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Sunday, 29 March 2015





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Government Gazette

A foreign policy doctrine

Sri Lanka was being described as the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean' long before the term 'string of pearls' was coined by modern Western analysts to describe the network of friendly states and bases being built by China as it projects its power globally in consonance with its new-found economic might. Such was our island home's regional significance that some ancient geographers depicted the island on their maps far bigger in size than its actual extent.

In the colonial era, the expanding European powers saw the island as a navigational midway point on the long East-West sea route across the Indian Ocean. By the time of the third imperial occupiers, the British, Sri Lanka was not merely a strategic point on a crucial sea route.

Our little island became the British imperial fortress that both monitored the Indian sub-continental seaboard and also serviced Britannia's rule over the whole Indian Ocean region as well as western maritime access to the 'Far East'.

The advent of air travel further made Colombo an important stopping point on the long distance air route between the UK and its major colonies of Australia and New Zealand.

During the Cold War, the emphasis on the NATO-Soviet Bloc confrontation and the deployment of aircraft carrier-led naval fleets drew attention away from the Indian Ocean and Sri Lanka's strategic significance waned. So much so that Indian manoeuvres in relation to Sri Lanka's mis-managed ethnic conflict went unnoticed by global players.

The end of the Cold War saw the emergence of multi-polar geo-politics and the rise of the massive, oil-dependent, market economies in Asia which, in turn, resulted in an even greater strategic importance to the oil-rich Persian Gulf region with an equal share of geo-political interest in that region not only from the old Western powers but also from the new Asian economic giants and smaller but powerful states in the surrounding regions. At the same time the new pre-eminence of long distance airpower and the consequent vulnerability of large carrier-led maritime forces saw the need to balance naval power with land-based strongpoints.

These new dynamics have meant that the Indian Ocean has become a vast oceanic stage with a multiplicity of actors from both within and without the Indian Ocean region.

These various powers, ranging from India, Indonesia and Australia in the region itself, to China, Russia, the US and EU outside, now vie for access to vital sea lanes and for land-based strong points on the immense coastline encircling the Indian Ocean.

Hence, our little island is, once again centre-stage in this part of the world. The previous regime in Colombo, with its focus on crude power-mongering and plunder, failed to exploit this multi-lateral strategic significance, nay, did not even understand its potential. Rather, China's munificence was exploited more for personal, corrupt gain and self-aggrandisement rather than for genuine international collaboration and national development. If an external great power earlier took advantage of the reckless governance of the previous regime to gain a disproportionate foothold on the island, today, the new regime, with its far greater managerial competence, is busy balancing the scales of geo-political relationships.

Rightly, the first international foray of the national unity government was to Delhi. And Indian Premier Narendra Modi could be said to have gone beyond reciprocity in the warmth and practical generosity that he brought with him in his return visit here.

Unfazed by the slew of corruption investigations that now cloud many large Chinese private investments here, Beijing has also been most warmly welcoming and generous when President Maithripala Sirisena led a strong delegation to China last week. Even if certain Beijing officials saw fit to over-state some of the mutually agreed procedures concerning the future of major Chinese projects here, Colombo has been adept in smoothly clarifying issues and setting the record straight without ruffling anyone's feathers. True to its civilised magnanimity, China has reaffirmed its commitment to a very long-standing bilateral relationship.

This overview, above, of new complexities in foreign relations and the difficult untangling of international development linkages tainted by local corruption, has now been pithily encapsulated in a single sentence by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Asked, at his meeting with national news media heads last week, whether the suspension of high cost projects would antagonise China, Mr. Wickremesinghe pointed out that "...given Sri Lanka's strategic location and importance, no one will want to antagonise us...". And, Sri Lanka should be careful not to antagonise anyone either, the Prime Minister added.

After a decade of being lost in a well of short-sighted international manoeuvres that went as our 'foreign policy', this single sentence by the Prime Minister dramatically brings into fine focus the fundamentals of a national foreign policy.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's reference to Sri Lanka's "strategic location and importance" is an unspoken summary of the overview provided above in this column. It is an appreciation of Sri Lanka's new significance on the global stage and the immense value of this significance to the country's stability, security and development.

And his emphasis that "no one will want to antagonise us" is a terse, but profound statement of the essential doctrine for this country's foreign policy. It is a new perspective offered for the resumption of the previous, well-honed, 'non-aligned' style of foreign policy, but one that affirms loud and clear to the world that the 'Pearl' is also a diamond of high resilience and self-confidence.


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