From a casino foreign policy to principled foreign policy

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United States Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal was here this week. President Maithripala Siriesena will visit New Delh on February 15 while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make a reciprocal visit in March. Within days of assuming office, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera undertook visits to New Delhi and Brussels. He will be in Washington in the next few days to meet Secretary of State John Kerry.
High level contacts with the West and the refreshing of Indo-Lanka relations may indicate a paradigm shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy – a shift towards, if official claims are to be believed, non-alignment, a long defunct political force. But the visible shift has stoked fears that we are moving towards a US-India-Japan axis from what was perceived to be a China-centric policy of the previous regime, though some may see the change as an attempt to shore up foreign policy sectors that were deliberately downplayed to appease China, Sri Lanka’s biggest donor. But are we hurtling headlong towards the US-India-Japan axis?
Resetting ties with the West and winning back the confidence of Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour, India, are steps in the right direction. Such moves may help Sri Lanka not only to work out a formula to extricate itself from international investigations on alleged war crimes but also to attract job-generating Western investors, many of whom shunned this country over law and order concerns during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
But we should be cautious not to get pulled by the gravitational force of the US-India-Japan axis, which has its own agenda vis-à-vis China’s growing military might.
Although the US-India-Japan axis does not exist in a formal way, moves are underway to formalise a trilateral strategic partnership. It was a key feature during US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to New Delhi in August last year. This alliance, which has the support of Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is touted as the most powerful outside the US-led NATO.
During Premier Modi’s visit to Japan in September last year, the two countries decided to “upgrade” and “strengthen” their defence cooperation. China which has territorial disputes with India and Japan is certainly alarmed at these developments. In May last year, China’s Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper warned, “India gets close to Japan at its own peril”.
Also adding to China’s concerns is a parallel development involving the US, India, Japan and Australia. Known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), this tie-up, initiated by Japan’s Abe, was seen by many analysts as a response to China’s military threat.
These subtle formations of alliances take place against the backdrop of US President Barack Obama’s Pivot-to-Asia policy aimed at containing China, a looming superpower, which is likely to overtake the US as the world’s top economy within years. In this new Cold War, the foreign policy of every Asian country matters. To counter Beijing’s military muscle, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and other nations that have territorial disputes with China have further strengthened defence relations with the US. While some countries that depend on Chinese economic aid remained neutral, the Rajapaksa regime with its myopic foreign policy that contributed to the worsening of relations with the West leaned towards China not only to solve its economic woes but also to court Beijing’s support to quash Western moves to penalise Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes.
Neglecting the balancing act with which almost all previous Sri Lankan governments have conducted their foreign relations with nations that are hostile towards each other, the Rajapaksa regime behaved like a desperate casino player. It placed all its chips on one suit — the red heart symbolising China, which has invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure facilities, including projects that have raised eyebrows in New Delhi and Western capitals because of their strategic value.
In the end, this policy became a case of a casino owner lending the gambler more and more to play again, lose again and borrow again. The gamble made Sri Lanka virtually a satellite state of Beijing — with the Red Army’s submarines docking at Sri Lankan ports, raising serious alarms in New Delhi, Washington as well as in Tokyo, which used to be Sri Lanka’s biggest donor before the Rajapaksa regime placed all its bets on China.
It is reassuring to hear that President Sirisena has pledged to return to a principled foreign policy based on non-alignment. But the challenge is to strike a balance, taking into consideration the conflicting interests of different nations. Yes, we need the West and we need India which hopes that the new government will restore Indo-Lanka relations to the level which former foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had described as ‘irreversible excellence’. But we also need China, which has stood by us in times of crisis and has all the money in the world to assist us, although Beijing, like all donor nations, has an agenda behind the aid it dishes out.
Diplomacy demands that if a state’s relations with one nation are in conflict with its relations with another nation, the state should be prudent enough to adopt a policy that balances its needs and aspirations with the needs and aspirations of the other states concerned.
The new government in its bid to mend fences with the West and win economic concessions and political support should not go all out to endorse every policy of the West in return.
The previous UNP government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came in for criticism when its trade minister Ravi Karunanayake broke ranks with Non-Aligned countries and supported the US position at the 2003 world trade talks in Cancun, Mexico. Similarly, Managala Samaraweera in his previous stint as foreign minister hurt the feelings of Arab countries, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community and socialist parties, when he advised our envoy to slip out of the UN hall during a crucial vote in November 2006 for a pro-Palestinian resolution which was unanimously backed by the Non-Aligned bloc.
These two past foreign policy decisions stand out as examples where we put profit before principles. The new government should learn to balance profit and principles – realism and idealism — in foreign policy making.
Foreign policy is by definition an extension of the domestic policy. Since the domestic policy of the present government is built, at least ostensibly, on good governance principles, our foreign policy on sensitive global disputes should also be based on morality.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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