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
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
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
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.