Spotlight on digital diplomacy | Sunday Observer

Spotlight on digital diplomacy

20 August, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida-President Ranil Wickremesinghe with Indian PM Narendra Modi-President Ranil wickremesinghe with French President Emmanuel Macron

Economic engagement to the fore:
Focus on both traditional and emerging alliances:
President’s leadership pivotal at this juncture:

In a candid interview with the Sunday Observer, State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tharaka Balasooriya sheds light into the dynamic landscape of foreign relations, unveiling strategic initiatives to fortify global partnerships.

Balasooriya delves into the art of balancing traditional alliances and emerging players, while leveraging Sri Lanka’s geographical advantage in the Indian Ocean. With a spotlight on digital diplomacy, the conversation explores technological advancements in diplomacy.

The State Minister also shares his perspective on the 13th Amendment, regional collaboration, and the nuanced dynamics of Sri Lanka’s political landscape.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: In the realm of foreign affairs, what specific initiatives or policies do you envision to strengthen Sri Lanka’s diplomatic relations with other countries?

A: The world has transitioned from a bipolar structure of the past to a multipolar framework. Gone are the days of rigid ideological divisions and bloc-based economies. In today’s context, nations are pragmatically seeking opportunities that offer the best returns and aligning with democratic and less authoritarian governance structures.

Sri Lanka recognises the importance of good governance and combating corruption, which are correlated with rapid economic growth. Our focus is on fostering such principles to strengthen global partnerships.

Sri Lanka has embarked on a path of economic engagement through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). We have recently established a FTA with China and are in the process of negotiating similar agreements with India. As the global economy is characterised by regional groups such as African and Asian nations, as well as the European Union (EU), we are positioning ourselves where business prospects are promising.

Our economic alignment is guided by practicality and mutual benefit.

While we have shifted from our previous active engagement with NATO, Sri Lanka remains committed to collaborating with nations on common security challenges. Counter-terrorism, tackling illegal migrations, and sharing intelligence are key areas of cooperation. It is important to note that Sri Lanka maintains a neutral stance and is not joining any military alliance.

Our focus is on contributing constructively to global security without aligning with any particular bloc.

Sri Lanka’s approach is dynamic and multifaceted. We engage with various countries based on different aspects and interests. Our policy of neutrality does not equate to inactivity; rather, we actively participate in diverse spheres. We prioritise open dialogue, mutual respect, and understanding, fostering relations that contribute positively to regional and global stability.

Sri Lanka’s diplomatic approach is rooted in adaptability, pragmatism, and active engagement. As the world continues to evolve, Sri Lanka seeks to play a constructive role on the international stage, promoting good governance, economic growth, and collaborative security efforts.

Q: Sri Lanka has a diverse range of diplomatic partners. How do you plan to balance the country’s relationships between traditional allies and emerging global players?

A: Sri Lanka’s diplomatic relations involve a delicate balance between cherished traditional alliances and burgeoning partnerships with emerging global players. Our commitment to traditional allies remains steadfast. For instance, our enduring political, economic, and military ties with Russia were a factor in maintaining our neutral stance during the Ukraine crisis.

Our ties with Russia and China, as time-honoured allies, are deeply rooted in historical camaraderie. These countries stood by us during the war and continue to support us, even during challenging times at international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Our interactions span various dimensions, encompassing political, economic, and security realms. By fostering strategic and nuanced engagements, we ensure that our traditional alliances remain relevant and contribute positively to our national interests.

The dynamics of global politics are shifting, and new players are emerging onto the stage. Our engagement strategy involves a well-thought-out and comprehensive approach. We seek collaborations that align with our national interests and contribute to regional and global stability.

Therefore, Sri Lanka’s diplomatic approach is a careful interplay between the old and the new, tradition and innovation. By nurturing our time-honored alliances and embracing new partnerships, we pave the way for a future that is both dynamic and harmonious on the global stage.

Q: Sri Lanka is strategically positioned in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Could you elaborate on how you plan to leverage this geographical advantage to enhance the country’s geopolitical influence?

A: While it is undeniable that Sri Lanka occupies a strategically important location in the IOR, it is crucial to acknowledge that we are not the sole nation endowed with such a privileged placement.

Numerous countries are strategically positioned, each bringing unique potential. A key avenue we are keen on is maritime trade and logistics. The Colombo Port, ranking among the world’s busiest, is a beacon of our advantage.

A staggering 40 percent of Bangladeshi shipping transits through Colombo, a testament to our significance in global shipping networks. It is imperative that we capitalise on this advantage by fostering robust trade partnerships and optimising our logistical capabilities.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visionary push to transform Sri Lanka into an energy hub resonates with our geographical advantage. By facilitating seamless trade, energizing the region, and contributing to the growth of neighbouring economies, we aim to foster a mutually beneficial environment that enhances our geopolitical influence organically.

Q: The “Neighbourhood First” policy emphasizes strengthening ties with neighboring countries. Could you share your approach to fostering positive relationships with Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbors?

A: The economic bonds between Sri Lanka and India run deep, mirroring the intertwined histories of our nations. As India evolves into a major global player on the economic stage, we recognise the potential for synergy and prosperity that lies ahead. Our commitment to regional cooperation aligns seamlessly with India’s economic dynamism, and we seek to harness this momentum to unlock new avenues of growth and development. Sri Lanka’s engagement with India is a testament to our belief in collective progress and shared prosperity.

Striking a delicate balance between economic collaboration and security concerns is at the core of our approach. While we embrace opportunities for economic growth through partnerships with our neighbours, including India, we are acutely aware of the security imperatives of the region.

Q: The digital era has transformed diplomacy. How do you envision harnessing technology and digital platforms to advance Sri Lanka’s diplomatic efforts and public diplomacy?

A: The winds of digitalisation have swept into the heart of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic efforts, heralding a new era of efficiency and convenience. The Consular Affairs Division has taken the lead, pioneering the digitalisation process.

A seamless integration with the Education Ministry ensures that those seeking to venture abroad can now have their certificates authenticated digitally, streamlining a once cumbersome process. The Registrar’s General Department and State Universities are also actively engaged in discussions to integrate their operations digitally. This bold step embodies our commitment to modernizing diplomacy and embracing technology for the betterment of our citizens.

Q: Turning to politics, there is a renewed debate on the 13A, With the President inviting all parties to contribute to its implementation. What is the importance of the 13A at this juncture?

A: The core essence of the 13th Amendment lies in providing a permanent and comprehensive solution to our nation’s ethnic conundrum. It is crucial that every Sri Lankan citizen becomes an equal stakeholder in our country’s progress. The 13A holds the potential to level the playing field, ensuring that opportunities and contributions are accessible to all, regardless of background. Beyond the rhetoric of sharing meals or clothes, the true essence is equitable sharing of political power. Eradicating majoritarianism is a cornerstone, where the needs and aspirations of minorities are not overshadowed. This amendment is a gateway to an era of inclusive governance where the voices of all communities resonate.

In the past, opportunities to address this issue, be it post-tsunami or after the decades-long conflict, were regrettably not fully seized upon. However, the present moment presents an opportune window for course correction. The shifting sands of public sentiment, epitomised by the “Aragalaya,” have brought about a change in mindset. This transformation underscores the urgency of recalibrating our approach to the ethnic issue.

Democracy, in its evolution, is inexorably gravitating towards inclusive governance.

The 13A encapsulates this trajectory by bridging the gap between majority and minority communities, cultivating an environment where every citizen finds their place. The transformation from a divisive past to a future characterised by collective progress and understanding is integral to this democratic journey. Majoritarianism should not eclipse the needs and rights of minority populations. The 13A exemplifies this paradigm shift, epitomising the transition from divisive politics to a more unified approach.

Q: Regarding 13A, some have suggested that the Provincial Council (PC) elections be held first, and then they can discuss 13A. What is your take on this?

The proposition to prioritise PC elections warrants careful consideration, bearing in mind the larger framework we seek to establish. Our focus should be on crafting an effective and efficient model, transcending the traditional power dynamics that have marked our governance structure.

The “Yahapalana” Government introduced the concept of subsidiarity, advocating for a more decentralised approach. Presently, power tends to be centralised, which poses challenges not only at the national level but also within provinces. It is not merely a question of devolving power; it is about cultivating a system that functions optimally, based on the principle of efficiency.

The essence of our approach lies in developing a model that aligns with the principles of effectiveness and efficiency. Both national and provincial levels of governance require a system that operates seamlessly, ensuring streamlined processes and impactful decision-making. It is imperative to transcend the conventional notions of power-sharing and delve into the realms of practicality and functionality.

Q: There is speculation over a Presidential Election. At the moment, is the incumbent President the best choice, or will there be consensus on another candidate as time passes?

A: When we reflect upon the circumstances that prevailed, it was Ranil Wickremesinghe who stepped forward with unwavering courage when no one else was willing to shoulder the responsibility.

It is worth pondering what might have unfolded had he not taken that bold step.

On a day marred by tension when the Parliament was besieged by JVP activists, Wickremesinghe’s leadership averted a potential descent into chaos. The gravity of that situation often goes unnoticed, but his actions were pivotal in preventing a state of anarchy. While the path ahead remains challenging, it is under his guidance that we have navigated crucial turning points.

It is important to note that our journey is not yet complete, and the weight of restructuring our debt and managing our economic challenges persists. Amidst this backdrop, the seasoned experience and strategic insights of President Wickremesinghe continue to hold immense value.

While the ultimate decision rests in the hands of the people, it is my personal inclination that President Wickremesinghe remains a compelling choice. The sphere of politics is dynamic, and circumstances evolve. At this juncture, as the ball is set in motion, his leadership appears to be a beacon of stability and guidance.

Q: As an SLPPer don’t you think that you need a candidate from your party?

A: The notion of presenting a candidate from within the SLPP raises questions that warrant thoughtful consideration. While it is true that our party played a significant role in assisting the President during a critical phase of stabilising the country, it is important to approach this matter logically. Our support for the President’s efforts during a period of national disarray is evident, and this is no secret. However, in the context of the current situation, it would seem counterproductive to pivot towards backing another candidate after the country has been successfully steered towards stability.

Our stance is grounded in a pragmatic assessment of the circumstances. It would indeed be counterintuitive to shift our support away from the President after he has effectively stabilised the nation. Our collaborative efforts, irrespective of party lines, have contributed to this positive momentum. The current dynamic, where parties are genuinely working together and the country is advancing, reflects a significant departure from previous political alliances. It is akin to a constructive and harmonious marriage of ideas and efforts, ensuring the collective progress of the nation.

What we are witnessing now transcends mere political alliances; it embodies a cohesive synergy aimed at propelling the nation forward. The interplay of parties is characterised by genuine compromise and a shared commitment to the betterment of the country.