Originally Published 2010-02-08 00:00:00 Published on Feb 08, 2010
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's choice of Russia for his maiden foreign visit after re-election has outlined the new set of priorities for post-war Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka's post-war foreign policy in perspective
"You all are aware that our foreign policy is independent and non-aligned. We have maintained a close friendly relationship with neighbouring countries such as India, China, Japan and others. It is not a secret. We also maintain a close affinity with Africa, West, Middle East and the European countries.

"In my foreign policy whatever I have done was in the interest of the people of this country. Now the world should make a correct opinion about us. The Tiger terrorism that impacted on other countries too has ended. The state of war is now over. We are entering into a new era of co-existence after finishing the period of some controversy. I would like to say that we are now entering the golden era of international relations."

Coupled with his National Day speech at Kandy on 4 February 2010, and his write-up in the ’Wall Street Journal’ a day later, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s choice of Russia for his maiden foreign visit after re-election has outlined the new set of priorities for post-war Sri Lanka, as much on the foreign policy front as on the domestic front. If anything, it seems to be an effort to enmesh foreign policy options onto domestic priorities, to enable the nation to fill the developmental gap from the destructive decades.

Since the mid-Nineties, successive Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of Sri Lanka had made New Delhi their first favourite foreign destination after assuming office. President Rajapaksa had done so, not only when he was Prime Minister earlier but also as Ports and Fisheries Minister under President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Post-war however, President Rajapaksa is yet to visit New Delhi, or have high-level discussions with the Indian leadership. Instead, his visit last year was part of a pilgrimage, and thus underlined the deep cultural relations that exist between the two nations and their peoples for centuries together.

’Maiden visits’ of the kind mentioned flowed from contemporary necessities, set against the evolving matrix of geo-political realities. The ’ethnic war’ and violence nearer home saw successive rulers in Colombo reiterating the nation’s need for continuing the existing cooperation with India, which was strategically located in Sri Lanka’s context.

India also had the strategic requirement and military muscle to ensure that their shared waters were not stirred by terrorist intent of the LTTE kind any more than already. The context may have changed but the shared concerns would remain.

Sri Lanka’s war on terror was/is an object lesson in bringing mutually uncomfortable, if not antagonistic nations together to fight a common adversary, at least in conceptual terms. Not only did the Sri Lankan initiative see India, Pakistan and China back Colombo in a myriad ways but also had nations of South-East Asia and those in the western hemisphere work in tandem, to rid Sri Lanka of the terrorist menace. At one stage during the global engagement with the LTTE, Colombo was also seeking to involve nations such as South Africa and Eritrea. It was part of a well thought-out foreign policy initiative, aimed at serving a domestic purpose. As presidential candidate in 2005, Prime Minister Rajapakasa had reiterated his resolve to involve Asian neighbours such as India, Pakistan and China in ending terrorism. He had added Russia and Japan to the list from time to time, and mentioned India in terms of finding a political solution to the ethnic issue.

Today, President Rajapaksa is talking about his developmental agenda as much as he talked about his war agenda during his first term. There is truth in his claims that Sri Lanka under his leadership had adopted a war-cum-development approach at the same time. With the end of the war, development has become the key to the future.

Other nations fighting a war had linked their developmental agenda to the war aims. Thus infrastructure like roads and bridges, heavy industry and armaments manufacture, all of them providing jobs, were dovetailed in a way, they served the war effort. In Sri Lanka, imports met the weapons demand during war. The developmental effort stood independent of the war ? and that included aid from nations such as Iran at the height of the war.

In this context, reports of a $ 300-million Russian aid package for Sri Lanka during President Rajapaksa’s Moscow visit has caused eyebrows to raise. The package, it is said, comprises weapons and dual-use material, but details are not available. It contrasts with the quick-fire decision of the Sri Lankan Government to cancel an armaments cargo from China last year, citing the conclusion of the war as the reason. In the weeks and months after the war, Colombo has been seeking aid and assistance from global and regional powers, to rebuild the nation in the shortest possible time. In his time, the late J R Jayewardene was seen as a Lee Kuan Yew in the making. President Rajapaksa, without making comparisons, is emulating Lee.

The shoe pinches if one considered the democratic credentials of Lee, or those of JRJ. Anyway, the post-Cold War years of the 2010’s are not the same as the Cold War era of the Seventies. Where democracy does not exist, the West is going to talk about democracy. Where democracy exists, and so does a case, it is talking about human rights. Sri Lanka may have become a basket case of sorts. The GSP-Plus agenda of the European Union thus becomes a test-case now. A US congressional paper for the Obama administration had underlined the strategic location of Sri Lanka and talked about constructive engagement with Colombo even before the elections were on and the results known.

Another peripheral opinion too was emerging in Colombo in the war-end months about the wisdom of Sri Lanka leaning even more heavily on ’no-nonsense’ countries like China and Russia than on ’interested parties’ like India and the West. The former do not ask questions about the ethnic issue or human rights violations, as the latter do ? or, so went the argument.

They need to be told that ’globalisation’ that President Rajapaksa mentioned in his Op-ed piece in the ’Wall Street Journal’ cannot be by choice. Nor can it be issue-specific. While nations on the learning curve can adapt themselves after observing the pioneers at work, it cannot mean that they could insulate themselves from some and emulate them on the rest. The investments, technology and jobs that Sri Lanka would need in the coming years to make President Rajapaksa’s ’Development for Peace’ agenda for the nation cannot be meant exclusively by a single source ? be it the fast-developing neighbour like India, or the funds-rich China, or any other. It is not as if the West alone lays down conditionalities. They may be more visible. The Indian concerns may be equally vocal. But there are other demands on Sri Lanka that could be as all-embracing as they are timely. If nothing else, there are no free lunches in diplomacy.

Colombo would know better than that. Throughout the war years and even later, President Rajapaksa lost no occasion to reiterate the ’special relations’ that his country would continue to have with the Indian neighbour. Even while underlining that a political solution to the ethnic problem had to be home-grown, he would not exclude India as an interested party wanting permanent peace in the shared neighbourhood.

Today, Sri Lanka is participating in a 13-nation Indian Ocean naval exercise for the neighbourhood being hosted by India. The Indian Navy chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, has lost no time in repudiating the more recent US suggestion for New Delhi to police or ’headmaster’ the neighbourhood waters on behalf of the rest of the world, as well.

This does not mean that India does not have concerns. Those are also the concerns of Sri Lanka, looked at from both the demands in the regional context and geo-strategic developments in the global context. Regional situations of the kind require regional cooperation. With its experience and expertise in fighting sea-based terrorism of the ’Sea Tigers’ kind, Sri Lanka is best suited to join hands with India to protect the shared waters to begin with, and the extended waters, in the years to come.

Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Colombo, Monday, 08 February 2010
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