Photo: Colombo Skyline. CC BY-SA 4.0 - Photo: 2019

Foreign Policy Options for a New Administration in Sri Lanka

Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona

The writer is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and former Foreign Secretary.The following is based on a presentation made at the Annual Convention of the Organisation of Professional Associations. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any agency.

COLOMBO (IDN) – Winston Churchill once said that “Her Majesty’s government has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests”.

Applicable universally, this would be a good starting point when examining Sri Lanka’s foreign policy options as the presidential candidates (realistically, only two have a credible opportunity of success) and their advisors mull their choices once anointed with the sinecure (the 19th amendment to the Constitution has sharply reduced presidential powers) top post.

The elections, scheduled for the November 16, 2019, will be fought hard and the winner will, among other immediate and weighty challenges confronting the country, especially economic, be required to grapple with Sri Lanka’s foreign relations issues as these will impact on a range of matters with domestic implications.

Ambassador Dr. Palitha Kohona elected Chairman of the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the UN General Assembly in October 2013. Source: TELO< Ambassador Dr. Palitha Kohona elected Chairman of the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the UN General Assembly in October 2013.

There have been trenchant criticisms that the government elected to power in 2015 on a slim majority has caused an erosion of Sri Lanka’s standing internationally. An unequivocal commitment to the protection of the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of action free of unwelcome foreign interference, should form the foundation of a new administration’s foreign policy.

Efforts to reassert its standing as an equal and respected member of the international community should become a priority for the policy makers and would find favour with the disenchanted electorate. All else would complement this fundamental requirement.

Historically, Sri Lanka has handled its international relations masterfully with a wide range of countries, both near and far, contributing significantly to its security, international trade and prosperity.

Far back in history, King Solomon reputedly obtained the jewels which he gifted Queen Sheba from the fabled isle of Lanka. Legend has it that Hannibal crossed the Alps with war elephants purchased from this island.

Lankan delegations were present in the court of Emperor Claudius Caesar. Roman coins continue to be found in abundance in the island’s ancient ports.

The Kings of Anuradhapura maintained close relations with the Mauriya emperors of North India and their successors largely due to the preeminent Buddhist links between the kingdoms. King Parakramabahu of Polonnaruwa sent a delegation, including a royal princess, to the court of the great Khan in Khan Balik.

The Yapauwa lions demonstrate a strong Chinese influence, while contemporary records left behind by visiting Chinese monks corroborate Lanka’s own Mahawansa, the dynastic record of Lanka’s kings. Later, the kings of Kandy adroitly played off one avaricious coloniser against another to maintain its independence until there was only one imperial power left.

Post-independent Ceylon, as it was known then, very quickly adjusted to the realities of a world dominated by the Cold War between the U.S. and its allies and the Soviet Bloc. By the late fifties, Ceylon was active among the leading non-aligned countries and, distancing itself from the Cold War rivalries, benefitted significantly from its non-aligned stance.

In fact, under the leadership of the Bandaranayakas, Ceylon played a lead role in the non-aligned movement (NAM) and chaired the NAM summit in 1976. It also developed excellent relations with India, which was a pioneering champion of the NAM, especially at head of government level.

Ceylon’s views were respected and its diplomats wielded considerable influence in global affairs. It played a key role in soothing tensions between India and China in the sixties. Shirley Amerasingha chaired the UN Law of the Sea negotiations which resulted in the Law of the Sea Convention, often referred to as the constitution of the oceans.

Dr Gamini Corea was the head of UNCTAD which produced the visionary concept, the New International Economic Order. Kumar Chitty was the first Registrar of the Law of the Sea Tribunal. Dr Jayantha Dhanapala, having successfully chaired the divisive 1995 Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, was the UN Under-Secretary-General (USG) for Disarmament, appointed by Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.

Radhika Coomaraswamy was the UN USG for Children in Armed Conflict. Dr Palitha Kohona headed the UN Treaty Section and later chaired the UNGA Sixth Committee. There were other Sri Lankans also who held high ranking and influential positions in the international arena.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and, along with it the Warsaw Pact, saw the emergence of a new global reality and posed a range of unfamiliar policy challenges for Sri Lanka. Now, the U.S. was the only remaining super power in the world. Very soon it would change its traditional security focus from Europe to Asia, designed to maintain its preeminent position in the global hierarchy.

China, extricating itself from a century of widespread poverty and political instability and feebleness, almost without warning, emerged as a military and economic power with an impact far beyond its borders and critical interests to safeguard. India assumed dominant power status in the Indian Ocean region.

The world economic power centres began shifting from the U.S. and Europe, where they had rested for a century or more, to East Asia. Today, China commands unquestioned economic clout with trillions of Dollars in reserves which it has begun to deploy across the world to realise its ambitious goal of shared prosperity, linked to the revived Silk Road. Its rapid growth, social and technological achievements are awe inspiring. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, promoted by China, has attracted 73 countries as parties so far, including some from the West and could potentially rival the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

Today, the largest source of global tourism is China, and its impact is visible in signage even in aggressively nationalistic Paris. Japan, although it has slid to third position in global rankings, remains a powerful economic player. South Korea’s economic strength continues to grow. It is expected that by 2030, Indonesia will also join China, Japan, Korea and India among the top ten economies of the world.

Over 1.5 million Sri Lankans work in the gradually evolving and prosperous Middle East. The rapidly expanding wealth and the mesmerizing technological achievements of Lanka’s immediate region has posed complex challenges and tantalising opportunities to Sri Lanka’s policy makers, especially to those who will manage its foreign and external trade policies.

Sri Lanka, sitting strategically in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is again required to craft its external relations with care to gain maximum economic and trade advantage while ensuring its independence and long term security.

Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour, economically increasingly powerful and militarily dominant in the region, must be a key foreign policy focus. While it is unlikely that India’s overwhelming military capabilities in the Indian Ocean region will be challenged by anyone in the foreseeable future, it has legitimate security sensitivities which must be acknowledged.

The Sri Lanka-India bilateral trade, weighted heavily in favour of India, is around USD 5 billion. Sri Lanka must cultivate India’s trust and it is to Sri Lanka’s advantage to not allow even a suggestion of suspicion smear the bilateral relationship. A stable mature relationship with India, nurtured at different levels, a relationship between two sovereign equals, will contribute to other flow-on benefits, including extensive economic benefits.

The fact that India has been the main ethnic, social, cultural, and religious inspiration of Sri Lanka, and the shared colonial experience, provide the foundation to build upon further. The religious links of Buddhism and Hinduism remain a strong subliminal force and need further fostering. India itself has begun to emphasise its cultural and religious ties in the region.

After the shaky bilateral experience of the eighties and nineties, the Rajapaksa regime, operating at official and senior political levels, restored a degree of mutual comfort to the India-Sri Lanka relationship which greatly facilitated the country’s effort to defeat its terrorist challenge while providing a shield against distant powers seeking to intervene in the internal conflict. India’s sympathetic non-involvement was a critical factor in the military victory over the ruthless LTTE terrorism that cost the country an estimated $200 billion in lost opportunity.

While Sri Lanka must manage its relationship with India with sensitivity, the economic, technological and trade potential that resurgent China offers remains a dazzling attraction. China proposes to make available funds to the tune of $4-8 trillion for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) related development activities, a sum that is unlikely to be even closely matched by an economically ailing West.

Already 136 countries and 30 international organisations have joined the BRI, despite the strong reservations emanating from certain countries of the West. This staggering sum is expected to transform the entire region, including Central Asia and Africa, in to a community of shared prosperity. Already, many African countries have begun to enjoy rates of growth which were only a distant dream just a few short years ago, largely as a result of Chinese investments.

Sri Lanka is presented with a unique opportunity in history by the BRI to grow rapidly and join the ranks of prosperous nations. However, the challenge would be to cultivate the relationship with China and make use of BRI funds prudently, transparently and without causing strategic alarm to other powers present in the region.

In this respect, there are other models to emulate. The judicious use of BRI funds and exploiting other relations in the East Asia region will provide a higher standard of living to the people, which should be the priority concern of Lanka’s policy makers. It is recalled that China’s support, both militarily and politically in the international arena when the West was exerting pressure in the opposite direction, was critical in Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE.

While the opportunities offered by the BRI are undoubtedly tempting, the immediate realities are unavoidable. Agitated by China’s quick rise, with its competing political, economic and social model, and its impact on the global power balance, the U.S. has designated China (and also Russia) as a strategic competitor and shifted its security focus from Europe to Asia with President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”.

Under President Trump, the Asia-Pacific has been identified as a single region of strategic interest to the U.S. For Sri Lanka, struggling to achieve a better life for its people, the increasingly raucous confrontation between China and the U.S., presents a difficult dilemma.

At present, 27% of Sri Lanka’s exports go to the U.S. and over 24% to Europe. The country has inherited deep historical, socio-cultural and educational links with the West. The immediate challenge would be to further maintain the traditional links with the West, while dealing in a balanced way with the reality of emerging Asia, in particular China. It would certainly not be a sustainable option to alienate bits and pieces of real estate to competing powers as a tool of foreign policy.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon, 1960. In 1961, she attended the Conference on Non-Aligned Nations in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. She was a key player in reducing tensions between India and China after their 1962 border dispute erupted into the Sino-Indian War. Source; Wikimedia Commons.Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon, 1960. In 1961, she attended the Conference on Non-Aligned Nations in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. She was a key player in reducing tensions between India and China after their 1962 border dispute erupted into the Sino-Indian War. Source; Wikimedia Commons.

Sri Lanka has historically been a key player in international organisations and has the opportunity to continue playing this role. It has developed an active partnership with the United Nations and, as the Organization that provides a voice for the poor and marginalized majority, the UN must be a window for Sri Lanka to highlight its achievements, especially with regard to human development and be a moderating influence in multilateral affairs. The NAM will continue to be an important political factor within the UN and Sri Lanka has had excellent and supportive relations with this body in the past.

Sri Lanka played a pro-active role in the negotiations that developed the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The upliftment of humanity to a higher plane must be a sacred responsibility of all and Sri Lanka has considerable expertise and experience to share.

The UN peacekeeping operations can be actively supported by Sri Lanka with its well trained and disciplined military but Sri Lanka must resist UN efforts, under unreasonable pressure from its detractors, to treat its peacekeeping contribution as a favour from the organization to the country. While there are criticisms of almost all troop contributors to UN peacekeeping, Sri Lanka has been unfairly and without much substantiation picked on by its critics.

Climate Change is and will remain a major preoccupation of humanity. Sri Lanka, as a victim of the effects of climate change already, has been an active player in global efforts to address this unprecedented challenge to mankind’s survival.

Similarly, terrorism continues to plague the world and remains a major preoccupation of most countries. Sri Lanka, having chaired the UN Working Group on Terrorism, and having defeated a brutal terrorist threat itself, is in a position to continue playing a lead role in addressing the threat of global terrorism.

Similarly, the evolving concept of the blue economy, which is also closely linked with the UN SDGs, provides Sri Lanka with the opportunity to play another major role in multilateral affairs, particularly given its previous associations with law of the sea matters and its unique location in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 October 2019]

The writer’s previous IDN articles can be found on

Top photo: Colombo Skyline. CC BY-SA 4.0

Photo in text (1): Ambassador Dr. Palitha Kohona elected Chairman of the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the UN General Assembly in October 2013. Source: TELO

Photo in text (2): Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon, 1960. In 1961, she attended the Conference on Non-Aligned Nations in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. She was a key player in reducing tensions between India and China after their 1962 border dispute erupted into the Sino-Indian War. Source; Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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