In 1976, Sri Lanka reached the peaks of its international policy and relationships when it presided over the Non-Aligned Summit.
Some 75 Third World leaders took part in this highly successful summit, quite in contrast to last year’s Commonwealth Summit, which had more negatives than positives with the Sri Lanka chairperson not being willing or able to attend the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Scotland this year.
Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who presided at the Summit of the then powerful Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), was hailed as being on par with some of the NAM giants like India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Less than 40 years later, where have we ended up today? Are we still a NAM giant?
Most observers believe a new cold war is emerging 25 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Russia and China are leading one side in this cold war while the United States and the European Union are among the countries on the other side. Knowingly or unknowingly, Sri Lanka appears to have politically and economically aligned itself with China.
One of India’s leading national newspapers, the Times of India reported last Sunday that despite India’s expression of grave concern over the Chinese submarine coming to the Colombo Port in September, the Sri Lankan Government had permitted another Chinese submarine to dock at the Port.
According to the news report the presence of Chinese submarines across the Palk Straits seems to have disturbed the Indian Government which has expressed displeasure about it.
However China has said the docking of its submarines in Sri Lanka was common practice and not unusual. The Defence Ministry in Beijing said on Monday as quoted by the Xinhua news agency that, “it is a common practice internationally for navy submarine(s) to stop for refuelling and crew refreshment at an overseas port.”
The official said Chinese submarines docked “during its escort missions in the Gulf of Aden” and off Somalia, where the PLAN is engaged in anti-piracy escort missions.
On Friday, the submarine Changzheng-2 and warship Chang Xing Dao arrived at the Colombo Port. According to reports, in mid-September another submarine, which was nuclear-powered and did not surface had stopped over in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Navy also said the visit was not unusual, pointing out that 230 warships had called on Colombo since 2010.
China has replaced Japan as the No. 1 donor to Sri Lanka. When China’s President Xi Jing Ping visited Sri Lanka, more than 24 agreements were signed in the presence of the two Presidents. It is no secret that China is expanding its presence in the seas. How the Indo-China dynamic is going to work out in the future under the Modi Government of the BJP remains to be seen. Would it remain what it was during the post-British period up to the present (more antagonistic and confrontational) or whether it will move in a new direction, is still early to judge. It is well known that Prime Minister Modi while he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat was a close friend of China with much Chinese investment flowing into the state.
Chinese President Jinping also flew to India from Sri Lanka and it was quite significant that he flew to Ahmadabad in Gujarat and not New Delhi. It was also noteworthy that China pledged US$20 billion in investments to India in the next five years.
In this context those who are steering Sri Lanka’s foreign policy will have to think out of the box and act in a manner that the country benefits and would not be caught in power games between major powers.