Sri Lanka: A Change in Strategic Focus when Asia becomes the Power Centre?
Posted on June 9th, 2014

Dr D.Chandraratna, Perth   

Sri Lanka must be conscious of the possible threats to its territorial integrity and sovereignty at all times. Our entry into the post conflict age, with lessons learnt, requires a reorientation of our maritime strategy given the limitations of our own defence capabilities. Sri Lanka’s geographical position in the Indian Ocean must be the key factor in defence planning for the future. We live in a multi polar world where major and middle powers are contesting the hegemony of US as a super power. Smaller nations are bound to face demanding contingencies for which they must be prepared well in advance. Sri Lanka will be tested for its mellowness and uncertainty by the likes of Tamil Nadu. With the advent of the BJP to power in India forging a change in the political and cultural orientation our first strategy must be to redesign our relations within the region in South East Asia. Our South East Asian connection must also include Australia in the light of its new defence strategy.

Australia is now planning a more active role in the Asia pacific with special attention to South East Asia. This emphatic change in the defence focus of Australia cannot be ignored. The recent white paper here suggests that ‘the security of South East Asia is of enduring strategic interest because of its proximity to Australia’s northern approaches and crucial shipping lanes. Accordingly defence expenditure has been jacked up to 2% of the GDP. With the growing assertiveness of China Australia is positioning itself to make substantial military contributions for this purpose by investing heavily in military hardware. Sri Lanka must also hedge its bets in more ways than one because current strategic trends suggest growth of new centres of power, major and middle level. If threats to Sri Lanka come from internal or external enemies our alliances with minor and major powers may act as a counterforce. In low intensity conventional conflicts that Sri Lanka may face in the future our vulnerability in the North East has to be factored in. Obviously as we cannot acquire or maintain expensive air or naval capabilities an alignment with a regional power becomes essential. It is no secret that in the terrorist conflict Sri Lanka was assisted by both regional and super powers in different stages. In the unlikely possibility of major powers acting unilaterally smaller nations like Sri Lanka’s strategic reliance on one centre of regional power may be misguided. Also it is in our self-interest never to display fawning support for the adventurism of any of the regional powers. Smart diplomacy is of the essence. We cannot afford to be embroiled in regional conflicts, i.e. Vietnam with China. Siding with either party can yield unhappy results however much damage control is done a posteriori. Strategic alliances need not necessarily be strategic automatons.  

 The enigma of Narendra Modi teaches many a lesson to Sri Lanka. In times of need the sugar coated platitudes about shared cultural and religious traditions may count to nothing. It’s the same kind of lazy, unintelligent sentimentality that Sri Lanka generally suffers from which has landed us in trouble in the past. Jayawardena foolishly backing US for no earthly reason made Indira Gandhi put Sri Lanka through the wringer for three decades. It was only the straight talk and an upright backbone of Rajapaksa that rescued us from that blood sport of Prabhakaran. Sri Lanka- India relationship has to be seen in the same manner as Lord Palmerston saw foreign policy in the 19 th century when he said that there are no eternal allies or perpetual enemies. It is interests that are eternal. Any alliance is valued only of it assists us against a threat of coercion, aggression and subversion. We must align ourselves with countries, which have a commitment to rules based system for the conduct of international relations. Our maritime cooperation with Australia paid heavy dividends at the UNHRC recently. On our part it has to be understood that there is no alliance that is going to stand in good stead unless Sri Lanka responsibly contributes to its own security by an investment in ethical governance, strong democratic institutions and a commitment to the rule of law. We must never leave room for the strategic partner to be diffident to defend us in an international forum for our lack of transparency. A strategic alliance with a regional power will accrue a number of benefits. The use of military force against us will be sanctioned or constrained by the allied power as in the case of Syria recently. Inter-country disputes will be necessarily taken to properly constituted international mechanisms not like the contrived tribunals like the Darusman panel or Pillay driven Commissions of Inquiry. The Security Council will be the arbiter of international disputes. A strategic partner offers us the room for consultation and negotiation in situations like the food drop by India in 1987 when no country spoke in our favour against the encroachment to our air space by a foreign power.

 Lanka’s foreign policy focus must be understood in the light of a US pivot to Asia to contain China. The US is keen to reinvigorate its waning hegemony by repositioning its military power in the Indian and South China seas. The current US involvement regarding the uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan and other such maritime skirmishes with Philippines and Vietnam is only a clumsy excuse to move its naval and military power to South Asia. The most important development in the 21 st century in international matters is the unmistakable growth of the maritime power of China. It is also no secret that by dominating the seas that bear its name it is maximizing its territorial and resource claims. China is keen on challenging the status quo of the previous world order. It is also a matter of argument why China is involved in serious maritime disputes with a dozen or so Asian states which perversely has provided the opportunity for US to reinvigorate an alliance network in South East Asia. An explanation is that China is reordering the hierarchical positions in the neighbourhood even though the regional disputes are counterproductive in the short term. A foreign policy correspondent Alan Dupont called this the Monroe doctrine with Chinese characteristics. Dupont says that from a Chinese perspective this makes seemingly clear that just as much a rising US constructed a Doctrine in the nineteenth century to keep all other powers off the Pacific why should an ascendant China not seek a comparable outcome in the Western Pacific.

 Sri Lanka’s dalliance with China has to be understood in this global super power contest. In this day and age with trade interdependence being crucial to the survival of all contesting parties it will virtually be unlikely to see high intensity conflicts between major powers. It is likely that the incoming world order will be a Pax Sinica in the Greater Asia rather than a Pax Americana. Although there are many who chafe at Sri Lanka’s over reliance on China, given the possibility of Indian angst, hedging its bets in many ways ways seems strategic. Modi may be more appealing than Singh and Gujarat may be littered with Buddhist ruins, or Hindutva ideology may be sympathetic to a Buddhist ethic, but we should be shaping up to a strategic contest between regional powers to win our trust. This is new thinking in foreign policy given the altered foreign policy environment in the new world order, which is still evolving. All depends on how Sri Lanka plays the defence stakes leveraging effective diplomacy with a confidence building multilateralism. 

4 Responses to “Sri Lanka: A Change in Strategic Focus when Asia becomes the Power Centre?”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    As long as GOSL SHUNS the SILK ROAD AGREEMENT with China it has NO future in geopolitics.

    SL is the 30th state of Endia under MR.

    We need China, Russia, USA, EU, Endia, Pakistan, Saudi, Israel and Japan to BALANCE OUT their influence so that the NET EFFECT is pro-SL.

  2. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    “Obviously as we cannot acquire or maintain expensive air or naval capabilities an alignment with a regional power becomes essential”. and “We cannot afford to be embroiled in regional conflicts, i.e. Vietnam with China”
    Whether Sri Lanka can or cannot afford to maintain an advanced military or be embroiled in regional conflicts is an issue not completely under the control of Colombo. If anything we have learned from the 30 year old war is that Sri Lanka cannot afford to be complacent or demilitarized.
    As the article pointed out the decisions of the region are being made by nations like India, China, Russia, Australia, the US, Japan and if so Sri Lanka has to afford to not only maintain an advanced military but build upon it.
    The stigma of being a small nation should die. Small nations have achieved massive solutions. From the British Empire to financial centers such as Singapore (at 127 square miles) to the Vatican, small nations have even surpassed their larger counterparts.

    Sri Lanka should build an indigenous military production industry similar to Israel and be an exporter of military hardware. It is one of the most lucrative export markets. It will also draw in high end technology in this area.

    Sri Lanka should invest in her space program that got some mention after the war ended but has not received any coverage since. In the 21st century the technology has made it cheap and viable for a nation to have a functioning space industry. This too is vital in Sri Lanka’s military since rocket launching also gives missile technology. It also advances the military capability of the nation and finally it is a lucrative industry to launch satellites of other nations.

    Sri Lanka should acquire the technology to build a nuclear powered plant. It is the most efficient energy producer and is clean. Sri Lanka is rich in Thorium that could be used as fuel and recycling technology of spent fuel is rapidly developing. It also has military implications. Think big for God’s sake. Israel a much smaller nation than Sri Lanka is a nuclear state as well. In a region where the nuclear bomb is present in Pakistan, India and China there is credible reason for Sri Lanka to achieve this goal. Keep in mind Iran’s nuclear ascendancy and her long range missiles can reach Sri Lanka.

    Other fields that would help Sri Lanka to emerge as a commercial and military power is to import industries that produce vehicles, Robot technology, ship building technology, submarine technology, drone technology and any technology that the US or any advanced nation currently is engaged. Sri Lanka is only limited in her goals by the mindset of her leaders.

    India keeps on pushing the notion that Sri Lanka is a “small nation” and by that has effectively driven into the minds of Sri Lankans that Sri Lanka can only achieve small things. Using that philosophy Russia at 6 million square miles should be the leader in every sphere and Israel should be a back water third world nation.

  3. Nimal Fernando Says:

    “Think big, for God’s sake.” Well said, Sir. Also, keep that capstone of U.S. foreign policy on the front burner:
    ‘No permanent friends and permanent enemies’.

    To be sure, new global realities demand skilled, far-thinking foreign policy operatives free of the
    excess baggage carried by some ‘mahadenamutthas’ of the past …

  4. jayasiri Says:

    AGREE fully with Dr. Chandraratna of Australia. We are CONTIONED to think small & it is DRIVEN TO OUR PSHYCIE by India lovers, apathy salespeople who crowd the MOST important ministeries in Sri Lanka. These are the very peope who advises OUR PRESIDENT, HE Rajapaksha.

    At least he always CONTRADICT us being called a samll nation. WE ARE NOT a small nation, we are VERY BIG in many ways, BUT if our leaders & distractors continue to CALL OURSELVES SMALL, we tend to accept that.

    It is true once China suggested sending a Sri Lankan to the MOON with the Chinese scientits to explore & learn about outer space. WHY NOT get assistance from China & Russia and develop neuclear powered stations for domestic electricity & power production.

    In every attempt we are BEING HELD back by India & her NAY SAYERS. If we develop as Singapore or Israel who are OTHERS to say that we are a small nation & go on supplying raw materials to WEST & MID EAST but no manaufacturing or INNOVATIVE industries to talk about.

    WE SHOULD do a lot to bring Sri Lanka to the world stage. Ofcourse Pakistan with her Neuclear expertise can also will be a bonus for us. KEEP INDIA out as it has already DONE enough damage to our people & our economy. Dr. Chandraratna should WRITE to our President and be a STALWART in making lanka change to a NEWER, FAST DEVELPING COUNTRY.

    We have many educated & bright Sri kankans who can match & compete with any other DEVELOPED nation, if we get our PRIORITIES in ORDER. It is always TAMIL QUESTION we are CONSUMED with, beacuse that is how other countries HOLD US BACK. Create uncertainty & WE ARE A small country & ALL THE POSSIBLE NEGATIVES spoil the MINDS of our people.
    Thank you all………..J

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