No major shift likely in foreign policy
Posted on November 3rd, 2019

By Sugeeswara Senadhira Courtesy Ceylon Today

With Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa as main contenders in the arena, the questions that arise in one’s mind is whether the current foreign policy will be continued with a minor change, or whether we are in for a major shift in foreign relations.

In the face of the policy statements of the main two candidates, there is not much change in their international outlook. 

In his first Media interaction after filing his candidacy, Gotabaya said Sri Lanka would maintain a neutral foreign policy and friendly ties with all Nations.

Sajith too spoke in a similar tongue, stating, “We are firmly committed to maintaining a policy of friendship with all Nations, both in the region and beyond.”

Of the ten policy facets unleashed by Gotabaya’s election manifesto, the first is “priority to national security” and the second is “friendly and non-aligned foreign policy.” Gotabaya’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna 

(SLPP), in its manifesto, highlights improving relations with the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Nations on national security. 

“We aim to foster better understanding with India, SAARC and BIMSTEC countries on regional security,” it stated.

Like his elder brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa often stated during his reign from 2005 to 2015, Gotabaya too vows to resist foreign power interference.

 His manifesto emphasises that Sri Lanka would not cringe before any foreign power in maintaining foreign relations and international trade. 

“We will negotiate on equal terms as a sovereign Nation to preserve the national pride,” it says.

Sajith also assured that he would formulate policies to cater to the national needs of this country. 

He added that international trade agreements are important, political agreements are important and the relative advantage that these agreements bring towards Sri Lanka is important.

 He said if there is no advantage that is accrued to the country, then that agreement is detrimental to the Nation.

ACSA, SOFA, MCC

Sajith added that, in the recent past, agreements such as the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) with the United States were the subjects of public debate.

 He noted that when they are making these policy decisions, what they should actually do, is consider the pros and cons of these agreements. He added that all of this must be considered with the country at the centre.


In fact, the ACSA was signed in 2007 when Gotabaya was the Defence Secretary in the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government.

 Two years ago, the US proposed to upgrade ACSA to SOFA, resulting in a major debate on alleged attempts by America to interfere in internal affairs of Sri Lanka.


The proposed MCC grant was delayed due to opposition by President Maithripala Sirisena, and finally it was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers last week. 

After Cabinet approval, President Sirisena asked Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera to put the MCC Agreement on hold, until the Presidential Election on 16 November.

 Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa too urged the Government not to sign the Agreement on the eve of an election.


Sajith also jumped in, saying that all personal preferences must be left aside, because although it is one person who signs these agreements, the effects are felt by the entire country. 

Therefore, he added that when they are scientifically assessing these agreements, we must consult all stakeholders in that relevant field.

 He went on to note that they can easily conduct a cost-benefit analysis and clearly identify the pros and cons.


Sajith said, when dealing with foreign countries, every transaction should bring benefit and add value to our country, which is exactly how his father had also chosen to act. 

Incidentally, Sajith’s father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, as Prime Minister, opposed the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 and induction of Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in North and East Sri Lanka. 

When he became President in 1989, he gave the quit notice to the 150,000-strong IPKF battalion, and they withdrew in March 1990.


Interestingly, Sajith Premadasa was the minister-in-waiting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his 2015 visit to the island, the first in 35 years.


Elaborating on his foreign policy, Sajith said last week that considering our geographic location, our foreign policy will focus on working with all Nations in partnership, to transform Sri Lanka into a hub in the Indian Ocean, with a knowledge-based, competitive, social market economy.

 For this purpose, open trade, freedom of navigation, and a rules-based world order are essential. Sri Lanka will remain firmly committed to these principles, he said.


He added that Sri Lanka would work closely with countries with which the country already had development assistance programmes, trade partnerships and strong people-to-people contacts, while forging new and stronger connections with Indian Ocean Nations and beyond.

 “We recognise the significance of our geographic location in the East-West maritime highway, and we want to ensure that we have mutually beneficial, meaningful and constructive partnerships with all Nations. Air and maritime connectivity will play a critical role in our Nation’s progress.”


Trade pacts


Sajith also talked about trade pacts. Trade is essential for our sustenance. As you are aware, Sri Lanka’s first modern and comprehensive free trade agreement with Singapore came into force in May last year. Sri Lanka was also the first country to enter into an FTA with India.

 I remain committed to pursue a path of enhancing trade and economic connectivity with States in the region and beyond.

 I also recognise the need to carry forward the regulatory reform agenda to enhance ease of doing business with Sri Lanka. 

Maximizing Sri Lanka’s location, heritage, and diversity in fauna and flora to enhance the tourism industry and also promote Sri Lanka as a Rest and Recreation Centre in the Indian Ocean with sports tourism and newer forms of tourism is also on our agenda.


Although the manifestos give basic policy guidelines, practical implementation could be somewhat different. 

Political analysts believe Sajith is likely to toe a pro-Western line, as his key supporters, like Malik Samarawickrama, Mangala Samaraweera, and Dr. Harsha de Silva are pro-West. 

The controversial MCC agreement was presented, last week, to Cabinet, by Minister Samaraweera, and the pro-West ministers backed him fully.


Some experts are of the view that Sajith might also sign the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US, giving the US military extra-constitutional rights in Sri Lanka. 

India may not oppose such a move, as its main concern now is to keep China away. 

However, China would frown upon such close cooperation with the US. China has a deep economic interest in Lanka, and it will not be in the national interest to sour relations with Beijing. 

On the other hand, Gotabaya is expected to keep the US at bay, despite the fact that until recently he was an American citizen. 

He might keep to the good side of India, while continuing with the close economic collaboration with China – indeed a tightrope walk.

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