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Opinion

China, India and the Indian Ocean: Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Challenges

Occupying a strategic position in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka must balance its foreign policy between India and China.


Written by

Updated: May 24, 2018

Sri Lanka’s foreign relations must reflect the country’s priorities. Sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean at the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka occupies an enviable strategic position. A blessing that, with careful and thoughtful handling and long term vision, can be leveraged to its advantage and, mismanaged, a curse that has and will attract the unwelcome attentions of global and regional powers seeking to strategically dominate the Indian Ocean. Throughout history, Sri Lanka has captivated the greedy interest of various powers, for strategic and trading reasons. At times, we elegantly parried and benefited from this attention. At other times we faultered. Responding to and judiciously managing these covetous advances and ensuring that the national interest is safeguarded, including its territorial integrity and sovereignty, will remain a priority. Having overcome a terrible terrorist challenge, nine years ago, we are again facing one of those seminal periods in its history.

Today, an additional factor must enter our calculations. We possess a 200 mile exclusive economic zone and, possibly, a vast area of sea bed to which we have lodged a claim since 2009.  The wealth of this area, both in the water column and trapped in the sea bed, could make Sri Lanka a prosperous nation with careful management. This could also be another attraction to Sri Lanka’s suitors.

Recent history

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, at times, has demonstrated a maturity out of proportion to its relative size and the country has played an impressive role in international affairs. Punching above its perceived weight was accepted as normal, with men of undoubted stature managing or representing its national interest. Sri Lanka was a country to be reckoned with at the United Nations and in multilateral affairs. In the 50s, 60s and 70s and later, Sri Lanka adroitly adopted a non-aligned approach in international relations and used it to its advantage. This helped to keep the contending super power wolves at arms length, manage our ever sensitive neighbour, India, with its own affiliation to non-alignment and also attract development assistance from both major camps. But an overt and ill considered shift towards the West along with the implementation of an open economy in the late seventies, on the advice of multilateral funding agencies, following the election of the Jayawardena government in 1977, saw the carefully nurtured geopolitically balanced approach of the Bandaranaika governments being disrupted. India, which was close but not too close to us in the past and despite its much lauded non-aligned purity and cultivated image of non violent respectability, was disturbed and found excuses to militarily intervene in Sri Lanka and openly sided with the nascent Tamil insurgents, training and arming them. India’s unwelcome military and political incursion in to Sri Lanka, which resulted in the insurgency reaching unmanageable proportions, in all likelihood, had the blessings of Moscow which was intensely competing with the West for friends and allies even at this stage and destabilising ostensibly pro Western Sri Lanka may have been part of its strategy.

Forlorn hopes of Chinese or Western intervention on our behalf proved grossly exaggerated. Sri Lanka was left alone to fend for itself in a difficult situation. Subsequently, India, exploiting its advantage, pressured Sri Lanka to enter in to the much reviled Indo-Lanka accord which provided India with extensive security assurances and the excuse to deploy over 100,000 troops as peace keepers. The Indian goal may have been to keep at least some of its troops permanently in Sri Lanka. But fate intervened when the Tamil Tigers whom India had nurtured, turned violently against its benefactors, and subsequently killed Prime Minister Gandhi by deploying a suicide bomber. India was subsequently forced to pull out with considerable loss of life and, more importantly, dignity. Sri Lanka quickly returned to its non-aligned base under President Kumaratunga and later under President Rajapaksa. But something had been lost in all this confusion and its image was blemished. It took considerable effort to restore a semblance of the confidence of India in its southern neighbour. Over the years, India had also emerged as the regional power with a legitimate security interest in Sri Lanka’s geo political stance and it became essential to manage India’s concerns with care. India was also eyeing Lanka’s economic potential.

The Rajapaksa regime that took over in late 2005, despite its relative lack of experience, managed the relationship with India with impressive dexterity that contributed towards generating a sympathetic understanding which was a critical factor that enabled it to comprehensively defeat the terrorist LTTE. Unfortunately, after the conflict ended, the same intensity did not characterise our efforts to manage Indian perceptions of Sri Lanka and the consequences were a disaster.

The US and the West

While the critical Indian factor was being carefully managed during the period before the conflict was ended, the attention that was being paid to the West suffered a decline. Over the years, Sri Lanka had succeeded in getting the terrorist LTTE proscribed in most of the West, (The US proscribed the LTTE in 1997) including in Canada and the EU, due to the concerted effort made by policy makers and diplomats. The endless suicide bombings targeting civilians and non military targets, and the murder of the respected Foreign Minister, Kadiragamar, by the LTTE, contributed to this outcome. As the internal conflict escalated, and as the much vaunted Tamil Tigers began to lose ground rapidly, a combination of factors was manipulated to change this perception. The pressure exerted by the groups supportive of Tamil separatism and the NGO community intensified with a focus on alleged, and often exaggerated, violations of human rights by the security forces and US policy makers with a human rights background were lobbied incessantly. Sri Lanka’s response could not match the intensity of the Tamil separatist propaganda effort. A stronger and more effective presence and a dedicated professional lobbying apparatus in Washington and other Western capitals may have helped to counter these pressures and the national approach could have been more refined.

Legislation unhelpful to Sri Lanka was adopted by Congress, for example the Leahy Amendment, resulting in the gradual dilution of sympathy for the Sri Lankan cause and the suspension of military assistance.  Bushmaster guns purchased by Sri Lanka could not be used due to the absence of ammunition, the supply of which was caught up by the Leahy Amendment. The long-hoped-for joint exercises did not materialise. The millions of dollars pledged to this country under the Millennium Challenge Account for infrastructure development were withdrawn putting tremendous financial pressure on us. Tamils for Hillary began making significant donations to her presidential campaign, which were returned only after protests were registered at a senior diplomatic level. Disturbingly, a statement made by Hillary Clinton at the time seemed to suggest that a distinction could be drawn between good terrorists and bad terrorists. Leaked cables published in Wikileaks indicate that Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, had intervened to exert pressure on the IMF to deny Sri Lanka a critical stand-by loan just two weeks before the LTTE was vanquished. The IMF appears to have resented this intrusion by the Secretary of State to its domain. The same leaked cables reveal that there was even a serious suggestion by the US to extricate elements of the LTTE leadership  from the Mulaitivu beach and Indian objections may have stymied this effort. Relations between the two countries spiralled downwards further when anto the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister for a bilateral visit to Washington was ignored. This may have been the opportunity to bring a semblance of balance to the relationship that was now on a distinct downward curve. The relationship became openly antagonistic.

What was happening in Washington was being repeated in Ottawa, London, Brussels and Geneva and a chorus of criticism to the Lankan cause gathered momentum. Strident commentary took a painful form when the EU withdrew the GSP concession, ostensibly for non complying with global human rights conventions to which Sri Lanka was a party. Aid allocations were reduced dramatically. The EU began pressuring its members to stop arms supplies to Sri Lanka.  Approaches had to be made for the supply of spare parts and refurbishing of weaponry to Eastern European countries on an ad hoc basis. Only personal interventions helped to secure some of the weaponry from Eastern Europe.

The downward tendency in relations with the West got magnified in post conflict period resulting in the West using the Human Rights Council to hold Sri Lanka to account for the alleged violations of human rights standards and war crimes.

The concerted withdrawal of support by the West and the increasingly hostile attitude was a key reason for the Rajapaksa regime to turn to China, Pakistan, Ukraine, Russia and others for support. Interestingly, Israel continued its supply of weapons to Sri Lanka, although at a price.

If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is that a small country such as Sri Lanka could not afford to isolate itself from any of the major powers and be allowed to live in peace. Policy approaches have to be carefully balanced against historical experience and future implications. Any policy adopted has to be comprehensive and not piecemeal and the entire administration had to subscribe to and work hard at it.

Today’s international missteps appear to be a broad parallel of the events of 1815

Lanka can learn many lessons from its history but unfortunately this does not appear to being done. Lanka ceded its sovereignty to Britain in 1815 through the mechanism of a convention. While the Kandyan leadership in 1815, uninformed of the momentous developments occurring in the outside world, debilitated by 300 years of endless armed resistance to invading European powers, divided by internal dissension, suspicious of each other while conspiring to acquire greater personal power and position and only united in their hatred of the king, agreed to a covenant accepting the sovereign of the United Kingdom as our sovereign, today we appear to be heading broadly along the same path with no such excuses except a lack of appreciation of the seething resentment of the vast majority of the people, an incomplete understanding of the shifted global economic circumstances and the real powers of international institutions such as the Human Rights Council and only an intense desire to stay in power.

A naive belief that prescriptions of external entities, essentially the emerging European powers, were meant well and complying with them would somehow be a panacea for our own ills seemed to have had a significant influence on the thinking of those who agreed to the convention of 1815. The real motives of the perfidious Brits escaped the leaders who signed the the Kandyan Convention. Three years later, as Britain blithely reneged on its treaty commitments, as it had done elsewhere, our vain efforts, spearheaded by the Kandyan aristocracy, to regain the country’s sovereignty were ruthlessly crushed with unmitigated brutality, with military resources drawn from a vast empire, even though the rebellion limped on for over one year. There is a lesson to be learnt here. Sovereignty once surrendered, is difficult to recover.

We are witnessing events with familiar echoes to those that resulted in the cession of our sovereignty in 1815 unfolding in slow motion, including a worrying willingness to unquestioningly comply with the prescriptions of Western powers and their ready tools, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The advice provided by the West may serve their interests but it is necessary to be cautious about its usefulness to us. In 2015, concessions were readily made at the international plane through the Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 which we naively cosponsored. It has been described as an act of appeasement, under pressure from countries with tainted pasts and suspect agendas and lobby groups still seeking to achieve the terrorist goals through other means, in the forlorn hope that our internal issues would be resolved, a development bonanza would materialise and we would gain ready acceptance in the West. Today the implementation of those concessions which we voluntarily undertook has become millstone around our neck and a subject of continuing pressure, including economic blackmail. Despite simmering domestic resentment, the concessions made are now being implemented almost surreptitiously with likely negative impacts on the unity, identity and sovereignty of the country with hardly any economic advantages ensuing. The consequences of the concessions made will continue to reverberate for decades to come.

It is nevertheless intriguing that the international media and the NGOs have continued to harp on the need to address human rights violations and war crimes allegedly committed by service personnel, while the well documented endless massacres of villagers, bombings of sacred sites, buses, trains and busy cities, the slaughter of devotees and monks at religious sites, extensive ethnic cleansing, and the recruitment of thousands of child combatants by the LTTE remain hardly mentioned. Of course, the concessions made at Government level in Geneva hardly touched upon these. Those who raised funds for the LTTE to purchase weapons, explosives to carry out suicide bombings, and recruit children for combat purposes and who continue to live comfortably in Western countries do not get mentioned in the pained reports and press releases. There is hardly a country anywhere else which expresses such public jubilation in pursuing the men and women who made such an enormous sacrifice to protect the integrity and sovereignty of the country on allegations which remain to be proved.

Future foreign policy makers of Sri Lanka will be well advised to take their cue from the masters of foreign policy formulation of the West, including Prime Minister Theresa May, and strongly defend the role of the average soldier who fought a terrible and reputedly invincible terrorist foe and prevailed against enormous odds and also liberated almost 300,000 civilians who were held as hostages, bargaining chips and as a human shield.

One is tempted to ask, even at this stage, whether it was really necessary to accommodate all the demands of certain countries with the West, who were being egged on by the vociferous and well resourced Tamil lobby overseas with endless funding and the NGOs. This, in the face of massive resentment in the majority community.

While the UNHRC adopts resolutions against many targeted countries, usually those that have fallen in to disfavour of the West and least capable of defending themselves, these are regularly ignored, Sri Lanka proceeded to cosponsor the resolution creating at least a moral obligation to comply with it. The moral obligation so blithely accepted and issues of national credibility will hang over not only the present government but also future governments. If cosponsoring was the favoured option of the government, and in view of the sympathy and goodwill that existed for the newly elected President, were all possibilities for mitigating the provisions of the resolution explored? It would be difficult to contend in the contemporary world that those who cosponsored the resolution were unaware of existing global realities. The effect of resolutions of the UNHRC were well known. UNHRC resolutions, like resolutions of the UN General Assembly, have no legally binding effect. The UNHRC or the High Commissioner also have no powers of enforcement and the other target countries have recognized this reality. If the goal was to curry favour with the West, and secure funding to advance our development goals, there was a clear lack of appreciation and an absence of foresight in not taking into account the prevailing global economic realities. While, as a nation, we must strive to do right, we need not always accept that others know better than us of what is right for us.

As Winston Churchill so incisively observed, a nation that does not learn from history is condemned to relive it.



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The Island
About the Author: Established in 1981, The Island is an English-language daily newspaper published in Sri Lanka.

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