The title of the news story which broke in the Japanese media last week was entitled “FM: Sri Lanka to dilute dependence on China.” Any credible, substantive contradiction of the content of this report (and not just its title) by our Foreign Ministry must not take the form of remarks to the local press but a formal contradiction/correction seeking publicity in the (respected) Japanese media giant, the NHK, which carried the original story. The story says:
“Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister says that the country will review its China-dependent foreign policy and boost ties with other nations. Mangala Samaraweera held an interview with NHK on Thursday. He is visiting Japan for the first time since the current government was launched under the new President, Maithripala Sirisena. Hon. Sirisena won a presidential election in January by defeating the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa promoted a foreign policy that relies on China. Foreign Minister Samaraweera referred to Sri Lanka’s relations with China. China overtook Japan as Sri Lanka’s biggest source of assistance in 2009. He indicated that Chinese aid led to rampant corruption under the previous government. He said the Sri Lankan government has suspended a project to improve port facilities in the nation’s largest city, Colombo, and is now reviewing it. He added the project may not have followed appropriate procedures…”
Going by their pronouncements during the election campaign and in office, Messrs. Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera are clearly unaware of, or incapable of understanding, among other things; the difference between “dependent” and “reliant” i.e. between a satellite and an ally. If Sri Lanka tilted to China rather than the US or India, Mr. Samaraweera must know why that was, when it took place or began, and who the architect of that policy was. He must realize that such a reliance or ‘tilt’ was consonant with Sri Lanka’s vital national interests. He obviously does not know any of this.
While the villain of Mr. Samaraweera’s tale, Mahinda Rajapaksa of Medamulana, was still an Opposition MP, Sri Lanka under a UNP-administration of a President who was so pro-US, that his nickname was Yankee Dicky, was to learn a harsh lesson in the limits of US and Western support in our hour of greatest need. While the US was waging a proxy war of cross-border terrorism against the elected Nicaraguan government, and was helping in the counter-insurgency campaign of the blood-soaked Salvadorian military, it had strict limitations on the military support it would extend the Pro-Western UNP government of JR Jayewardene.
Part of the reason was of course India, but that isn’t the whole story or even the most fundamental part of it. The proof is that even when Sri Lanka had a government that was exceedingly friendly with India, such as the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga-administration, neither the West nor the Indians gave us anything remotely like the military assistance that we as a Democratic State, deserved and imperatively needed, to defend ourselves from the globally-networked and heavily armed Tamil Tiger terrorist militia.
The deeper, abiding reasons were and are (I) the social, cultural, psychological and geo-strategic weight of 80 million Tamils (factors which must not be reduced to mere voting strength),(II) the ambiguity of US-UK commitment to the concept of national sovereignty (apart from its own), and (III), the importance of the global human rights constituency in Western society and human rights discourse in Western ideology.
Thus it was that Sri Lanka’s finest Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar decided on a policy reorientation that would combine continuity, engagement and change. The ‘continuity’ aspect was to build upon Sri Lanka’s traditionally excellent relations with China. The ‘engagement’ aspect was the continuing friendly dialogue with the West, especially the USA. The ‘change’ was that while being close friends of both; Sri Lanka would not be strictly equidistant between India and China, but would balance off India and the West by relying increasingly upon the East; relying upon and imperceptibly tilting towards China.
The Kadirgamar-doctrine was part of a broader shift which (a) opposed President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s attempt to induct Maarti Ahtissari as a peace facilitator in Sri Lanka’s conflict, (b) dissented from Chandrika’s PTOMS, and (c), reached out to the (Weerawansa-ist) JVP as a pressure group (he arranged for the JVP to visit China annually). Interestingly, the two individuals who were knee-deep in the Ahtissari and PTOMS moves respectively, are currently serving in sensitive posts in the Yahapalana regime, while Mangala Samaraweera who repeatedly urged a reluctant Kadirgamar to enter into a low-key dialogue with the TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organization)—a ‘conversation’ that strangely coincided with the last few months of his life -- is now a Foreign Minister, in dialogue with the “international inquiry/accountability” boys of the Global Tamil Forum.
In the last year of his life, not only was Kadirgamar deeply alienated from Chandrika’s policy perspective, but had rebuilt relations with someone he considered a rival for the Prime Ministership, namely Mahinda Rajapaksa. The symbolism was obvious when Kadirgamar’s choice as guest of honour at the opening of the new building of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (the BCIS was originally established on a project report written by my father to Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1975), was not President Kumaratunga, but precisely Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The building was declared open by the Prime Minister of China, Wen Jiabao. As a member of the Council of Management of the BCIS, I was present, and recall the occasion vividly. The day’s highlight was the unveiling of a sculpture of that “great internationalist, statesman and visionary, Chou En Lai” (as Lakshman Kadirgamar so rightly put it).
Kadirgamar’s speech on that occasion was the clearest expression of his China- policy, which remains the finest exposition of a China-policy issuing from an enlightened comprehension of Sri Lanka’s core national interests and its historical experience. It is a superb example of the Realist/neo-Realist paradigm in foreign policy thinking. It indicates why Sri Lanka cannot be more reliant on India than on China, or even be strictly neutral or equidistant between them.
This Kadirgamar line on relations with China, India and the methodology that Sri Lanka should use when charting its foreign relations, is the very perspective that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in his Japan Times article, and foreign Minister Samaraweera in his various pronouncements and actions, have effected a rupture with, and turned their backs, on in their West-centrism.
In a speech which was officially distributed with a quote from the text which read ‘China, a benign and sincere friend of Sri Lanka’, here then is what Lakshman Kadirgamar had to say at the unveiling of the bust of the late Premier Chou En Lai at the BMICH on April 9, 2005:
“…When a relationship is based on mutual respect and affection, the size, importance and power of one of the two countries in that relationship does not have a disproportionate influence on the other. China has never sought to influence the domestic politics of Sri Lanka. Over the years China has proved to be benign and sincere with no ulterior motives for befriending Sri Lanka. She has never tried to dominate, undermine or destabilize Sri Lanka.
She has come to our rescue with timely assistance on several occasions when there were threats to Sri Lanka’s national security and territorial integrity. There have been no strings attached to Chinese aid. When a relationship between two countries is not based on dependence, it is strengthened by the fact that it is based on the mutual recognition of equality.”
This was the crux of ‘Kadirgamar Chinthana’ on China and by clear contrast and implication, India and the West. It signaled a well-reasoned preferential option for China.
In his speech, Kadirgamar went on to say that with regard to Human Rights, Sri Lanka has been a “steadfast ally” of China.
“…Sri Lanka in its own way has been helpful to China. The rubber-rice pact of 1951 has been referred to. In more recent times Sri Lanka has in a modest way been of assistance to China in international fora, especially in the field of human rights where Sri Lanka, taking the view that China was being unfairly treated in certain quarters, has been her steadfast ally. It is good for a relationship when both countries are able to contribute something towards sustaining and enhancing it. Sri Lanka has remained steadfast and unequivocal in respect of its One-China policy.”
This stands in contradistinction to the Ranil-Mangala perspective that China’s political values are authoritarian and alien to Sri Lanka, which is much closer to the values of the West. Kadirgamar’s stand is also at variance with our current stances in the UN, where Sri Lanka under Mangala Samaraweera actually voted with the USA against a resolution sponsored by Russia, China and India and supported by the whole of the South Asian region, with Sri Lanka as the sole outlier.
Kadirgamar’s speech indicates another basic value based view that Sri Lanka shares with China, which the West does not, as proved by its policy and practice on Kosovo, South Sudan and Iraqi Kurdistan (triggering retaliatory imitation on the part of Russia in Georgia and Ukraine). I refer to the fundamental issue of anti-secession.
“We believe that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China - something which the United Nations has reaffirmed each year. We support China’s policy of peaceful reunification and China’s efforts to promote cross-straits links for the benefit of the Chinese people and their social and economic development. Sri Lanka has expressed its support for China’s recent anti-secessionist law…”(Ibid)
Perhaps most pertinently, the 2005 speech shows how utterly enthusiastically Kadirgamar viewed the economic rise of China, its impact on the world order and its implicit potential for Sri Lanka.
“It is in the light of these considerations that Sri Lanka observes with admiration China’s steady and peaceful ascent to the summit of economic power. Long may the People’s Republic of China flourish and prosper. Long may the friendship between China and Sri Lanka grow in strength and vigour.”(Ibid)
For their part, Ranil and Mangala are non-committal or tepid about the “ascent” of China to the world’s economic summit and have actually frozen the role and function of the mighty Chinese powerhouse as an economic motor force for Sri Lanka.
For decades, Sri Lanka’s most respected analyst of world affairs, Mervyn de Silva argued that in the 1950s, Ceylon was on the verge of being incorporated by the UNP government into the US alliance system which was being built up against the Asian and Eurasian powers China and Russia. He asserted that it was SWRD Bandaranaike’s victory in 1956 that aborted this impending “disaster” and totally reversed direction:
“…Mr.Bandaranaike’s foreign policy, as evident in his adoption of non-alignment, his total identification with the Afro-Asian resurgence, the closing of the British bases in Trincomalee and Katunayake and the opening of embassies in Soviet Union, China and other Socialist countries. This contrasted sharply with the last phase of UNP rule. True to his publicly declared faith in the British, “our trusted friends”, DS Senanayake made Ceylon’s ‘foreign policy’, such as it was, an extension of Whitehall thinking. His son Dudley Senanayake did not effect any substantial changes…
Ceylon was represented at Bandung by Sir John Kotelawela, a brash anti-communist crusader perfectly attuned to the spirit of the Dullesian era. Ceylon was on the doorstep of CENTO when 1956 rescued our foreign policy from what would have been a disaster…
The cosmopolitan exhibitionism and vulgarity of the pre-’56 phase of the UNP, made it an ideal target for the resurgent nationalism which fuelled the ‘cultural revolution’ of 1956. An equally sharp confrontation was seen in the field of foreign policy when SWRD Bandaranaike’s ‘Afro-Asianism” and ‘Non-Alignment’ offered a striking contrast to Sir John’s pro-American lurch at Bandung…” (‘April Anniversaries’, lecture by Mervyn de Silva at the Teilhard de Chardin seminar in April 1981, republished in ‘Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva’ ICES, 2001, pp. 36-52)
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s announcement in the Japan Times that Sri Lanka would re-set its strategic position in the world; his and Mangala’s invocation of “trusted traditional friends” while turning away from China; their “pro-American lurch”, are not deviant behavior but a throw-back to the most disastrous phases of UNP foreign policy.