by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
It is not that Sri Lanka’s foreign relations are not in need of repair, especially after five dismal years between Lakshman Kadirgamar and GL Pieris, but it is ironic in the extreme when the criticism comes from the UNP or its sympathisers.
The UNP and its fellow travellers seem to think that Sri Lanka’s foreign relations are in need of repair because a group of provincials, rustics even, have taken over the reins of the state and are congenitally unable to understand the world or communicate with it. The corollary of this view is that the UNP, especially its current leadership, has the social sophistication to manage our foreign relations. This is no less than hilarious because the worst periods in Sri Lanka’s foreign relations were under UNP administrations and not those of the SLFP under any of its leaders.
If safeguarding the national interest is the basic objective of foreign policy, and national interest is definable as the defence of the fundamental attributes of the state such as national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, then these never stood more in jeopardy than during UNP administrations.
The worst disaster in Sri Lanka’s external relations was indubitably the Jayewardene years with the Indian airdrop followed by 70,000 foreign troops on Sri Lankan soil, while the rest of the world chose to look the other way. That was how isolated Sri Lanka had become, while affairs were handled by the Colombo based Westernised and pro-Western elite. By contrast, when the April 1971 insurrection broke out, the active support for Sri Lanka extended from the US and UK to China, Russia, Yugoslavia and Egypt, while Indian and Pakistani military personnel – their rivalries apart—helped Sri Lanka.
The three most outstanding failures of Sri Lanka’s external relations were Bandung 1954 (earning the Esmond Wickremesinghe–advised Sir John Kotelawela the delightfully apt local nickname of Bandung Booruwa), Indo-Lanka 1987 and the CFA period under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2002-4 (during which sovereignty and territorial integrity were made a mockery of).
The construction of the Hambantota Port is truly historic and progressive. History shows that in all countries, ports were the connecting point with the outside world and acted as an engine of economic and social progress. The Deep South of Sri Lanka which had been badly neglected for decades if not centuries will never be marginalised again, thanks to the Hambantota Port. For this the country must thank both President Mahinda Rajapakse and Sri Lanka’s most reliable and important international friend, China.
As for how it will affect Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and India, I do not see why it should affect those relations negatively. As is well known, Sri Lanka first offered our giant neighbour India the opportunity of helping to build the Port, and we turned to China only after India had declined or hesitated. The new Port is open to ships from all over the world, including India and the USA, and therefore it cannot be said to be aimed against the interest of anyone. It is not closed to anyone, so everyone can use it and benefit from it.
There are no foreign military bases or military presence attached to the Hambantota port. In any case China has no military bases or troops outside its territory. There are those who say that Hambantota Port is potentially ‘dual purpose’, by which is meant it can be used to service military ships and planes. The answer is that any country can do so, with Sri Lanka’s permission. We have visits from the US and Indian navies, and cooperation with their militaries, and there is no reason that this cannot extend to Hambantota Port as well.
Certain analysts say that China is adopting a ‘string of pearls’ strategy of building ports and other facilities in various parts of the world which it can use in case of need. It is said that a rapidly developing power like China needs raw materials and fuel and therefore must expand its Navy. Others talk of a Silk Route strategy on the part of China. So what? Every rising power did the same thing, and China has never engaged in aggressive, violent imperialist or colonialist aggression. Sri Lanka cannot be used to ‘contain’ China, nor can we be blamed for not participating in attempts to contain China. Sri Lanka must proceed on the basis of our own national interest, and that national interest is very well served by the Hambantota port and China’s generous loan and assistance in building it.
The bonds between Sri Lanka and China go all the way back to 1952 and the Rubber-Rice Pact. This was under a UNP administration. We established formal ties years later after 1956. When Prime Minister Chou En Lai visited Ceylon in the 1950s, he won the hearts of the Sri Lankan people. Ties have been strengthened during both UNP and SLFP governments. Under President Premadasa, the Free School Uniforms Programme was possible because China gifted all the fabric necessary for those uniforms—and a top delegate of the Communist Party of China was the chief guest at the UNP Convention during the Premadasa presidency. During the war against the Tigers, China supported us diplomatically and militarily. Without that support it would have been very difficult and perhaps impossible for Sri Lanka to have won, or resisted foreign intervention.
China, together with Russia, is our reliable shield in the UN Security Council. We have no other reliable friends in that all-important Council. China has never once interfered in our internal affairs. It also has no Tamil lobbies. Our old and reliable friend China has now emerged as a global economic power and in the coming decades will be a truly global power. This will balance off the hegemony of the West and eventually liberate us peacefully from that hegemony. For all these reasons China is an indispensable friend and it would be stupid for Sri Lanka not to strengthen its ties with China.
As for not harming relations with India and improving relations with the West, there are other ways that Sri Lanka can and must do this, which are mutually beneficial and do not restrict our chances for economic development and progress. For instance we should seriously re-consider our delay in signing CEPA. CEPA would strengthen our ties with India which is a rising economic power, and like China, an engine of Asia’s economic miracle.
We must carefully balance our relations with China and India, not taking sides with either in their possible competition, but remaining firm friends with both. As Prime Minister, Madam Sirimavo Bandaranike succeeded in doing this even in 1962 when India and China fought a war.