern Indian coast and ports. With around 300 million people in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala, it’s a captive market for Sri Lanka. If we use our ports strategically, there’s potential for people-to-people contact and efficient transit of goods.

This is India’s time, and it is taking the lead in the region, whether we like it or not. The question is, will we seize the opportunity or sit idly by and find fault with it? Many countries have failed to seize opportunities, while others have thrived. The best example is ASEAN, where some nations have seen exponential growth because they opened up to the world.

Q: Calls have been made in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, for India to take over the Kachchativu Island. Is this negotiable from Sri Lanka’s perspective?

A: The status of Kachchativu has already been negotiated and finalised between Sri Lanka and India. It is not a negotiable matter. Sometimes, political discussions surface during elections, but it’s important to remember that these are often driven by political considerations and do not reflect the settled agreements between our nations.

Q: Sri Lanka’s relations with the Muslim world have been strained due to issues like the Covid-19 cremation controversy. What steps are being taken to rebuild trust and repair these relationships?

A: Sri Lanka has traditionally enjoyed strong relationships with the Muslim and Islamic world, particularly through the non-aligned movement. Unfortunately, during the Covid-19 crisis, certain decisions and actions damaged our image and strained these relationships.

We are working diligently to rebuild these ties and regain the trust of our Muslim friends. Our goal is to reintegrate these vital relationships, and steps have been taken to rectify past misunderstandings. This was immediately after the aftermath of the 2019 East Sunday massacre.

They were not directed by science or logic. It was hatred towards the Muslims. And they wanted to collectively punish the entire Muslim community at that time.

But unfortunately, it punished the Sri Lankans. In the eyes of the world, Sri Lanka looked like an intolerable State, violating human rights, and even the rights of those who are dead, as well as the living.

So, a lot of repair work needs to be done. I think since President Ranil Wickremesinghe took over, a fresh outlook has been given to that. And the Muslim world also appreciates that.

Q: Sri Lanka has faced challenges in its relations with Japan, especially regarding the Light Rail Transit and Eastern Container Terminal issues. How are we mending these fences?

A: Sri Lanka has, at times, encountered diplomatic challenges with nations like Japan. However, under President Wickremesinghe’s leadership, we have made strides in restoring our relationship with Japan.

While Government-to-Government ties are on the mend, we understand that further efforts are needed to rebuild trust with the Japanese private sector. We are committed to providing assurances that Sri Lanka will treat them with respect, transparency, and fairness.

Q: What is the progress of foreign debt restructuring with Japan, India, and the Paris Club? Will the President focus on getting China on board during his trip to Beijing?

A: The process of foreign debt restructuring has faced some delays but remains a top priority for us.

We are working to convene discussions with the Paris Club, India, China, and Japan. During his visit to Beijing, the President will emphasise the urgency of including China in this process. Successful debt restructuring will pave the way for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and encourage investor confidence.

Q: What measures are being taken to professionalise Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service amidst concerns about the qualifications of some diplomats appointed to foreign missions?

A: The shortage of foreign service officers has posed challenges. We are in the process of recruiting new diplomats to address this issue.

The recruitment results are promising, and interviews will soon commence. We are striving to strike a balance between diplomatic appointments from within the service and external experts, as both have the potential to serve our nation effectively. In the long term, consistent recruitment policies and ongoing training will ensure a professional and efficient Sri Lankan Foreign Service.