During the Great Game of the 19th century when Britain and Russia tried to outdo each other in wooing Afghanistan, a political cartoon published in Punch, or the London Charivari on November 30, 1878 showed Afghanistan’s Emir Sher Ali Khan between a lion representing Britain and a bear representing Russia. The caption below the sketch read: “Save me from my friends.”
The cartoon can be Lankanised depicting President Maithripala Sirisena standing between the Chinese dragon and India’s national animal, the tiger, and crying “Save me from my friends”. In this South Asian version of the Great Game, both China and India are seeking Sri Lanka’s love. But Sri Lanka, beware!
Sri Lanka’s relations with India and China will not fit the description of a love triangle where Princess Lanka’s heart is sought by two infatuated princes. Far from it, the relations are more like a spider’s web to which the unsuspecting little insect is drawn. But prudence lies at arm’s length. Sri Lanka should be warned that it should not get too close to either India or China so as not to get trapped in the web they have woven.
In this photograph taken on February 16, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena prior to talks in New Delhi. Modi begins a two-day official tour of Sri Lanka today. AFP
One of the less-talked-about reasons for the defeat of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime at the January 8 presidential election was its dangerous liaison with China. The people were wary about the Rajapaksa regime’s deals with China because they smacked of corruption while they dragged the country towards a serious debt trap which in turn forced Sri Lanka to make costly concessions to China in the form of land grants in strategic locations.
The previous regime in its myopia believed that China would within a decade or so be the world’s number one economic power and a superpower capable of turning the US-led world order into a China-centric one. But this was a gamble because changes in international systems are unpredictable until they happen. Hardly anyone predicted the end of the Cold War ten years before it really happened. Similarly, ten years ago, no one predicted China would be a world power capable of challenging the United States.
Banking on one superpower in a cold war conflict for one’s political and economic support could be disastrous. Many countries that obtained economic assistance from the Soviet Union during the Cold War were left in the lurch when the Communist giant crumbled. With Cold War II in the making, the past offers a valuable lesson.
Our foreign and trade relations should not be unidirectional. Though the Non-Aligned Movement is now virtually defunct, the concept as a policy offers a strategy to keep both friends and foes at arm’s length. The current crisis in Ukraine offers another valuable foreign policy lesson. If only Ukraine had followed a policy of balancing its relations with Russia and the European Union, it could have avoided the war which is taking a huge toll on its economy. It could have made the best of both worlds. Russia as a solution advises Ukraine that it should adopt a non-aligned policy but the government in Kiev has placed all its chips on one global power, the EU, just as the Rajapaksa regime chose China.
In relations between states, besides a quid pro quo, there should be a need assessment on the basis of who needs whom more at a given time. If India needs Sri Lanka more at a given time than Sri Lanka needs India, this gives the indication for Sri Lanka to up its ante or exploit the situation. If it is the other way round, then Sri Lanka should be prudent enough at least to protect its national interest. At the moment, Sri Lanka is in a position of strength in any bilateral talks with India, be it the poaching issue, free trade, Sri Lanka’s ethnic question or India’s projects in Sri Lanka, because India, in a bid to keep Sri Lanka out of China’s sphere of influence, is ready to make compromises. In any foreign policy decision, national interest is the key. If India or China goes down on its knees with roses in its hand to woo Sri Lanka, it is not so much that they love Sri Lanka. But it is to make their own positions strong. Remember, there is no altruism in international politics. Even when rich countries send millions of dollars in aid at times of natural calamities such as earthquakes and tsunamis, they expect some gains in return. Hidden behind these grants and donations -- and calls in support of democracy and human rights -- are moves aimed at enhancing their soft power, improving their tarnished image or covering up their own sins which they commit in other countries.
Similarly, when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi tours Sri Lanka, he does so with India’s national interest in mind. India’s national interest will be best served if Sri Lanka is persuaded to stay out of China’s global power ambitions or not to become a part of China’s military equation in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. In the global power games, India has thrown its weight behind the United States, Japan and the West. But its stance can vary. India is part of BRICS – an economic alliance that brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and may itself become a strategic ally of China if it feels that such an alliance is in India’s interest.
Therefore, countries like Sri Lanka need to be prudent. India can make or break Sri Lanka. It has the ability to arm-twist Sri Lanka to achieve its foreign policy goals as it did in the 1980s by arming and training separatist rebels with a view to forcing Sri Lanka to revise its pro-West foreign policy stance.
While we need India, our closest neighbour, with whom we are culturally conjoined, we must realise that friendship and strong economic ties with China are also equally important and in Sri Lanka’s best interest. We also need to maintain special relations with Pakistan and Japan and good relations with the West, the Arab World, Russia and other countries – with the theme being friendship with all; enmity towards none. So non-alignment is the best strategy if we want to avoid the crossfire in the South Asian Great Game.