Sri Lanka’s foreign policy: from non-alignment to non-directional
- “Foreign policy determines and shows the real freedom and independence of the state” – Ehsan Sehgal (Pakistani poet)
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has always been one of “learn and adapt”, never having inherited a fully functioning foreign ministry at the time of independence. Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then called) depended on the British and the Commonwealth for exposure to foreign states. This is in stark contrast to the island nation which has long played a pivotal role in the trade route between China (and Asia) and the Middle East and Europe.
While the framework was being put in place as early as 1947, it was not until 1955, at the Bandung Conference, that Sri Lanka embraced the spirit of international cooperation among the new nations. This would ultimately result in the Non-Aligned Movement, of which Sri Lanka was one of the original members.
While the SWRD Bandaranaike administration pursued an unaligned foreign policy, a salient feature was its eagerness to renegotiate the presence of British military bases in the country. In October 1957 the Royal Navy base at Trincomalee was handed over to the Sri Lankan government, while in November of the same year the Royal Air Force base stationed at Katunayake was also handed over to its government.
Speaking at the handover ceremony, Bandaranaike stressed that these transfers were not made “in a spirit of hostility” but out of necessity of a foreign policy of non-alignment. While Bandaranaike went to great lengths to reassure Britain and the United States of America that their government would not take sides in the Cold War, relations with the West have certainly seen a trajectory. descending. The question that arises is whether Sri Lanka’s policy of non-alignment under Bandaranaike was what its name suggested or if it would more rightly be seen as a policy of “anti-Western aggression and expansion”. .
He was quick to welcome the nationalization of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian authorities, and then pleaded for the withdrawal of French, Israeli and British troops from the area. However, such condemnation or comment was absent in 1959 when China annexed Tibet. In fact, his view on the matter was that it was an internal Chinese matter and, as such, did not warrant any international comment.
This policy of anti-imperialism and anti-Western expansion was carried out by his wife and successor, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The country’s family rule and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party have left a mark on left-wing politics in the country as a pro-Asian regional bloc, while slowly but steadily removing Sri Lanka from the influences of the former colonial powers. .
With the center-right United National Party enjoying a 17-year reign from 1977, coupled with the opening up of the economy, Sri Lanka has undergone a radical change in foreign policy. After enduring several years of a closed economy, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was more closely synchronized with India, the Soviet Union, and China.
While maintaining relations with the United States and European powers, Sri Lanka’s closed economy has failed to gain us the love of those powers. It was under the previous Bandaranaike administration, which saw a large-scale nationalization, which touched American and British sensibilities. The threat to foreign business interests in the country, coupled with increased engagement with socialist and communist states, had left a bad taste in the mouths of these countries.
The targeted efforts of the government of JR Jayewardene to repair the economic damage caused by the economic policies of the previous regime led the country to turn to European and American powers. While Jayewardene’s government has continued to adhere to a non-aligned policy, with regard to its economic policy, efforts have been made to achieve a better balance between East and West. The UNP, which boasted of having established relations with China for the first time in 1950, tested its ability by trying to balance the emergence of a new China while renewing relations with the ‘West.
One of the first steps taken by the new administration was the incorporation of the Economic Commission of Grand Colombo to attract private investment. On the back of large-scale economic restructuring, foreign aid and investment began to flow into the country from all channels.
Having championed the cause of Japan at the Japan Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco in 1951 by forgoing reparations in the name of Sri Lanka, Jayewardene had made them love the country. Their gratitude has been rewarded with increased investment and financial assistance in Sri Lanka’s shipping industry, health sector, food production, and media and communications. Likewise, the opening up of the economy and a gradual abandonment of the socialist bloc saw the 14th meeting of the Sri Lanka Aid Group in Paris in 1978 pledging up to Rs. 6 billion for development projects.
As Jayawardena and the UNP continued to pursue a global “South-South dialogue and engagement”, the shift to increased economic cooperation with the “Global North” was in the spotlight. Fast forward 44 years and Sri Lanka’s foreign policy no longer has the appearance of non-alignment as did salient features after independence.
Under the current government, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has entered uncharted territory. Traditionally regarded as India’s quintessential “younger brother”, the country’s course of action has been influenced by the sub-continental giant. With the end of the 30-year civil war in 2009, India has arguably been slow to engage with the post-war Rajapaksa administration. China, having enjoyed close ties with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, did not shy away from the opportunity to make its mark in the country. A series of investments in infrastructure projects in the country has allowed China to expand its influence in the country.
At the end of 2019, Sri Lanka’s debt to China stood at Rs. 986 billion ($ 5.4 billion), which is matched only by Japan, which is the oldest development partner. and country lender. However, since 2019, the new government has secured over Rs. 300 billion ($ 1.5 billion) in loans from China. While closing the door to a joint investment in the Colombo East Terminal Container project between Sri Lanka-Japan-India. Likewise, Japan has also been set aside in the development of the light rail transport system, another investment project previously agreed between the two countries.
Since the election of the new parliament last year, China has sent two high-level delegations to the country. In October last year, Yang Jiechi, director of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Central Committee, visited the country. His trip was followed last month by a visit from Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. According to media reports, a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled for next month.
While the visits of high-level delegations were noteworthy, the discussions and agreements signed on these occasions were absent from the public. In fact, reporting on the Defense Minister’s visit was largely absent from the local media, being relegated to news alerts and the official statement. With Sri Lanka’s apparent shift to China, at the expense of its allies in India and Japan, it is now questionable whether the current government has abandoned the widely accepted policy of non-alignment.
China quickly became, thanks to the anti-Chinese rhetoric of former US President Donald Trump, public enemy No.1 on the international stage. As the post-Trump administration tries to slowly reverse some of America’s most incendiary positions, the Asian giant has found itself isolated among the powers that be. Recognizing their need to create a new bloc in Asia, China pledged to cultivate allies through financial assistance and infrastructure projects associated with the ambitious Belt & Road initiative. The result has been a gradual shift towards China from the “Tiger” economies of Asia and the emerging markets of Africa.
However, the ability of these nations to balance their relations with China and the former powers of the United States and Europe has allowed them to avoid the cold war spotlight of the 21st century. As far as Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa administration are concerned, this does not appear to be the case. While the 2015-2019 government has managed to strike a balance between China, India and the West, the current administration seems unable or unwilling to replicate this success. The rebuttal of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva saw the Government once again shunned on the international stage. Their refusal to proceed with a tripartite agreement between India and Japan has led to a shift in relations with two of the country’s oldest allies. While their notable change in China’s sphere of influence through the continued arrival of high-level delegations has raised eyebrows around the table.
A return to pre-1977 Sri Lankan foreign policy of pro-Asian engagement will certainly not be a black mark for this administration. However, the success of such a policy depended on the country maintaining relations with a multitude of nations beyond China and the Soviet Union. In this current trajectory, Sri Lanka seems destined to bypass the rest of Asia and settle firmly under the aegis of China. Whether this will pay dividends for the country remains to be seen. However, as China remains on the outside, it would not be ill-advised to continue pursuing other avenues alongside the one on which they seem set.