Photo (left to right): Collage of pictures (from public domains) of U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting Sri Lanka in January 2020. Credit: IDN-INPS - Photo: 2020

World Powers Come to Woo Sri Lanka

By Kalinga Seneviratne

COLOMBO (IDN) – Two months after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office on November 18, 2019, the Indian ocean island republic of Sri Lanka has had the unique distinction of hosting top diplomats of three world powers – the United States, China and Russia. One of the president’s first significant announcements was that Sri Lanka would follow a staunchly non-aligned independent foreign policy.

January 14 was a busy day for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena when they had a series of meetings with three foreign dignitaries: the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“Sri Lanka is in the reckoning for the world powers because of its strategic positioning, more than anything else,” noted Daily Mirror’s Kelum Bandara. “A power game plays out in the Indian Ocean region for strategic hegemony, and the respective countries engage Sri Lanka to prevent it from being slipped into the ambit of one player against the interests of the other.”

Historically, Sri Lanka has played an important role in maritime commerce and cultural flows between East and West. Today, the Indian Ocean is a major artery of global trade. Sri Lanka is only 12 nautical miles off the world’s busiest shipping lines that carry 72 percent of the global energy supplies, 50 percent of containers and 35 percent of bulk cargos.

A major issue leading up to the November 16, 2019 presidential elections was a $470 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the U.S. the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was rumoured to have signed. Both were seen by Rajapaksa’s nationalist supporters as infringing on the country’s sovereignty and placing Sri Lanka firmly on the Indo-Pacific bandwagon led by Washington.

Many claimed that Sri Lanka would end up like Afghanistan with the world powers fighting their wars for geo-political supremacy on Sri Lankan soil. After his election, President Rajapaksa appointed a high-level committee to review these agreements, which have however yet to be signed.

During her meetings with the new leadership and a subsequent press briefing given at the airport before departure, Wells was at pains not to focus on controversial issues. She said she had delivered a letter from President Donald Trump, underscoring the U.S. commitment to deepen what she termed ‘constructive partnership’ with Sri Lanka that will be beneficial to both countries.

“We were able to discuss the dimensions of the Indo-Pacific region with emphasis on increasing trade and investment as well as enhancing governance that allows for increase in investment,” she told journalists, noting that aspects of maritime security featured prominently during her talks. Referring to the allocation of $39 million in 2018 for coastal radar surveillance, she said it would be the launching pad for cooperation with Sri Lanka in this sphere.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov is regarded as a good friend of Sri Lanka having started his diplomatic career at the Soviet Embassy in Colombo in 1972 and is known to be able to speak fluent Sinhalese. According to a Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs media statement, the two foreign ministers discussed a number of areas of cooperation including technical and vocational education, tourism, investments, security and defence.

During the Soviet era, which came to an end after the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, thousands of Sri Lankans received higher education funded by Soviet government scholarships. Such cooperation is expected to be enlarged.

In 2019, over 86,000 Russian tourists arrived in Sri Lanka. Discussions with Lavrov included increasing the tourist flow as well as expansion of trade between the two countries to reach the target of $700 million set during previous President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to Moscow in 2017. Also defence cooperation is to be expanded under the bilateral Military Cooperation Agreement that was signed in September 2018 in Moscow.

“I expressed Sri Lanka’s gratitude for the generous Russian Government assistance, extended over the last six decades, to educate generations of Sri Lankan students in the areas of medicine, engineering and other technical fields,” noted Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Gunawardena in a statement.

“President Rajapaksa is also keen to upgrade the quality of Sri Lanka’s vocational and technical training programmes. Therefore, we agreed to explore new educational opportunities at the Russian universities and technical schools for advanced science and technical education for Sri Lankan students,” the Foreign Minister added.

China’s top diplomat Wang speaking to the media after the meetings with Sri Lankan leaders gave a categorical undertaking that China would not allow any country to interfere with the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

China’s relationship with Sri Lanka is a long and fruitful one for the island nation. Sri Lanka was one of the earliest countries to recognize the Peoples Republic of China in 1952 and signed a rubber-rice barter trade agreement in the 1950s which was very beneficial to both countries.

In the 1970s, China sent workers to build the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) as a gift to Sri Lanka. During the closing stages of the 30-year civil war with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Chinese military and diplomatic assistance was crucial in ending the conflict.

Unlike in neighbouring India, most Sinhalese, especially the current government’s Sinhalese nationalist supporters, look at China favourably. Wang wasted no time in giving assurance to them that China will stand by Sri Lanka as it has done before. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is believed to have given Wang a list of projects in which he would like to have Chinese financial assistance.

However, according to political observers, both Sri Lanka and China would have to tread carefully on how these investments are done. Most Sri Lankans are not happy with the Hambantota Port deal and the 99-year lease agreement may have to be renegotiated.

The Rajapaksa regime, while honouring the commercial aspects of the agreement, would have to change the leasing aspects as these are not popular with its nationalist supporters. In return, China would also have to show goodwill in such renegotiations.

India, which has also been wooing the new government from the day President Rajapaksa was elected, was soon off the mark sending National Security Advisor Ajit Doval for talks with President Rajapaksa on January 18, to follow up on what was agreed between the two sides during his visit to India a week after assuming power.

The Indian government has pledged $50 million assistance to purchase equipment as part of bilateral cooperation on counterterrorism and also extended a $450 million Line of Credit as development assistance.

The diplomatic crunch for Sri Lanka and its international suitors will come in March when the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) takes up the review of the 2015 resolution calling for accountability for alleged war crimes at the end of the civil war in 2009.

Though the previous regime co-sponsored the resolution with the Western members of the Council, President Rajapaksa has said that he will not recognize the resolution and would like to pull out of it. China and Russia are expected to back Sri Lanka. As U.S. is no longer a member of UNHRC, it remains to be seen how their European proxies and India behave at the sessions. “Sri Lankans are eagerly waiting to see who their real friends are,” said a political observer.

Writing in Ceylon Today, former member of parliament and presidential candidate, Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, noted that after the acrimonious relationship the previous Rajapaksa regime had with the West from the end of the war in 2009 and until they were voted out in 2015, the new government under President Sirisena tried to repair that relationship the wrong way.

After 2015 the government policy was “saying the same as our opponents” and hoping that it would cajole the opponents into “treating us as a different country (friend),” Prof Wijesinha argues. he added. “That has led to a disaster. I can only hope that (President) Gotabaya has learned that lesson.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 January 2020]

Photo (left to right): Collage of pictures (from public domains) of U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting Sri Lanka in January 2020. Credit: IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top