The arrival of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group of
the US navy at Colombo Port last week ‘passed off without any mention in the
Sri lankan newspaper’ but it seems to have intrigued some nationalist sections in the island.
Predictably, the ‘historic’ visit of the US
aircraft carriers, including the well known Nimitz, caused some worries as to
whether Sri Lanka was further tilting towards the US in its foreign policy
Simultaneous, to the visit by the aircraft
carriers, Sri Lanka has consolidated its engagement with China with clear
indications that she would not be strengthening her relations with the US at
the expense of China. During a recent visit by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister
Thilak Marapana to China, his counterpart Wang Yi had reportedly told him,
among other things, that, ‘China is willing to enhance cooperation with Sri
Lanka within the framework of the "Belt and Road" initiative.’
Marapana was in China in connection with two
events of immense importance in China-Sri Lanka ties: the 60thth anniversary of
the establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries and the 65th
anniversary of the signing of the Rubber-Rice pact between the countries, which
is seen as historic.
Coinciding with the visit of the US aircraft
carrier a panel discussion was organised
in the Sri lankan capital followed by an informative lecture titled, ‘A
Recovering Global Economy? The Dynamics of China and India in the Future of
Global Growth’, delivered by the Chair of the Global Economy Programme Dr.
Ganeshan Wignaraja. The panellists who were moderated by Central Bank Governor
Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy consisted of Deputy Minister of National Policies and
Economic Affairs Dr. Harsha de Silva, former ambassador of Sri Lanka Dr. Sarala
Fernando and Visiting Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore
(NUS) and Contributing Editor to the Financial Times James Crabtree.
Of the panellists, Dr. Harsha de Silva came
closest to focusing on the foreign policy dilemmas confronted by Sri Lanka as a
small and vulnerable state. He pointed to the need for Sri Lanka to learn to
work with Asian giants India and China. He also made it clear that Sri Lanka
needed to build cooperative bridges internationally to further its legitimate
interests. Although the deputy minister did not name the concept, he was making
a case for Non-alignment.
However, walking a tight rope among the world’s
biggest powers and their very often competing interests would prove difficult
for a small state. At present, Sri Lanka is compelled to forge closer ties with
India and the US, for example, without unduly upsetting China. New Delhi is
closing in on the US as the world’s number one power and Sri Lanka needs to
bear this in mind. Sri Lanka needs to be on the most cordial terms with the US
without creating the impression that it is a staunch ally of that major power.
Likewise, Sri Lanka would be acting in its best interests by consolidating its
ties with India, but it cannot do so at the cost of alienating China.
What is essentially needed is friendship towards
all, without being inveigled into forming alliances of a strategic kind with
any state or blocs of states.
Such linkages would prove harmful to this
country’s important interests in the long term. In this task Sri Lanka would
need to go well beyond commercial diplomacy. Very interestingly, this was the
vision of the Non-aligned Movement in its formative decades. It is time local
opinion and decision-makers ceased being reluctant to use the term
Non-alignment. It is by no means a misnomer although the world situation has
In the days ahead, Sri Lanka would need to fine
hone its diplomatic skills as never before in view of the above challenges
which are heightening. For example, India and the US are drawing increasingly
closer in numerous areas of mutual concern and the growing economic, military
and political clout of China is necessitating this development.
In other words, the global distribution of power,
in the main, would be among the US, China and India, and Sri Lanka would be
compelled to craft a policy of equi-distance among these powers in a spirit of
friendship without offending any one of them.
Accordingly, Sri Lanka is up against
unprecedented challenges on the foreign policy front. It needs the support of
the US and the West to overcome its the problem of Human rights violations in
the UNHRC but it cannot afford to be seen as a tool of the US.
However, a stance of disregarding China’s
interests could backfire on Sri Lanka because China has emerged as the world’s
number one investor. These are huge problems which, hopefully, would be seen as