The West hopes to woo the island nation away from its previously pro-China stance, but Neville de Silva reports that Beijing is not giving up
Cynics see something Faustian in the foreign policy being pursued by Sri Lanka’s new national unity government. That might seem somewhat hyperbolic, but it would be less of an overstatement to say the world’s major powers are wooing Sri Lanka, given the island nation’s closeness to vital sea lanes carrying east-west trade.
which is trying to leave behind the country’s traditional non-aligned foreign policy and move towards the West.
A broad political front was cobbled together just a few months before the presidential election of January 2015 with the principal objective of ousting Rajapaksa’s decade-old administration, which was increasingly perceived as authoritarian, corrupt and nepotistic. Instead it promised good governance – yahapalanaya in the Sinhala language – with pledges to sweep away all the ills of the Rajapaksa government, including what some domestic and foreign commentators saw as an over-reliance on China for diplomatic, economic and military support.
This political agglomeration chose Maithripala Sirisena, until then in the president’s cabinet and a fellow member of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party, as the common candidate to face Rajapaksa. An important component of the opposition front was the traditionally pro-Western United National Party (UNP), whose leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, became prime minister following Sirisena’s victory. Wickremesinghe’s position was consolidated in the parliamentary election that followed in August, when his UNP won 106 seats in the 225- member House.
Sirisena is reliant on the UNP to maintain a parliamentary majority, while Wickremesinghe needs Sirisena’s backing to push through economic and constitutional reforms. But this symbiotic relationship is not without its hiccups, one area being foreign policy.
No sooner had Sirisena assumed presidential office than the UNP’s Mangala Samaraweera, who became foreign minister, took wing to the West,
visiting London and Washington. This was just the first of his visits to Western capitals over the last several months, more recently to sign the first-ever US-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, viewed by analysts as the Obama administration’s move to quickly integrate Sri Lanka into its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy.
Western leaders were happy to see the back of Rajapaksa, who resisted their pressure to stop the war against Tamil separatists and enter into negotiations with them. He supported Beijing’s Maritime Silk Route, which would help extend China’s commercial and naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Within weeks of Sirisena taking office, there was a flurry of visits by American officials to Colombo, beginning with the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal. In May last year John Kerry became the first American Secretary of State to set foot in Sri Lanka in 40 years. Several other senior Americans followed.
The first signal to Beijing of a new approach came early last year, when Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka would review its foreign policy and would be more even-handed in its international relations. Understandably, the new president and prime minister paid their first official visits to India, the country’s giant neighbour, with which they were keen to strengthen relations after Rajapaksa’s dalliance with China raised security concerns in New Delhi.
Foreign policy analysts suggested that the new relationship between Washington and New Delhi might have something to do with India’s pressure on Colombo to weaken its China ties. Some even claimed that the West – and, according to Rajapaksa, India too – was instrumental in pushing for a more friendly administration in Colombo.
While Western countries could count on support from Wickremesinghe’s UNP, they could not be entirely certain of Sirisena’s leanings. He was tutored in Marxist ideology in his early years, and for some 40 years was a member of the SLFP, which traditionally pursued a non-aligned foreign policy from the days of its leader Sirima Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister and a founder-member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Sirisena was much praised by the West in his early days for restoring democracy and the rule of law, and his commitment to good governance. He visited New York to address the UN General Assembly during which he met President Obama and other Western leaders. He paid an official visit to Germany at the invitation of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the London Anti-Corruption Summit at the invitation of David Cameron. Last April he was the first Sri Lankan leader to be invited to the G7 Summit, hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But for all this Western attention Sirisena, given his personal and political background, is Asia-centric and has a ‘Third World’ approach to international affairs. Moreover, he has not seen any tangible benefits in the way of Western investment or substantial financial assistance to meet the country’s balance of payments crisis.
The president appears annoyed by Samaraweera’s co-sponsoring of a US-initiated resolution at the UN Human Rights Council which is extremely critical of Sri Lanka’s conduct of the war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The resolution calls for a judicial mechanism, including Commonwealth and other foreign judges, to hear cases of human rights abuses in the final days of the war, but Sirisena has refused any role for foreign judges and prosecutors, even though Sri Lanka could be seen as reneging on promises.
China, meanwhile, has played its diplomatic cards with finesse. It made little protest when the new government stalled a major Chinese project in the heart of Colombo, and invited both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to Beijing. A long statement was issued during Wickremesinghe’s visit which referred to maintaining close relations in the area of defence and reiterated the need to work together on defence and security-related issues, which surely raised hackles in India and the West.
Now Beijing has again invited Sirisena for a state visit, which might go ahead shortly. Sri Lanka knows that China is the only country that can come up quickly, as it has done before, with the investment Colombo sorely needs. With the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Sri Lanka falling next year, it would surprise no one if Beijing provides substantial assistance, seeking to tug back Sri Lanka from what it perceives as a constricting Western embrace.
Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who worked in Hong Kong for many years in senior roles at The Standard and in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, Le Monde, Asian Wall Street Journal, AFP and other foreign media. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy chief of mission in Bangkok and deputy high commissioner in London, where he now lives.