Celebrating 60th Anniversary of Sri Lanka-Japan Diplomatic Relations
By Sara De Silva
Japan has long been a close friend of Sri Lanka, or more like a ‘true friend’ if one may add. While regional superpowers fiercely compete to secure resources, assert their geo-political superiority and desperately attempt to include Sri Lanka under their sphere of influence, the Japanese diplomatic attitude vis-à-vis Sri Lanka seems to set itself apart from the rest.
Japan and Sri Lanka established diplomatic ties on April 28th, 1952 after the Late President of Sri Lanka J.R Jayawardene made a plea at the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951, declaring Ceylon's disclaim of war reparations from Japan, and supporting the admission of the war-torn Japan into the Committee of Nations quoting the words of the Buddha: “hatred ceases not by hatred, but by love” (Nahi Verena Verani). The initial years of the bilateral relationship were based on cultural grounds, as both countries embrace common values based on the tenets of Buddhism. Over the years, the relations have largely been defined by strong economic ties. In 2011 Japan became Sri Lanka’s seventh largest international trade partner, amounting to a turnover of $1,250 million in last year alone. Further, Japan has traditionally and consistently been the largest aid donor to Sri Lanka, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has been at the forefront in assisting the socio-economic development of the island nation through three areas: provision of technical assistance (since 1954), grant aid (since 1969), and loan aid (since 1976). The Japanese-backed projects include the granting of the first national TV network Rupavahini, the construction of the Bandaranaike International Airport, Parliament of Sri Lanka, food relief and de-mining project in the North, Jayewardenepura Hospital, Upper Kotmale hydro-power project, and the list continues. The most recent as the construction of Manmunai Bridge in Batticaloa, for which JICA will provide Rs. 1,473 million with the government commitment is Rs. 397 million. Since 1981, over 950 Japanese youths have devoted themselves as Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers to transfer technical and vocational skills for the betterment of the rural communities in Sri Lanka.
In the advent of the 60th anniversary of the Sri Lanka-Japan diplomatic relations this year, it is unfortunate that there seems to be a general lack of awareness among the public, and thus Sri Lanka as a nation should ask whether the people truly understand the significance of this friendship.
It is disappointing that the positive role of Japan in Sri Lanka has not been sufficiently and effectively projected to the general masses of both countries to appreciate, and this must be urgently addressed in order for Sri Lanka and Japan to strengthen its bond and enjoy mutual benefits in the years to come. Increasing cultural exchange alone is insufficient to forge a meaningful rapport that suits the security concerns and socio-economic needs of the current global political climate. It is in the hands of the respective governments to re-assess and re-define the outlook towards strengthening the bilateral relations.
Few weaknesses are inherent in the current Lanka-Japan ties. Generally speaking, the common Sri Lankan perception is that Japan is an economically wealthy nation and is thus capable of, or rather, should donate a large sum of aids to a developing nation like Sri Lanka. Sadly, some top level personalities still continue to reiterate J.R. Jayawardene’s plea back in 1951 as a basis of Japanese economic and technical assistance today, which is certainly not the case. The ground reality in Japan is that apart from a handful of scholars and government officials, the general population are unacquainted with Jayawardene’s speech, let alone Japan’s strong diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka. Additionally, a number of local projects assisted by Japan are at times politicised to benefit some of the local Sri Lankan politicians for their political gains, and resultantly dilutes the magnitude of the Japanese contribution out of the picture- at least from the eyes of the general Sri Lankan populace. Such misrepresentation of Japanese assistance will undermine the raison d’être of the relationship in the long run.
Sri Lanka must realise that building friendship with Japan requires a different approach altogether, and should not be viewed in the same way as dealing with other nations. The art of Japanese diplomacy is underpinned by what is called in the Japanese language ishin-denshin, a traditional concept of ‘heart-to-heart’ or interpersonal communication through unspoken mutual understanding, rather than making explicit and direct statements. This is a long-standing national characteristic of Japan that sets the tone of its unique diplomatic posture. Furthermore, Japanese tend to shy away from excessively publicising their contributions, as it is considered culturally crude and indecent to flaunt their goodwill in such a manner. Therefore, Japan will never dictate any terms and conditions to Sri Lanka or any other aid recipients, and it will not pursue an aggressive diplomacy like China, US and India. Because it is not in the nature of Japanese culture to express the underlying political intentions and aspirations explicitly, Sri Lanka should strive to assume a more responsive and a proactive role to identify the political, business, and security interests of Japan. It is imperative for Colombo to engage more with Tokyo as much as it does with other regional superpowers, and address the common issues at hand.
Moreover, this friendship holds a great potential beyond economic ties in the coming years.
Diplomatic relations cannot progress without the political will to promote mutual understanding and cooperation. At times filled with great political uncertainties, Sri Lanka should not forget who her true friend is.
(The writer is a PhD candidate and researcher at Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, University of Wollongong, Australia)