War of words among world leaders and securing Sri Lanka’s interest first | Sunday Observer

War of words among world leaders and securing Sri Lanka’s interest first

8 November, 2020

War of words is not uncommon in international circles. However, the war of words between China and USA relating to Sri Lanka and occurring in Sri Lanka has to be taken seriously. Such utterances of third parties, relating to Sri Lanka should be grounded on the context, contents and tone of the exchange of words. The fact that this exchange has happened in our soil worries us as peace loving people. The exchange of words among members of the diplomatic community should be based on diplomatic conventions, practices, norms of international law and not on trivial verbal attacks.

The recent visit of the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to Sri Lanka during a tour of Asia, portrayed as exploring opportunities to play a role in the continent as stated in his speech has led to controversies and discussions in many circles in the international arena.

Various allegations

This has resulted in shockwaves within the international community due to protests in Sri Lanka over various allegations and the reactions of interested parties such as China. Secretary Pompeo smilingly addressed the press briefing, giving underlying messages to all parties concerned at one point saying “… a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka is a powerful and strategic partner for the United States on the world stage. It can be a beacon for a free and open Indo-Pacific….that’s quite a contrast to what China seeks. We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way”.

At times the USA has made stronger physical statements by imposing sanctions on 24 Chinese companies including builders of the Colombo Port City.

This indicates that the war of words has connotations. The Chinese Embassy tweeting immediately in response to those comments has aggravated the issue further. Such war of words or deeds on our soil will not be in our favour and it is in our interest to pacify the tensions between parties using our good office, based on our experience as done by Madam Bandaranaike during the Indo-China conflict in the 1960s.

World leaders

The USA and China are world leaders in trade, fiercely competing with each other for economic supremacy. Both expect friendship and physical presence in Sri Lanka. Assertions claiming that China is a predator whereas USA is a true friend are the latest occurrence in this power play.

Evidently, trade runs parallel to political power, thus enticing states to promote trade and commerce by adopting illegal and unethical practices. China has given funds to Sri Lanka generously with fewer conditions and expectations. The USA expects transparency, proper fiscal management in a democratic environment with human rights protected and adherence to international standards, at least at face value given its controversial trade and military relations with states that are some of the major alleged abusers of human rights.

China has funded the Hambantota Harbour, Mattala Airport and Port City and is appreciative of the Rubber Rice Pact of 1952 while the USA is the single largest buyer of Sri Lankan apparels.

World trade is complicated and covers a large spectrum with the involvement and interference of WTO in which the Chinese obtained membership in 2001. World powers with political and economic interests are concerned in extending their power in the Indian Ocean. Once a quiet Ocean with great potential and treasures in its sea bed, the Indian Ocean has transformed into an active, important and vibrant ocean utilised by a large number of ships.

Sri Lanka is positioned in the most strategic position with historic traditional bonds running back to thousands of years with Arab, Chinese and other sea merchants often dealing with Sri Lanka on the traditional ‘Seda Mawatha’ (Silk Route) which currently embeds the Belt and Road Initiative.

Sri Lanka maintained relations with the West due to trade links with naval powers, resulting in their interventions in the politics of this island that has a long history of culture and friendship with the rest of the world. Sri Lanka remains close to the West including the USA, the UN and subsidiary bodies and international organisations which are close in keeping with the model of diplomacy it has adhered to. Since the end of the Cold War, USA and China have emerged as world leaders fiercely competing for trade, commerce and political power.

Both nations being the two large trade giants respectively, look for a greater role in Asia and USA is seeking entry via the Indian Ocean for free access to Asia for trade and maximising political power. International politics is a ‘Chess Game’ which is fluid and complicated, reminding that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, local or international.

Strength of a nation

Today USA, India, Australia and Japan have formed the ‘QUAD’ as a group to compete with the common enemy –China, allowing the USA to utilise the reignited friendship to develop political ambitions and for trade and commerce purposes.

The visit of the US Secretary of State to Asia is for a multi-purpose assessment of political, business and goodwill missions with many plans and hopes with all nations visited. Visits during his trip to the other countries were without much controversy, except in Sri Lanka due to mass opposition to MCC, SOFA, ACSA agreements and due to public perceptions.

The strength of a nation is its firm and precise domestic and foreign policy. It is doubtful whether Sri Lanka is equipped and armed with this tool as before when Sri Lanka and India led the Non-Alignment Movement in the most exemplary way in the 1970s with firm political leadership.

Indian foreign policy and principles are static, aiming at promoting India. It raises the question, “Do we have a foreign policy founded on a Sri Lanka first basis when successive governments to date have taken different positions?”

The core principle of the Sri Lankan foreign policy has been the dictum of ‘friendly with all and angry with none’, based on principles of non-alignment and neutrality with a rational approach to external relations. “Were we truly non-aligned or neutral and did we conduct ourselves so - especially during the ‘Yahapalanaya’ regime when the Minister of Foreign Affairs took independent, arbitrary actions in dealing with international affairs outside the consent of the Executive and the Legislature?”

On the other hand non-alignment does not mean being silent and impartial alone. States must play a proactive role in dealing with the interests of the country they represent. Switzerland is impartial in its international affairs but does not belong to the Non-Aligned Movement or adhere to its principles.

Sri Lanka must have a firm, powerful, correct and coherent Sri Lanka centred foreign policy which will give strength, direction and acceptance, while acting swiftly and intelligently, with a proper policy framework.

Foreign policy

A key condition for the practice of such a policy is the presence of an effective Foreign Minister, an efficient Foreign Secretary, a vibrant Foreign Ministry and an extremely able battery of Ambassadors and diplomatic staff working round the clock, giving priority to trade and image building.

Such a cadre should come under an Executive whose decisions solely reflect the needs and aspirations of the country in carving out a prominent role for itself in the progression of the Indian Ocean region. We fondly remember Madam Bandaranaike as Sri Lanka’s most effective Foreign Minister along with Lakshman Kadirgamar with great respect for their accomplishments.

There is renewed hope that Sri Lanka’s present leaders will learn from our past practice and glory, be active in foreign policy making and implementation of such directives which contribute to the success of all other areas in governance.

In our own experience, the need for a firm foreign policy holds the utmost relevance, as a former Ambassador now heading the Ambassadors Forum, the Forum’s Foreign Policy Perspectives publications have time and again stressed the need for a unified, consistent foreign policy. A policy that complements our national interests coupled with a national policy that seeks to utilise our external relations for internal growth.

Lord Buddha professed ‘He who lives by Dharma is protected by Dharma’ signifying that the Dharma (Teachings of the Buddha) preached by the Buddha is supreme and should be practised for success and protection. The individual or the nation will be protected by the Dharma they practice. In the same way if and when a nation has a firm and correct foreign policy in practice it will contribute to the protection, growth and the success of the nation.

Sarath Wijesinghe, PC is the President of the Ambassadors Forum and former Sri Lankan Ambassador to UAE and Israel and could be contacted at [email protected]