Foreign policy imperatives | Sunday Observer

Foreign policy imperatives

2 April, 2023

Sri Lanka, one of the founding nations of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), has always had to tread very carefully in terms of foreign policy, given its strategic location on the East-West sea route, right next to India.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy mantra was “friend to all, enemy to none”. This was once described as a “neutral” foreign policy. But this is not as easy as it sounds, in the backdrop of many factors that influence and shape its foreign policy.

There is a widely-endorsed view that the principles of the NAM are mostly irrelevant in the post-Cold War era and indeed, the NAM is nearly dead for all intents and purposes. Today’s geopolitical landscape is vastly different from the one that existed in the 1960s and 1970s, when the NAM was in its heyday. For starters, there is only one Superpower, though China is shaping up to become one.

Russia, the other Superpower of the Cold War period, is engaged in a war in neighbouring Ukraine, the effects of which are felt all over the world. There is even a remote possibility that this conflict could lead to World War III, with nuclear weapons too in contention.

The Western world, along with countries such as India and Japan, has formed several military and diplomatic alliances to counter the rise of China and to contain Russia’s military expansion. One example is the Quad, which brings together the US, Australia, Japan and India for military cooperation primarily in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS is another such alliance, where the US, UK have come together to give nuclear submarines to Australia, the other partner of the alliance.

Apart from these, purely diplomatic and trade blocs have sprung up especially in our region. Sri Lanka is a member of both the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), both of which aim to benefit Indian Ocean countries. These have also partially filled the vacuum created by a non-functional South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is another trade bloc with a membership of 11 countries including the UK and Australia. China too has initiated the formation of several blocs including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which have raised that country’s profile in the international arena.

Even though Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been generally prudent, its Governments have sometimes made very serious mistakes. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration adopted a misguided cremation policy for Muslims who had died of Covid, which angered much of the Muslim world and probably caused a heavy defeat for the country at the UN Human Rights Council.

The same Government unilaterally and arbitrarily cancelled the proposed Malabe-Colombo Light Rail Transit (LRT) project in addition to a joint India-Japan investment in the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port. These were grave foreign policy mistakes which the new Government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe had tried hard to rectify.

It is, therefore, heartening to note that India and Japan have responded positively to these efforts. India was the first to come to Sri Lanka’s aid during the economic crisis with more than US$ 4 billion worth assistance. In addition to India, Japan, the Paris Club and China also gave assurances on debt restructuring, which helped Sri Lanka to gain the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Extended Fund Facility (EFF).

Now the envoys of India and Japan have envisaged joint cooperation with Sri Lanka for enhancing regional connectivity. Japanese ambassador Mizukoshi Hideaki and Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay made remarks in this regard at the function to mark the launch of the report compiled by the Pathfinder Foundation themed “A Medium and Long-term Strategy for Indo-Japanese Collaboration to Support the Economic Transformation of Sri Lanka”.

The Indian High Commissioner said Sri Lanka being an important member of the IORA, there is a great deal of opportunity for India, Japan and Sri Lanka to work together in accordance with the priorities of Sri Lanka.

The Japanese ambassador said that during Japanese Fumio Prime Minister Kishida’s recent meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two leaders exchanged views on cooperation with Sri Lanka and agreed to work closely together, including on Sri Lanka’s debt issue.

“I sincerely hope that this year will be the beginning of an economic revival and a springboard for further development for Sri Lanka. I believe that Sri Lanka could greatly benefit from India, a regional economic power with a large market, and Japan, a long-standing partner in Sri Lanka’s socio-economic development, for its medium-to-long-term economic development,” he said.

This is a golden opportunity for Sri Lanka to repair its relationship with Japan that soured after the unilateral cancellation of the LRT, perhaps the biggest blunder ever made by a Sri Lankan Government.

As President Wickremesinghe has outlined, Sri Lanka should not get entangled in big powers’ rivalries, but the time has come to mend fences with some of our closest friends.


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