Reviewing Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy
Posted on November 12th, 2022

By Neville ladduwahetty Courtesy The Island

I t is reported that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has tasked the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (LKI) with reviewing Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and making recommendations on the structure of the island’s diplomatic apparatus” (The Sunday Morning, October 30, 2022). According to the Executive Director Dr. D. L. Mendis of the LKI, once the consultations are completed, recommendations on a new foreign policy will be presented to the President and later to Parliament (Ibid). Continuing, Dr. Mendis stated: Sri Lanka comes first. But we have to also be mindful of our neighbourhood. As a result, our relations should be a bit better with countries in the region, especially India. The Indians also expect us to take that into consideration. The recent Yuan Wang 5 vessel visit is an example.” (Ibid).

The report cited above was followed soon after by a report in the Daily News of October 31, citing the full text of a speech delivered by the Prime Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena at the Convocation of the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI). The text of PM’s speech states: Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is based on neutrality in international affairs and we extend a hand of friendship to every country. But this neutrality should not be taken as a weakness. It is merely a detached neutrality in regional or international power games. Though neutral, we will not allow anybody to use our soil against a third country. In such attempts we zealously safeguard our sovereignty”. The policy of Neutrality” adopted by Sri Lanka and stated by the PM would in no uncertain terms serve Sri Lanka’s interests better in the background of increasing Great Power Rivalries in and around Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean with the formation of the strategic security alliance of the United States, India, Japan and Australia known as the Quad on the one hand, and China on the other. The fact that the policy of Neutrality” is backed by the codified provisions in the Hague Convention (V) Respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land”, entered into force January 26, 1910 would add strength to zealously safeguard” Sri Lanka’s sovereignty as evidenced by the Articles of the Convention cited below. The Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers Article 1.

The territory of neutral Powers is inviolable. Art. 2. Belligerents are forbidden to move troops or convoys of either munitions of war or supplies across the territory of a neutral Power. Art. 3. Belligerents are likewise forbidden to: (a) Erect on the territory of a neutral Power a wireless telegraphy station or other apparatus for the purpose of communicating with belligerent forces on land or sea; (b) Use any installation of this kind established by them before the war on the territory of a neutral Power for purely military purposes, and which has not been opened for the service of public messages. Art. 4. Corps of combatants cannot be formed nor recruiting agencies opened on the territory of a neutral Power to assist the belligerents. Art. 5. A neutral Power must not allow any of the acts referred to in Articles 2 to 4 to occur on its territory. It is not called upon to punish acts in violation of its neutrality unless the said acts have been committed on its own territory. Art. 6. The responsibility of a neutral Power is not engaged by the fact of persons crossing the frontier separately to offer their services to one of the belligerents. Art. 7. A neutral Power is not called upon to prevent the export or transport, on behalf of one or other of the belligerents, of arms, munitions of war, or, in general, of anything which can be of use to an army or a fleet. Art. 8. A neutral Power is not called upon to forbid or restrict the use on behalf of the belligerents of telegraph or telephone cables or of wireless telegraphy apparatus belonging to it or to companies or private individuals. Art. 9. Every measure of restriction or prohibition taken by a neutral Power in regard to the matters referred to in Articles 7 and 8 must be impartially applied by it to both belligerents. A neutral Power must see to the same obligation being observed by companies or private individuals owning telegraph or telephone cables or wireless telegraphy apparatus. Art. 10. The fact of a neutral Power resisting, even by force, attempts to violate its neutrality cannot be regarded as a hostile act. In the context of today’s technological advances some of the provisions in the Articles cited above have lost their relevance.

Despite this, sufficient provisions exist to justify any country that adopts a policy of Neutrality to zealously” protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Neutrality in relation to India If the foreign policy of Sri Lanka is Neutral, its conduct in its relations with other countries has to reflect its core value of impartiality. This means Sri Lanka cannot afford to have special relations with some to the exclusivity of others. For instance, the common perception in Sri Lanka is that both geography and history of Sri Lanka and India are so closely knit together that its relations with India must necessarily be different to that with any other State. However, this perception that is founded on history and geography is based on an India that was so vastly different to what India is today. The past relations and bonds that Sri Lanka developed was with an India that consisted of several princely States.

While some of them had a profound influence in molding the culture and heritage of Sri Lanka, with the gift” of Buddhism from one of these States to Sri Lanka, other States in the South of the subcontinent repeatedly plundered, vandalized and laid waste what was cherished by Sri Lanka. The India that the world sees today was crafted under British Colonial Rule when the entire Indian subcontinent was unified and eventually partitioned at an unimaginable human cost in the process of granting independence to India and Pakistan. It is in such a context that Sri Lanka has to fashion its policy of Neutrality, and not on a past that does not exist today. While Sri Lanka’s security and territorial integrity in the past was dependent on the ambitions of Empires in the Indian subcontinent, by a quirk of fate and circumstance, the security and territorial integrity of today’s India depends on the security and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. For instance, IF the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka were to separate from the rest of Sri Lanka, as attempted by the LTTE, the support of Tamil Nadu that was given so willingly on grounds of common kinship would have contributed immeasurably towards furthering Tamil Nadu’s own separatist ambitions; a process that would encourage other Southern States to eventually follow suit, with serious consequences on India’s existing territorial integrity, without which its aspiration to be recognized as a global power would have been dented.

It was to prevent such an outcome that India undertook a military mission to defeat the LTTE. Having failed, much to its embarrassment, all India could do was to come up instead with devolution of power to the Provinces in Sri Lanka under the 13th Amendment; a position from which India would not budge because of the unintended consequences that could follow. The common belief is that the choice of Province as the unit of devolution had more to do with appeasing Tamil Nadu instead of devolution to Districts that would have assured Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity and through it assured India’s territorial integrity too. The lesson to be learnt is that both India and Sri Lanka have to adopt policies that assure each other’s territorial integrity because it is in each other’s own self-interests to do so.

Viewed from the perspective presented above it is in India’s selfinterest to help Sri Lanka overcome its current debt crisis. Whatever contribution India has made towards this effort is to ensure that Sri Lanka gets over this crisis, because if Sri Lanka fails, other global powers are bound to exploit the situation at a serious cost to India’s self-interests. This means that any help extended to Sri Lanka is in the pursuit of India’s own self-interest. The important review process that the LKI is tasked to engage in, should develop a fresh perspective in respect of relations with India that is in keeping with current global developments, instead of being influenced by a past that has ceased to exist. Such a perspective should acknowledge that India’s aspirations to become a global power depends on its territorial integrity being intact.

This means axiomatically, that India makes sure that Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity stays intact too. This endeavour should make the relationship between India and Sri Lanka as equal partners engaged in the joint task of ensuring each other’s territorial integrity and not as a big brother or sister of Sri Lanka as believed by some. Sri Lanka’s policy of Neutrality must underscore this sense of reality. Practice of a neutral foreign policy How does a policy of Neutrality manifest itself in practice? First, it means a country that adopts a policy of Neutrality extend a hand friendship to every country” as stated by the PM at the BIDTI Convocation. Second, such a country cannot be partial to any country over any other or others. Thirdly it must promote and live by the rule of law. This means, a Neutral country cannot pick and choose countries to parcel out infrastructure projects, as for instance to hand over the East Container Terminal to India and Japan and consider offering the West Container Terminal to The Adani Group of India along with a Solar Power Project in Mannar and/or Trincomalee.

 Another instance on similar lines was to offer the Hambantota Harbour first to the United States, then to India and finally to China. The practice instead, should be for Sri Lanka to prepare relevant project proposals and call for Expressions of Interest for evaluation and selecting the offer that best suits Sri Lanka’s interests. This means unsolicited proposals have no place in the scheme of a Neutral country. The tendency of Sri Lanka to be influenced by the security concerns of India should have rational and meaningful limits. For instance, objecting to the award of a solar power project to a Chinese Company on the basis of Asian Development Bank procedures by India on grounds of security, should not have been entertained if Sri Lanka is to assert its independence, because no concrete reasons had been presented for India’s objections similar to the decision taken in regard to Yuan Wang 5 of China. As a Neutral State, Sri Lanka has every right to comply with the provisions relating to the Rights and Duties of a Neutral State” cited above when it comes to addressing requests from other countries.

The exercise of a Neutral policy in a manner that is credible means the ability to act independently. To exercise that independence, Sri Lanka has to be economically independent. Such economic independence comes with food and energy security. Sri Lanka has to focus on these two areas if its Neutrality is not to be compromised. Conclusion The statement by the Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on the occasion of the Convocation of Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is based on Neutrality, is bold and courageous because he has dared to charter a new direction from the long held policy of Non-Alignment.

 He has done right by Sri Lanka to recognize the altered geopolitical architecture and adopted a policy to guide Sri Lanka’s relations with the rest of the world in a manner that enables Sri Lanka to accommodate the rivalries developing in an around Sri Lanka made intense by the strategic location destined on the People of Sri Lanka. Unlike the specificity of the policy of Neutrality, the lack of specificity of the former policy of NonAlignment was perhaps the reason for the directionless and lackadaisical performance of the Foreign Ministry and its diplomatic apparatus” that caused its performance to depend entirely on the leadership given by the Foreign Minister in how Sri Lanka conducted its foreign relations. This was most evident in Sri Lanka’s performance in Geneva. This new beginning means a new direction as to how Sri Lanka and its governments conduct themselves in a manner that makes the policy of neutrality alive as far as its relations with the rest of the world are concerned. If the policy of Neutrality is practiced as recommended above, there is a strong possibility that Sri Lanka would emerge from the crisis that is affecting all the countries without exception, with minimum cost to its image and its dignity.

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