Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe greeted by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his recent visit
The visit of the Chinese Defence Minister has drawn renewed attention in light of perceived geopolitical implications. In his discussions, Wei referred to ‘cliques and factions’ that sought ‘regional hegemony’, which he argued were against ‘people’s shared aspirations
Sri Lanka has seen an intensified degree of defence cooperation in 2021. In March, the Air Chiefs of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well the Commander of US Pacific Air Force visited Colombo for the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force, and in April the Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe undertook a visit that included meetings with the President, Prime Minister and Defence Secretary. Engagement of this nature signals the crucial use of defence diplomacy, a long-practised aspect of diplomacy that allows yet another critical arm of the state, the defence establishment, to augment and strengthen international relations.
For Sri Lanka, these high level visits cement collaboration between capitals. Although defence diplomacy has not been actively pursued in the past, the recent visits indicate potential. Whilst the presence in March of the neighbouring air chiefs was important, the visit of the Commander of the US Pacific Air Force was highly significant as America displayed renewed interest and the visit fostered closer relations. Yet the latest visitor takes defence diplomacy to a higher level, given his position in the command structure of China, and the role of China in the world. As a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, that is racing ahead in a plethora of spheres of global activity, the visit of the Chinese Defence Minister provided Sri Lanka with the opportunity to strengthen ‘pragmatic cooperation’, which was alluded to by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Whilst cooperation does occur in the economic and financial spheres at present on a large scale, the military realm does not, it might be perceived, receive adequate attention. Lest it be forgotten, at the height of the conflict China continuously supported Sri Lankan military efforts to thwart and defeat terrorism, and continued to provide support to the island even after, especially in international fora where the country ran into challenging moments. During the visit Wei highlighted that ‘peaceful development and win-win cooperation is the global trend and the right way forward.’ Determined to support development activities and do so in a mutually beneficial manner, China has its objectives clearly identified and is eagerly heading towards achieving them. Whether it is through the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or any of its other economic and financial structures, the country and its leadership is clear on the outcome. It remains for countries like Sri Lanka to do the same by realising that strategising to achieve objectives is absolutely paramount.
For China, the visit of the Defence Chief comes as the country commemorates the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in July 2021. Similar visits to Nepal and Pakistan were undertaken by Wei in December 2020. The synchronised manner in which the CPC functions, its intrinsic involvement in the running of the state across all sectors including the military, and the progress made by the country which is chiefly attributed to the CPC is not easily understood nor are attempts made to comprehend it given the enormity of the task.
While Wei is the military head, his visit needs to be analysed against a backdrop of China’s strategised diplomatic engagement. Jonathan Holslag opined that ‘today China’s diplomacy with Asia has morphed from a rigid state-guided scheme into an eclectic array of initiatives from many stakeholders: the state, the Party, the military, the provinces, cities, companies, (and) think tanks.’ The strategic manner in which the country promotes development within enhances international interaction and has started revolutionising global governance is resulting in the country surging ahead. Whilst the centenary anniversary of the founding of China is nearly three decades away, in 2049, preparations have long commenced on where they want the country to be at that juncture and the degree of achievement, they envisage by that date.
The visit of the Chinese Defence Minister has drawn renewed attention in light of perceived geopolitical implications. In his discussions, Wei referred to ‘cliques and factions’ that sought ‘regional hegemony’, which he argued were against ‘people’s shared aspirations’. This visit, the visitor and the message he conveyed needs to be juxtaposed with events six months ago when the Chinese Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State were in Sri Lanka within weeks of each other. At that juncture too, it was evident that Sri Lanka piqued the interest of the two global heavyweights.
While Sri Lanka has remained of relevance to large powers for centuries and has been a hub of varied forms, it is the present that remains of critical concern as the country is called upon to make choices in its interactions, with the decisions made today impacting the engagement of tomorrow. The intense interest expressed by China to engage with a small country that stood by it when it faced a rubber embargo is significant, and today that engagement is multifaceted. The inclusion of defence diplomacy as an additional instrument augurs well for the implementation of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy and needs to be welcomed for its potential. Sri Lanka gained immense experience in successful combating and defeating terrorism. This expertise needs to be understood, shared and used in an effective manner. It is through such collaborative action that the island nation would continue to mature in the eyes of the world, as a country that not only receives assistance but also has the potential to provide it.
In the year ahead there will be renewed interest by the Quad as the Biden administration looks to consolidate its presence and position in South Asia and its neighbouring regions, as well as from China with the growth of the BRI. Sri Lanka may sit in the middle of the Indian Ocean but it is not the only country in this region, and the vigorous engagement of China and the United States with countries in South Asia remains a wake-up call for Sri Lankan Foreign Policy formulators to firstly act, secondly, act fast and importantly, act smart, if this interest is to be beneficial to the island.