Posted on September 10th, 2020

By Neville Ladduwahetty courtesy Island

The Additional Secretary to the President for Foreign Relations, Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage in an interview stated: The foreign policy of the new government is based on some key pillars. The number one is neutrality. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has repeatedly stated in Sri Lanka and India and in his interaction with the press and the diplomatic community, that his primary responsibility is maintaining neutrality. We don’t want to be labelled or get caught in this power game (Daily Mirror, January 28, 2020).

However, expanding on the above policy in his current position as Foreign Secretary, Admiral Prof. Colombage, during the course of an interview to Derana 24 news channel stated: Very categorically, the President has stated that we have a strategic security-wise ‘India first’ policy because we cannot be, we should not be, we can’t afford to be a strategic security threat for India, period,” (August 20, 2020).

The need for Sri Lanka to conduct foreign relations with other countries in a manner that is not a security threat to India was a bitter lesson Sri Lanka, learnt several decades ago at great cost in terms of blood and treasure that lasted three decades.    The lesson Sri Lanka learnt was that if Sri Lanka engages in relations with countries such as the USA, or any other whose interests may be perceived by India to be inimical to the latter’s interests, in particular security, India would not hesitate to convey its displeasure at such developments in a manner of its choosing.   


However, the circumstances at that time were different.  India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and global politics was determined by two recognized super powers.  While the majority of countries were Non-aligned, others opted to be aligned with either one of the 2 super powers.  Today, geopolitics is defined by a single super power, the USA, that is being challenged by a rising power, aspiring to be the other super power or even the sole super power:  China.   In such a background, India is no longer serious about staying committed to being non-aligned.  Instead, it is an integral component of Quad, namely, a security related alliance made up of US, India, Japan and Australia, crafted as a feature of the US Policy ‘Pivot to Asia’.   This alliance is preparing itself to counter China’s involvement in the Indian Ocean as part of its multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

It is in such an altered landscape that one has to consider whether India would or would not accept Sri Lanka caving into US pressure and signing the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) and Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).   Bearing in mind that India is known to have already signed similar agreements with the US and is a partner of the combined defense arrangements of Quad, would India consider Sri Lanka signing any of these agreements with the US a security threat to India?  NO!. On the other hand, India might welcome Sri Lanka signing security related Agreements with the USA, because Sri Lanka would then inadvertently become a part of the Quad security alliance to counter the influence of China.    

Under these circumstances, a policy of India First” would mean that India would not have any security concerns with Sri Lanka if Sri Lanka becomes part of Quad by signing the three Agreements presented by the US, notwithstanding the sustained opposition expressed by the Sri Lankan public.   For Sri Lanka to be in a position where its interests and that of its public are determined by any other State or States, is unacceptable.  Therefore, ‘India First’ must be viewed with apprehension.

A way to overcome such hard choices is to rely on the President’s initial Foreign Policy of Neutrality; a position he declared to the nation and to the world during his inaugural acceptance speech in the hallowed precincts of Anuradhapura.   It would only be a policy of Neutrality that would enable Sri Lanka to exercise its sovereign rights and at the same time ensure other States, in particular India and Quad, that Sri Lanka would be Neutral as far as security issues are concerned while engaging with all nations in respect of other issues.   Such a policy would mean that when it comes to security no one is first.   All are equal.   This is of particular relevance in view of the emerging landscape in the Indian Ocean in respect of security issues 


The Annual Report by the US OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE to Congress:” Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 states: Beyond its current base in Djibouti, the PRC is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces. The PRC has likely considered locations for PLA military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan. The PRC and Cambodia have publicly denied having signed an agreement to provide the PLAN with access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base”.

Whether China is considering and planning additional overseas military logistics facilities” or not, the several Ports already built by China in the Indian Ocean Rim countries could readily be transformed into military logistics facilities.   In this regard Sri Lanka is particularly vulnerable because of all the countries referred to above, the uniqueness of the strategic location of Sri Lanka for military logistics in the Indian Ocean is a fact that is indisputable.   Furthermore, China already has a logistic facility in Hambantota, even though not a military facility at this point in time.  Consequently, Sri Lanka would be hard pressed to avoid the rivalry that is inexorably emerging between Quad and China.  

In such a background, would a policy of Non-Alignment or looking East for support from regional organizations such as BIMSTEC and/or SAARC help Sri Lanka to deal with security related countervailing pressures that are engulfing Sri Lanka in various forms; the latest being sanctions imposed by the US on Companies involved with the Port City Project?              

Non-alignment was relevant at a different time when the geopolitical construct was also different.  During that time, India and Sri Lanka were on the same page as far as Foreign Relations were concerned as partners of the Non-Aligned Movement.   Furthermore, no country was interested in establishing their foot print in Sri Lanka, and the Indian Ocean was not the hot bed of rivalry that it is today as a consequence of China attempting to regain its place in the world, and alliances such as Quad attempting to counter China’s efforts.   In addition, by being part of Quad, India cannot realistically claim to be non-aligned.   In such a context, Sri Lanka has to be specific and state with whom or what aspects of Foreign Relations Sri Lanka is not aligned with, if non-alignment is in fact its policy.    In the absence of an unambiguous statement, the message should be that Sri Lanka’s relations with all States would be Neutral in respect of security related issues.  Such a policy would enable Sri Lanka to stay clear of major power rivalries.


The suggestion that Neutrality was an appropriate policy to guide Sri Lanka’s Foreign Relations was mooted in an article titled Independence: Its meaning and a direction for the future” (Ladduwahetty, The Island,February 14, 2019).  This article stated: Traditional thinking as to how small States could cope with external pressures are supposed to be: (1) Non-alignment with any of the major centers of power; (2) Alignment with one of the major powers thus making a choice and facing the consequences of which power block prevails; (3) Bandwagoning which involves unequal exchange where the small State makes asymmetric concessions to the dominant power and accepts a subordinate role of a vassal State; (4) Hedging, which attempts to secure economic and security benefits of engagement with each power center: (5) Balancing pressures individually, or by forming alliances with other small States; (6) Neutrality”.

Continuing, the article stated: Of the six strategies cited above, the only strategy that permits a sovereign independent nation to charter its own destiny is neutrality, as it is with Switzerland and some Nordic countries, not only because domestic rivalries prevent the development of consistent policies for engagement with great powers but also because Sri Lanka does not have the skills or the level of sophistication to emerge unscathed from “grey zone coercion” of the great powers.   Neutrality has relevance at this particular point in time because regional cooperation arrangements among countries in the Indian Ocean Rim and South and South East Asia have lost its appeal due to each country attempting to engage in arrangements that suit them best. Under the circumstances, how could neutrality translate itself in real terms”?

Instead of making a public declaration that henceforth Sri Lanka would be neutral in its relations with the great powers, it would be more prudent to express neutrality via the manner in which Sri Lanka engages with the great powers. To start with, Sri Lanka should cease taking outright loans or loans to finance infrastructure projects however attractive the terms from either of the power blocks.   Equally important is for Sri Lanka to cease participating in security related land or sea operations with either of the power blocs because they are clearly conducted to further their own security preparedness”. 

In the current geopolitical setting where the Indian Ocean with Sri Lanka right in the middle of it has become a theater for rivalry between the security alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia (popularly referred to as the Quad), and China, the most prudent policy for Sri Lanka, given the prevailing geopolitical particularities is one of Neutrality, as advocated and articulated by the President during his inaugural speech in the hallowed precincts of Anuradhapura.  

Neville Ladduwahetty                                                September 8, 2020.

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