By K. Godage
China’s military build-up and aggressive postures in recent times is causing much concern among the international community. It has reached such proportions that the Indian PM has recently stated that China’s territorial ambitions must be challenged.
An ominous statement indeed, China in a sense began to flex her muscles by refusing a visa to the Indian General from Kashmir; India is also concerned over Chinese troop presence in Pakistan controlled part of Kashmir and China’s growing influence in countries which neighbour India such as Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka and of course Pakistan (let us hope that Pakistan would not take advantage of China flexing her muscles to indulge in another adventure like Kargil). There can be little doubt that China is seeking a foothold In South Asia.
China has not only modernised her military forces with her military expenditure having quadrupled in recent years, but has also expanded the range of her military activities. China is also being accused of seeking to encircle India, she is also seeking direct access to the Arabian Sea and hence her interest in securing the Karakoram Highway with the help of Pakistan. To secure her oil and trade routes China has adopted a benign policy to gain influence in the Indian Ocean littoral states by advancing economic benefits and by cultivating close diplomatic relations.
She is also today a significant sea power with the second largest navy in the world. China has through the development of ports, airfields and by cultivating strategic relationships with countries of the region, from the Malacca Straits to the Persian Gulf, ensured security for her sea traffic in the Indian Ocean. This is not to forget that China has developed the Port of Guarda in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sittwe — a deep water port in Myanmar and is now developing the new Port of Hambantota though as a contractor. These ports are considered by many as a noose round the neck of India.
China has without doubt shifted the balance of power in the Indian Ocean region. China’s new influence could be at the expense of US influence in the region for that I would blame the US State Department, taking our case as an example. At the end of the day it has to be conceded that energy security to enhance her growth is the principal reason for China ensuring that there would be no threat emanating from the Indian Ocean. China’s goal of becoming an economic super power and her dependence on enhancing her trade with countries such as India (China is her main trading partner) and the US for instance, where China enjoys a 165 billion USD advantage may be the best guarantee for us that China would not risk it all by aggressive policies and would follow pragmatic policies to advance her interests.
At present we are indeed facing a crisis situation. China’s relationship with Japan is under severe strain as is her relationship with India and the US; Sri Lanka is caught in a crush as it were for we cannot choose between friends or take sides and get embroiled in their conflicts. It appears that a new Cold War is about to break out in Asia with India, the US and Japan on one side and China on the other. It is indeed in our national interest to stay out of this situation. We would need to cultivate a policy of strict non alignment but at the same time cultivate the closest of relations with these countries particularly India, and for this we need mature diplomacy.
In the case of India we should ensure that none of our actions or relationships gives India the impression that her security is being jeopardised; we cannot strengthen relations with any country which would give India a wrong impression. I have always advocated a Defence Cooperation Agreement with India which would put at rest all her fears. Such an agreement could be structured in such a manner that it would not compromise our policy of non alignment. That would obviate the need for them to have consulates with RAW agents in the north and south or to have a consulate in the East to keep an eye for LET activity over there.
The government needs, on an urgent basis, to change its approach to the management of our foreign affairs and the securing of our national interests. The management of a country’s foreign affairs requires not only a ‘professional’ approach to diplomacy but also a coordinated approach. The management of foreign relations includes the conduct of our relations with foreign countries, international organisations, other international institutions, regional organisations, business corporations etc. etc. Today besides bilateral diplomacy there is the emergence of multilateral diplomacy which is another specialised field. The expansion, scope and substance of diplomacy has enlarged to such an extent that it is most complex and challenging.
The mind-boggling advancement of communication technology only makes the task at hand of a diplomat most demanding. The Foreign Ministry itself would need to be restructured for after all it is the same as it was 50 years ago. The Ministry should be the implementing arm of foreign political relations. This would certainly not be the place to park friends and relations — no Juwanis or Haramanis could discharge the onerous duties expected of our representatives abroad. In this regard it appears that many of those appointed to head missions by this government seem to think that our principal function is to look after Sri Lankan residents in those countries. Those who appointed them knew nothing better.
It is no secret that the country has isolated itself particularly from the economic and politically powerful West. We must be able to obtain assistance from all countries for our development programme; at present we are viewing the West with apprehension and acting impulsively, this is not a luxury we can afford, these are the countries with whom we trade the most, these are the countries with whom we have had long historical connections, countries that have aided us in the past, and these are the countries that control the World Bank and the IMF, we can ill afford to brush them aside. It would indeed be foolish if we were to think that building relations with certain other countries would a counterweight against the West.
Let us in conclusion hope that with Professor G.L. Peiris at the helm the government would take the management of our foreign relations more seriously than before; stop appointing cronies and appoint eminent, qualified, capable persons not exclusively from the Foreign Service, with adequate resources and task them and monitor their performance — yes the competent management of our foreign relations is an absolute imperative in our national interest.