Barely a few months ago, with the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was safely ensconced in power and with the ruling party SLPP having won a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the foreign policy interlocutors of the new government outlined its foreign policy. Sri Lanka would follow an equidistant foreign policy. Neutrality would be the whole mark, said the foreign secretary Jayanath Colombage.
“We want to be a neutral country and maintain friendly relations with all countries in the world,” stressed Colombage, the former Navy chief turned the President’s right hand man in foreign policy.
While there was nothing refreshingly new in the new government’s supposed foreign policy and the foreign policy of a state itself is supposed to be a continuation, rather than ad-hoc swings and u-turns, there appeared to be a genuine sense of conviction in the government’s ranks to prioritise the economic diplomacy- and to turn Sri Lanka’s foreign missions into ‘economic missions’.
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is getting increasingly incorrigible for there are too many cooks. Crackpot ideologues, who spent most of their life in the periphery, now claim ownership of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential victory
That was a welcome change; especially given the foreign policy of the previous reign of the Rajapaksas was defined by chest-thumping and self-defeatist presentations in Geneva on human rights. An otherwise a peripheral issue that the government escalated and exploited for domestic political mobilisation.
However, there were reservations from the very outset whether the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa could walk the talk of his new foreign policy. Many observers, including this writer, suspected that the influential quarters of Western states, guided by personal prejudice and diaspora activism would throw the towel and human rights concerns of a war that ended a decade ago could return to spoil the party.
However, China’s rise and its growing infrastructure foothold in the island nation had tilted the traditional status quo of Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and especially America. Systemic imperatives of the balance of power relegated the ideological impulses of desk officers handling Sri Lankan relations in the State Department. Those who expected Washington to shun Sri Lanka for its voters elected the Rajapaksas were disappointed. Big shots, including the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited Colombo. European governments were unusually amenable, and India had been friendlier, even while disparate crackpot nationalists who claim to represent the government policy had openly been advocating for the abolition of the 13th amendment.
An enterprising government might have capitalised on the systemic opening created by the rise of China, and the quest of other major countries to have their fair share of influence in the region, and in Sri Lanka, where China is consolidating a geo-economic enterprise. Alas, this government is currently doing what many feared the West would do. It is self alienating from America, Europe, its traditional development partner, Japan and India.
Economic diplomacy was supposed to be a key pillar of the government’s foreign policy. Now it (rather the lack of it) is the embodiment of the incorrigibility of the government’s policy.
The government snubbed a US$ 480 million grant from the Millenium Challenge Cooperation of the USA. A local academic commissioned to write a report on the MCC Grant produced a half-baked report, and while the government was vacillating, the American agency terminated the grant, due to lack of donor country cooperation.
Then it was Japan’s turn. The new government abruptly terminated an agreement on Colombo light rail project financed by a US$ 1.5 billion concessionary loan from Japan. Tokyo had been the main development partner until it was overshadowed by China, was not even consulted and the Japanese officials learnt of the government decision through the media. While the financial difficulties of a full-blown debt crisis were cited as the reason, the Japanese suspected a Chinese hand behind the government’s decision.
China’s rise and its growing infrastructure foothold in the island nation had tilted the traditional status quo of Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and especially America
Then it was India. Colombo unilaterally revoked an MoU signed for the joint development with India and Japan of the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port.
Interestingly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself tried to reason out the monks and likeminded folks of the economic necessity of the joint development of the port – The lion share of transshipment that Colombo port handles are destined to India.
Yet, after a protest campaign by the trade unions, the Cabinet decided to revoke the MoU. Now, the Ports Authority is expected to develop the terminal through a commercial loan obtained from a local bank. The U-turn is a slap on India’s face, which desires an influence in the island commensurate to its traditional rival, China. If Sri Lanka does not accommodate these legitimate interests, a security-conscious major power would acquire that through other means.
However, before the foreign policy debacle, there is an almost likely economic debacle. The only other terminal solely owned and managed by the Port Authority, the Jaya Container Terminal is a sad case of mismanagement. Colombo port’s largest vessel operator, MSC temporarily pulled out from Jaya Container Terminal and relocated transshipment to Singapore due to heavy congestion. With the current populist fever, the Colombo Port could well end up replicating the disastrous economic experiment of Sri Lankan airlines or the SLTB.
Who is deciding the government’s policy?
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is getting increasingly incorrigible for there are too many cooks. Crackpot ideologues, who spent most of their life in the periphery, now claim ownership of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential victory. While the President himself had done much to appease ultra-nationalists and borderline bigots who rule the roost in the ethnic relations, it is not clear whether he concurs with the increasingly insular foreign and economic policy advocated and promoted by fellow travellers of his motley political grouping. Sometimes, it looks like the tail is wagging the dog.
Messrs Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanipila and the nationalist monks who are beholden to the President managed to force the government to abandon its plans on the ECT. Others have managed to keep intact the forced cremation of Muslim covid fatalities. The government is a hostage of irrational – and self-destructive – populism that it fanged and keeps fanging as means of domestic political mobilisation.
Last week, the nationalist pole bearers of the government announced that they have negotiated with the Indian High Commissioner to take over the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm from India. Coming in the heels of snub of India over the ECT, those are inflammatory ramblings. When Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was asked by a media personal about these reports, he retorted “Pissu” (nonsense). That might sum up the foreign policy of his government. It is not just nonsensical. It is self –injurious and self-defeatist. It deprives Sri Lanka of the opportunity. It makes the country isolated, insular and insecure. Probably, China is the only beneficiary as Sri Lanka, which is withdrawing from its friends, are retreating into China’s orbit. Security and economic help in China-only foreign policy would come at a higher cost than many envisage.
Still, there is room for course correction. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (or his enterprising brother Basil) should rescue foreign policy that is being led astray by peripheral ‘nut jobs’, who thinks they have a special entitlement by virtue of being in the front line of his election campaign.
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