Image: Protests in Sri Lanka for political change - Photo: 2023

Diplomacy Challenges: Sri Lanka at 75 (Part 2)

By H.M.G.S. Palihakkara

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary during Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s tenure in office and one-time Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

COLOMBO (IDN) — The proposed reforms in Sri Lanka cannot be ‘unleashed’ on a crisis-ridden people in a rapid-fire single burst like what seems to be happening now. They need to be introduced in a calibrated way along with necessary safety measures in parallel.

Above all, they need a bipartisan marketing strategy that will have traction with people so as to ensure that adverse effects are mitigated to the maximum and recovery paves the way to eventual relief and well-being.

That cannot be done in an unmanageable cauldron of election polemics, union activism and assorted street manifestations of different partisan hues that could outgrow from an ‘onslaught’ of intimidating reforms in one go.

Nor can it be managed by repression of dissent through a widely loathed PTA or a clumsy bureaucracy which seems to be the line of thinking and action at the moment.

Prudence demands that the above bipartisan project be brought to a successful conclusion. While the opposition must play its role, the President must be the prime mover of the process of negotiating this understanding.

Public posturing alone would not suffice. And the President must stop chasing dissenters and the residue of the Aragalaya (the Sinhalese word for “struggle” used widely to describe the daily gathering of people at Colombo’s Galle Face Green) but start chasing consensus through good faith negotiations.  Public polemics will only aggravate polarisation.

One thing should be clear to any impartial observer, though.  While criticising the President as they must, the Opposition needs to acknowledge that despite the debate about the Kautilyan politics of his ascent to the job, the President has undertaken the unenviable burden of the essential but hugely unpopular reforms project.

This he has done possibly incurring a heavy political cost. The least the opposition parties can do for themselves and the country is to use that space to pave a bipartisan way out of this crisis. This way, the President has an opportunity to leave his legacy behind and the opposing parties can have their electoral bonuses because the President has shouldered an otherwise ‘untouchable’ liability possibly becoming the whipping boy for reform in the process.

Last but not the least, almost every crisis embeds opportunities as well. The current crisis we suffer from is no exception. In its broadest sense, it is a crisis about the lack of system-wide accountability along with attendant gaps in reconciliation. Many unimplemented but doable recommendations exist on both.

The urgently felt and widely shared need to reach a common understanding for recovery is a rare platform available to explore and firm up a credible and viable domestic machinery for accountability and reconciliation which remains a growing diplomatic challenge as well.

A proposal by the executive branch of the State alone won’t do. It needs a general understanding across party lines for it to have national and international traction it needs to succeed.

Thus, Sri Lanka at this juncture appears to be confronted with three principal diplomatic burdens of which most, if not all, are intermestic in nature as they emanate largely from a domestic-foreign affairs nexus: managing the inventory of external inputs necessary for the country to recover from the crisis and grow;

In handling the trilemma of deepening and widening our vital relations with China, India and the United States/West—the hegemonic candidacies of the Indo-Pacific theatre—without ruffling their respective geopolitical feathers;

In Internalising the (now externalised) accountability and reconciliation process of Sri Lanka by developing a political consensus for credible, independent and robust mechanisms and procedures on the subject on a system-wide basis.

The challenge for Sri Lanka’s diplomacy will be to show that we are after economic benefits, not strategic or geopolitical mischief and that Sri Lanka will aggressively exploit the full investment and trading potential of all FDI and credit sources including China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

However, this is easily said than done, given the clear and present trends of emerging ‘Indo-Pacific alliances’ seeking to contain China. The history of ‘containment strategies’ dating back to the Cold War tells us that it is a matter of time before ‘containment’ gets militarised and eventually nuclearised, e.g., the latter may already be happening in the Indo-Pacific—our home waters—e.g. the progression of the Quad to AUKUS.

Alliance neutrality

In this context, alliance neutrality, not alliance partnership, is the sensible bet for the likes of Sri Lanka, to maximise and possibly leverage its strategic location value. In doing so, rather than having demarcated ‘zones’ for different investor States thus ‘parcelling out’ our sovereign assets including land to contending powers (e.g. quasi-vasal state projects in Trinco, Hambantota etc.), the whole of Sri Lanka can become a venue supporting multinational investment and multilateral cooperation for growth and development.

This averts geopolitical binds for us involving regional or extra-regional powers and the country will not be the ground zero for a ‘zero sum’ strategic power play by anyone. And we steer clear of the doomsday scenarios of the kind popular in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ analytics literature viz. Sri Lanka can be an unsinkable ‘aircraft carrier parked just off the coast of India’.

We as Sri Lankans may dislike or even despise this particular characterisation. However, for a number of well-founded or ill-founded reasons, it may well be a troubling fear to the Indian security establishment and a spot of bother to the Western Alliance.

Since security is hardly an objective math calculation but a subjective perception, we have no option but to allay that fear through a credible policy of ‘alliance neutrality’ and verifiable assurances of compliance.

This is the best way, perhaps the only way, to craft a prudent foreign policy posture which can ensure that the much-vaunted strategic location of our homeland will be an economic asset and not a geopolitical liability for us.

A good start will be to consider the desirability of public articulation of an enlightened port calls regime—a policy that will, inter alia, invite, subject to safeguards, all vessels plying the Indo-Pacific waters to visit us and boost our port incomes consistent with the ‘innocent passage’ norm, barring those ships on overt or covert conflict related missions.

These considerations take us to the kernel of an overall foreign policy that can be anchored in three elements as below (not necessarily brand new in and of themselves but a refurbishing of what exists in order to try to cope with the current flux): a neutral policy—without any military alignments while shunning power rivalries and related doctrines (neutrality or neo-non-aligned principle)

  1. Friendship and engagement with all expecting reciprocal respect for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. (Mutuality principle)
  2. Support international cooperation including with the UN for achieving Sustainable Development Goals, Peace and Security in accordance with international law including the UN Charter (Policy of cooperation).

Some tend to confuse or conflate the ‘institution’ of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with the ‘idea’ of non-alignment. This is too simplistic an attitude towards a dynamic conception.

While the Movement or the institution of NAM suffered internal inertia and faded away with the ending of the Cold War, the idea of non-alignment lived on, dynamically creating space for emerging nations to pursue human/territorial security and economic prosperity.

Singapore, an iconic success of the emerging world which was only lukewarm at best towards the NAM even as the Cold War was peaking, shifted gears somewhat a few weeks ago to flag the relevance of this reality. Singaporean Foreign Minister Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan called for a ‘new’ non-aligned foreign policy approach as an enabler, especially for those countries in Asia looking forward to capitalising on their comparative advantages in science, technology, digital space, artificial intel etc. (Next Step Global Conference, Nov. 10, 2022, Singapore.)

He argued cogently that such countries cannot and need not suffer disadvantages or sanctions arising from perceptions about their being on the ‘wrong side’ of a given power rivalry, as they want to derive economic benefits from ‘all sides’.

Non-alignment is not about distancing and meek diplomacy. It is about engagement and robust diplomacy. The utility of this thinking comes into sharper focus in the context of the already ongoing power rivalry and looming confrontation in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ that can lead to conflict potentially reversing the abundance of prosperity Asia has registered and aggravating the paucity of security the continent has begun to perceive.

There were times when Sri Lanka was observed as punching above its GDP weight thereby creating for itself an international diplomatic profile quite in excess of its demographic and economic attributes. Some noteworthy bilateral and multilateral achievements in diverse domains marked this phenomenon.

The late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was a great advocate of such a bipartisan culture on foreign policy through which it was possible to do things like peacemaking nationally while combating terrorism internationally including the ban on the LTTE. Under this bipartisan watch, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry developed the brief that fighting terrorism and fighting for human rights are not mutually exclusive.

What was unique and common to all this was good bipartisan political support for these diplomatic endeavours. The determinant was the national interest, not partisan posturing.

A notable exception was the 2015 HRC Resolution on Sri Lanka. The Yahapalana government unwisely decided to co-sponsor this Resolution pursuing a ‘nouvelle diplomacy’ of owning the undeliverable rather than negotiating a deliverable.  

In so doing, the then government sought to build an international consensus on an intrusive and externally driven accountability process in the country, having been unable or unwilling to build a domestic consensus on this same vital issue.

These are contrasting cases of intermestic factors impacting diplomacy and foreign relations positively and negatively. Domestic consensus on critical public policy matters is an enabler of diplomatic and foreign relations success.

When governance and public policy making are in deficit or bereft of broad-based support, diplomacy by itself cannot make miracles. This is true of both routine FR activity and crisis-diplomacy.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has been a painful test bed for both. A good faith bipartisan effort aimed at liberating these intermestic interests from parochial regime change enterprises can shed light on a more comfortable consensual way forward.

Paradoxically, the crisis and the widespread demand for a ‘system change’ provided an opportunity to do that. But that has yet to be grasped by the ‘leaders’ on all sides. At 75, some in Jurassic Park may say it is too little too late but most of the next generation will likely say better late than never. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 February 2023]

Read Part 1:

Image: Protests in Sri Lanka for political change

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