Sri Lanka’s external relations amidst power rivalries
By Neville Ladduwahetty
“Relationship Not Normal, Can’t Be…”: S Jaishankar On India-China Ties
As reported by a NDTV Staff Writer (13 Aug, 2022}, “External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Friday said that India-China relations cannot be normal unless border situation is and added that if China disturbs the peace and tranquility in border areas, it will impact the relations further”. In view of the fact that the relations between India and China are dependent on the “peace and tranquility” in the border areas means that Sri Lanka’s relations with either at any time has to be complex; a fact that is bound to affect the pursuit of Sri Lanka’s own self-interests.
The latest manifestation of this rivalry relates to the convolutions undergone by Sri Lanka with regard to China’s Yuan Wang 5 (YW5), described by some as a tracking vessel and by others as a research and survey vessel, docking at the Hambantota Port. Sri Lanka under the former Presidency gave permission for the YW5 to dock at Hambantota. Under the present Presidency Sri Lanka wanted the arrival to be deferred following concerns expressed by India relating to their security. The latest report is that Sri Lanka has granted permission for entry based on a brief by the Sri Lankan Embassy in China that “the country will face dire economic consequences if the ship’s visit is not allowed” (Daily Mirror, August 13, 2022). The report adds that the decision was also based on the fact that India and the US “failed to give ‘concrete reasons’ for why they opposed its arrival”.
An earlier manifestation of this rivalry was in connection with an Asian Development Bank- funded solar power project in the Island of Delft. International Tenders were called by the ADB and the contract was awarded to a Chinese Company because their bid was the lowest. India objected to the project on grounds of security and the project was abandoned with Sri Lanka continuing to deliver diesel to operate the generators and provide power to the people of Delft. In this instance, Sri Lanka failed to ask India to provide “concrete reasons” for their security concerns. Instead, Sri Lanka caved in and abandoned the project at a cost to Sri Lanka’s own self-interest.
The reason for doing so was offered by a former Mandarin of the Foreign Ministry who stated that during construction China could plant devices that would impact on the security of India. The fact that Chinese contractors are engaged in various parts of Sri Lanka thus giving them ample opportunities to plant devices anywhere seems to have escaped his wisdom. Furthermore, the fact that YW5 with its reported capabilities could carry out whatever tracking it wanted without any formal permission from outside Sri Lanka’s territorial waters should have been sufficient grounds to inform India that its concerns do not have a “concrete” basis from the outset. Why Sri Lanka did not challenge India’s concerns in the case of the solar project reflects a onetime policy of “India first” at any cost to Sri Lanka’s own self-interest.
LACK of CONSISTANCY in POLICY
It is crystal clear from the two examples cited above, that there is a lack of consistency in the manner Sri Lanka addresses issues relating to major powers; a fact made more complex in a background of power rivalry. The question is whether lack of consistency is due to lack of a clear policy or a deliberately adopted strategy that is sufficiently fluid to enable whoever is in power to address each issue according to his/her imperatives. The former was the practice adopted in the past. For instance, Sri Lanka’s stated policy when it came to External Relations was Non-Aligned. In fact, Sri Lanka was a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with India and other mostly ex-colonial countries.
However, under the former Presidency this long held policy changed because the global context of a bi-polar world had changed, warranting a reevaluation of the Non-Aligned policy. Consequently, the stated policy adopted by him was one of Neutrality which he stated during his acceptance speech delivered in Anuradhapura. This policy was transformed to Neutral and Non-Aligned by the Foreign Ministry and its Secretary went further stating that the policy was “India first”. This lack of consistency is not at all helpful in Sri Lanka’s relations with nations in general, and lacks clarity and when it comes to issues amidst power rivalries.
Such inconsistencies should be avoided at all cost. For instance, if the Ministry has a different perspective on external relations to that of the President, the matter should be discussed by the Cabinet of Ministers and a collective decision taken since the Supreme Court has ruled that: “So long as the President remains the Head of the Executive, the exercise of his powers remain supreme or sovereign in the executive field and others to whom such power is given must derive the authority from the President or exercise Executive power vested in the President as a delegate of the President” (S.D. No. 04/2015). Furthermore, under no circumstances should the Secretary have a different opinion to that of the collective decision taken by the Cabinet.
NEED for CONSISTENCY
Though the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) still exists, Non-Aligned as a policy has lost its relevance because the context of a bi-polar world order in which Non-Alignment was relevant no longer exists. Instead, the multi-polar world order that exists today has given nation-states the freedom and license to pursue their self-interests. This situation has enabled India to ignore some of the core principles of Non-Alignment despite being one of its founding members. India developed defence related arrangement with Russia even during the glory days of NAM and continues to do so today. India also trained members of the LTTE to destabilise Sri Lanka and thrust devolution down Sri Lanka’s throat, all in the name of its own self-interests Today, India is actively procuring crude oil from Russia despite being an active member of QUAD with US, Japan and Australia. Sri Lanka too violated principles of the NAM when it supported the U.K. in the Falkland war, as an obligation for the outright grant given by U.K. to construct the Victoria Hydro Power Scheme.
What is evident from the conduct of nation-states is that at the end of the day, pure unbridled self-interest overrides commitment to bilateral or multilateral obligations. This then is the only policy that guides States when it comes to relations with other States, and when it comes to relations with rival powers the choices are hard but in the end, it is balancing priorities. Therefore, whether the stated policy is Neutral, Non-Aligned or even a combination of both, what matters are the decisions taken in respect of Sri Lanka’s relations with other States. Therefore, policies relating to External Relations should be a collective decision taken by the Cabinet, since too much is at stake when decisions are taken by others in the current context of power rivalries. However, since a State has to have a policy as to how it relates to other States, Neutrality is the preferred option since a policy of Non-Alignment is inappropriate in a transformed world order that is undergoing constant change because of rising aspirations of major powers.
Sri Lanka’s lack of consistency in respect of first granting permission for YW 5 to enter the Hambantota Port and later calling for its arrival to be deferred, and finally to reverse back to the original decision should be a lesson to revisit how decisions are taken when it comes to how Sri Lanka handles its external relations with other States regardless of their size and influence, or whether they are States engaged in power rivalry. What this experience has taught is that the decision-making process should be revised. Another lesson to be learnt is to not accept any concerns expressed by States at face value in the process of pursuing Sri Lanka’s self-interests. Instead, to require such States to show cause and “concrete reasons” for their concerns.
In the current context of the world order, the bi-polar world that existed has transformed itself into a multi-polar world, causing the policy of Non-Alignment to lose its relevance even though the Non-Aligned Movement continues to exist. Furthermore, this transformed world order has fostered power rivalries among aspiring States in the process of pursuing their unbridled self-interests; a fact manifested by India’s policy of “strategic autonomy”. How Sri Lanka navigates its own self-interests in such an environment is crucial for its growth and well-being. Therefore, in view of the seriousness of the issues at stake the decision making process when it comes to dealing with States in general and others engaged in power rivalries should be collective decisions by the Cabinet of Ministers backed up by a policy of Neutrality in view of Sri Lanka’s unique strategic location, since it is the only option left standing, because other options such as (1) Non-Alignment with any major centers of power: (2) Alignment with one of the major powers: (3) Bandwagoning: (4) Hedging: (5) Balancing pressures, are all unacceptable.