Taking Sri Lankan Foreign Policy to the Post-Confrontational Phase

The government’s external policy strength lies in the position of equidistance it is now maintaining with regional, continental and global powers.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (right) with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Credit: Reuters

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (right) with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Credit: Reuters

Foreign policymaking is infinitely more complex than what politicians in the opposition, or those who are aspiring to come to power, want the public to believe. Sri Lankan’s leaders have been learning this simple, yet fundamental lesson, since last January. That is why the foreign policy positions of the current government seem to have been in a continuous state of flux.

There is a good reason for it to be so. The government has been compelled to confront a number of factors and pressures in establishing its own ‘foreign policy identity’. I do not think there is yet evidence to suggest that the government wants to have, or has been able to establish, a firm ideological identity in its external relations, as has been the case with many governments in the past, particularly the previous one of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Avoiding an ideological identity in its foreign policy strategies seems to be a key defining feature of the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wikremasinghe administration at present.

Some see this flexibility as a weakness of the government. There is, however, another way of looking at it. It represents the essential dimension of pragmatism in foreign policy, necessitated by a range of complex domestic, regional and global factors. Muddling through is not necessarily a sign of weakness, or a prelude to disaster, in a context where the government has been experimenting with different responses to some key foreign policy determinants.

What are the key determinants that have shaped Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since January last year? We can put them in two groups.

Regime change

The first is electoral and regime change compulsions. Any new government would want to steer a new path of foreign policy. Given the atmosphere of extreme hostility between the two camps, the new government was compelled to abandon immediately the foreign policy orientation of Rajapaksa. The new orientation was seen in the restoration of closeness with regional as well global powers that had earlier been marginalised. This core dimension of Sri Lankan foreign policy continues with only a slight change.

This change is felt primarily in relations with China. Beijing had maintained a close political proximity to the previous government and its leadership. China’s aloofness to the emerging opposition during even the last months of 2014 was somewhat inexplicable too. All this led the new government to adopt a policy of distancing itself from China, both politically and economically. One could even detect some degree of tension between Sri Lanka’s new establishment and the Chinese government; this became somewhat noticeable with regard to the Colombo Port City development project. The government has since passed that initial phase of uncertainty and now appears to have refined its core foreign policy stance to be ‘friendship with all; enmity with none’.

Domestic factors

The second key determinant was the continuation of the central role that the ethnic conflict and civil war had played in bringing together in a symbiotic framework Sri Lanka’s domestic politics and external relations. New York, Geneva, Washington DC, London, Brussels and New Delhi were the key cities that constituted the centres of its global geography. Geneva – home to the UN Human Rights Council – in March and October 2015 symbolised this process of re-configuring Sri Lanka’s global relations and strategies. For the first time since 2009, we could see the Sri Lankan government, the UN, the EU and Western governments – the West-led managers of the global political system – sitting and talking to each other as friends, committed to a shared goal of post-war peace-building and development in Sri Lanka.

This reconfiguration of the external appeared to have run into some difficulty by late last year. Its cause was primarily domestic. And it entails Sri Lanka’s severe balance of payment crisis, triggered off by the mounting debt crisis and the poor record of incoming private foreign investments. The new government has also come to realise that its newly found Western allies were not really ready to assist Sri Lanka in managing the emerging economic crisis in any substantive way.

Understandably, for the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government, there was no free lunch coming from Europe or America. Whatever little that came had political conditionalities attached. Faced with a potentially disastrous economic downturn, the government seems to have decided to re-recalibrate its external relations.  This is the only way to explain the government’s re-examination, of late, of a policy of closer and more robust economic relationship with China, despite continuing domestic criticism, coming from allies as well as opponents.  There is no free lunch from Beijing too, though.

A point that may interest the observer is that the government has so far been careful to emphasise the economic dimensions of its closeness to China, thereby playing down the possibility of any political/strategic and ideological closeness. This is one point by which this government seems to sharply differentiate itself from the previous one. There was a strong view in the country that China was backing the authoritarian project of the previous government’s leadership, closing its eyes totally to issues of democracy, human rights and corruption.

The Chinese leadership is unlikely to abandon its personal and political closeness with Sri Lanka’s former president. In foreign policy matters, China is also known historically for its utmost pragmatism in the service of national interests. What seems to be happening is that the China has regained the initiative in restoring its relations with the new Sri Lankan government at a moment when it can define the terms of engagement from a position of advantage. This perhaps is the only foreign policy setback the new government has experienced.

Meanwhile, domestic issues seem to continue to maintain the upper hand in defining the trajectories of Sri Lanka’s external relations. Let me explain this point by citing just one prominent example.

This government’s overall record of domestic policy and policy reforms has been one of marginal achievements. Its major victories on the domestic front continue to be negative ones – negative in the sense of achievements made by not doing certain things, rather than doing things with aggressive intent. Therefore, this government’s exemplary record of restoring and maintaining an open, democratic and non-repressive political ambience in the country, is more a product of preventing the state agencies doing certain things, than taking positive steps such as abrogating the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or taking concrete steps towards demilitarisation. There are, of course, good reasons to explain this poor positive democratisation record. Yet, they hardy justify the government’s continuing record of negative achievements. Thus, the government has already begun to lose the loyalty of its ‘natural’ domestic constituency – the democratic civil society movement.

Meanwhile, only in three areas does the government seem to have been successful. As already mentioned, managing external relations through a strategy of policy flexibility is one. The other two are (a) arresting the process of Sri Lanka’s drift towards hard authoritarianism, and (b) keeping its opponents – the so-called joint opposition – at bay, preventing its growth into an imminent political threat to regime stability. Actually, this government’s strength lies in the weakness of the loose coalition of its parliamentary opponents, who incidentally are MPs of the United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition, which Sirisena heads.

A path forward

The success on the external relations front is primarily characterised by the government’s ability to establish a policy regime of equilibrium vis-a-vis major regional, continental and global powers. However, that success runs the risk of being undermined by a failure in a crucial domestic issue with international consequences. This refers to the proper implementation of promises and pledges made in the Geneva resolution last year on post-war peace building, ethnic reconciliation and state reform.

The evidence so far suggests that the government might try to defend its poor performance record, or the weak report card, because it has to do it any way in Geneva by citing domestic difficulties. To defend it internationally, the government might also need to recalibrate its external relations and seek new domestic as well as global allies who are skeptical of, and even opposed to, the Geneva process. This is the topic that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy watchers of domestic political developments, myself included, would monitor with great interest during the next few months to come. While seeking new allies, Sirisena or Wickremasinghe should not ignore the broad coalition that made possible the regime change of January 2015. Nor should they turn their back on the reform agenda for good governance, democracy, and peace building. Now is the  time for them to take some serious steps towards course correction. Revisiting the January 2015 reform agenda will certainly be helpful.

Meanwhile, the government’s foreign policy activities are being conducted through two centres – the president’s office and prime minister’s office. This is an extremely interesting new development. The thinking and action at both centres so far seems to be complementary, although there is no proper public acknowledgement of it by the leaders themselves. In fact, the re-negotiation of economic relations with China appears to have been undertaken by both the Sirisena and Wickremasinghe.

There seems to be policy convergence between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by Sirisena and the United National Party led by Wickremasinghe. Both centres show signs of being non-ideological, non-combative and principled in their perceptions of the world and global affairs. Quite significantly, and refreshingly, they don’t have advisors who give long lectures to Western diplomats in their capitals on international law, politics or colonialism. Sirisena’s modest and simple personal demeanour is an added asset. It is the policy of ‘friendship with all, enmity with none’ that in my view has made it possible for the president to be invited to the G-7 Summit.

The government’s foreign policy strength perhaps lies in the position of equidistance it is now maintaining with regional, continental and global powers. In a world where (a) there is no bipolarity, and there are old and emerging global powers in rivalry as well as acting in cooperation, and (b) regional centres of power emerging as important players in the global arena, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy should not be informed by dogmatic adherence to ignorance. This government has taken Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to a post-ideological, post-egoistic, and post-confrontational phase. Some critics may not see the value of it. Yet, the realisation of it is no mean achievement for any government.

Jayadeva Uyangoda is Retired Professor of Political Science, University of Colombo. This article has been adapted from the presentation the author made at a panel discussion on “Sri Lanka in Global Affairs: The Journey Since January 2015,” in Colombo on June 16, 2016.

  • Kailas Pillai

    Lankan cricket is world class and well established. There is an annual game played since 2012 – how to evade UNHRC resolutions.

    The Lankan civil war ended in May 2009 but the confrontational atmosphere is still there. This has brought Lanka into the global arena – for the wrong reason! Lanka must find place in the global arena for excellence. It is not difficult to create conditions when articles like the present will be unnecessary.

    The Lankan mindset is to treat addressing grievances of minorities as unpatriotic. Successive Lankan governments have got caught in this quagmire.