Sri Lanka’s foreign policy: introducing balance and proportion

Mangala SamaraweeraIn this handout photograph received from the Press Information Bureau (PIB) on January 19, 2015, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (L) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera met his Indian counterpart in New Delhi January 18 during a visit to improve strained ties after elections in the island toppled longtime strongman Mahinda Rajapakse. AFP

It need hardly be said that the Mahinda Rajapaksa years were characterized by lopsidedness and imbalance in this country’s foreign policy conceptualization and implementation. Needless to say, not many dared openly criticize these ‘trajectories’ in Lankan foreign policy for fear of reprisals of one kind or another.

It ought to come as a huge relief to knowledgeable sections in Sri Lanka that this country’s foreign policy is in the process of being ‘reset’ by the current administration under President Maithripala Sirisena. Hopefully, this initiative would lead to the introduction of a degree of balance and proportion into Sri Lanka’s foreign policy outlook.

 

It need hardly be said that the Mahinda Rajapaksa years were characterized by lopsidedness and imbalance in this country’s foreign policy conceptualization and implementation. Needless to say, not many dared openly criticize these ‘trajectories’ in Lankan foreign policy for fear of reprisals of one kind or another. As a result of the culture of fear that prevailed in our polity in those times, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was allowed to drift in its lopsided course with the benefits of a more balanced and far-sighted policy not accruing to the people.

 

The resounding electoral ’ Sock in the eye’ which was delivered to the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government on January 8, 2015 by the Nation, enables the current administration to introduce vital correctives to this country’s foreign policy outlook. We urge the country’s current rulers to avail of this opportunity to act in the best interests of Sri Lanka in all relevant spheres.

 

One could now speak in terms of the existence of a Sri Lankan Nation quite comfortably and with a degree of conviction. Sri Lankans finally emerged as a Nation on January 8 when they voted as almost one man to defeat the UPFA administration under Mahinda Rajapaksa. While almost the totality of voters from the so-called minority communities participated in delivering this historic electoral verdict, significant sections of the majority community did so as well. Accordingly, there was a uniting of all ethnic and cultural groups in this country towards a common cause and, thus, it could be said that, finally, Sri Lankans acted as a Nation. Thus far, it was this coming together of all communities for a common worthy cause which was glaringly absent in local public affairs. Thus united in a common cause, Sri Lankan society emerged and acted as a Nation on January 8.

 

Nationhood is achieved, in the truest sense, when a country’s communities and social groups come together as one to achieve a common worthy aim for the purpose of benefiting the totality of its public. Seen from this point of view, it could be said that there was hardly a Sri Lankan Nation until January 8, 2015.

 

There could not be a better backdrop to refashion this country’s foreign policy than this historic moment of the birth of a nation. The new administration has to seize this moment to re-orient local as well as foreign affairs to further crystallize this coming into being of national oneness. Quick, positive action needs to be initiated in a number of areas, including, poverty and corruption elimination, democratization of the national polity and the forging of growth plus equity.

 

We are said to be a ‘Non-aligned country’ in terms of foreign policy, but we diluted this identity – if at all we had one substantially – over the past few years by unprecedentedly alienating sections of the West over accountability issues stemming from the war against the LTTE. Apparently, the former rulers of the country imagined that the loss incurred by thus distancing the West and provoking its opposition could be adequately compensated by forging increasingly close ties with countries, such as, China, Russia and Iran.

 

While it goes without saying that we have to cultivate and maintain close ties with the countries just mentioned, we cannot do so at the cost of good relations with the West. This is where Sri Lanka went wrong in the area of foreign policy in the Mahinda Rajapaksa years and swift, drastic action must be taken to contain and rectify the damage thus incurred. Thus, balance and proportion needs to be introduced into Sri Lanka’s foreign policy by rebuilding our relations with the West.

 

This does not amount to Sri Lanka going on its bended knees to the West. A country has to relate on terms of equality with the world and there is no getting away from this principle. However, it is up to Sri Lanka to take fresh policy measures to rectify the damage it has suffered in the area of foreign policy.

 

Such fresh policy initiatives in the foreign relations sphere do not amount to Sri Lanka being cowed by ‘imperialistic powers’ either. A country’s foreign policy ‘trajectory’ – to borrow for a moment the jargon of some of our ‘academics’ – is dictated by its national interest and it only stands to reason that this country should normalize its ties with the West in consideration of the fact that our economic interests are closely bound-up with West and its material fortunes. Lest any quarter has not done its ‘homework’, it must be remembered that the US and UK remain prime export markets for us. The bulk of our apparels continues to be exported to the US, for instance, and we are also highly dependent on the West for continued investments in our manufacturing industries and for numerous consumer goods.

 

It should not be also forgotten that the US economy is number one globally once again. It will contribute a substantial 18 percent to the world economic growth of 3.6 percent this year, in comparison to the 11 percent of all other industrialized countries. It would be naïve in the extreme for Sri Lanka to be daggers-drawn with the West. It must be also remembered that communist countries, such as Vietnam and, of course China, have advanced quite a distance down the road of economic liberalization. Apparently, countries need to be pragmatic in their foreign policy outlook or court economic emasculation.

 

It also comes as good news that Sri Lanka is currently attaching top priority to mending its fences with India. It was the height of foolishness for Sri Lanka to allow its relations with India to be ruffled over the past few years. We cannot allow our relations with India to be affected negatively because Sri Lanka’s continued security and economic interests are linked to India in a major way. Besides, the wellbeing of South Asia hinges substantially on India. Continuing to learn to live with India has to be high on Sri Lanka’s priority list.