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Lanka’s Foreign Policy Is For Its Own Interests Not Others

Visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on Vesak Day that Sri Lanka’s security on land or in the Indian Ocean is linked and it is indivisible with India would have by now sparked off intense debate with sharp criticism from the ‘Joint Opposition’ (JO) if not for the surprising and unannounced meeting between the Indian Premier and the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Indian High Commissioner’s residence during the visit.

Rajapaksa can be considered the de facto leader of the ‘Joint Opposition’ and bitterly opposed the Indian government, which he alleged had staged a coup against him in conjunction with Western powers and ousted him from office. He had been virulently critical of the Indian government for ousting him. His ‘Secret’ meeting with Modi has dumbfounded the pro-Rajapaksa Indian critics.

Nonetheless the Modi pronouncement will hang in the air for quite a while because of the present National Unity Government’s relations with China and India whose regional rivalry for influencing countries within the South Asian region is mounting.

Sri Lanka has been subjected to pressures of varying degrees from both powers – for almost six to seven decades – since Sri Lankan and Indian independence and the rise of the People’s Republic China.

The Indian claim for the security of Sri Lanka and India being linked and indivisible is a colonial hangover dating back to the 18th and 19th Centuries. British Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger had told the British Parliament that the Trincomalee harbour was the most valuable asset of British possessions in the region. The reason was that it was essential for the defence of India – ‘The Jewel in the British Crown’.

Sri Lanka was considered essential to the defence of India by the British and so even before India gained independence, its military strategists like K. M. Pannikar and even Jawaharlal Nehru averred to the strategic unity of India, Sri Lanka and Burma as a pre requisite to realistic policy of Indian defence (Foreign Policy of Sri Lanka by Prof. Shelton Kodikara).

When the British pulled out East of Suez in the late fifties and early sixties, Indians assumed that it was their role to take up the role of their former masters being guardians of the Indian Ocean.

Not so many countries including Burma and Sri Lanka signed a defence agreement which provided that the governments of the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka would give each other security for their territories, defence against aggression and protection of essential communications.

Of course S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in the euphoria of his ‘1956 Revolution’ abolished many things to the detriment of Lanka among which was the defence agreement with Britain, not finding a substitute for it and telling the British to quit their bases.

Bandaranaike and his SLFP successors placed immense faith in India and did not visualize the day when India would land its troops in Lanka! The Indira Gandhi Doctrine of Indian hegemony, declared by her in the mid-1980s, was an extension of this concept of Strategic Unity of India and Sri Lanka and its indivisibility.

It could be argued that Sri Lanka had no alternative because as President J. R. Jayewardene pointed out that when he appealed for help in 1986 ‘not one country lifted a finger to help Sri Lanka’.

Despite its military impotence, little Lanka has been able to steer an independent foreign policy at a fair degree. Sri Lanka had and still has very good relations with the West, its export markets still largely being there. Relations with China date back to the days of the Rubber-Rice Pact when Lanka defied the United States, went through with the agreement and had American aid cut off. Sirima Bandaranaike projected a pose of ‘genuine non-alignment’ although her links with India tilted her alignment towards Russia.

In contemporary times the two powers influencing Sri Lanka the most have been China and India. Japan has been Sri Lanka’s all-weather friend since this country gained independence and so has South Korea after 1970s. Development of strong relations with such countries that have no hidden agendas on Sri Lanka is essential.

In contemporary times, the strategic location of the country has been its greatest asset and it is imperative that these assets – sea ports and airports – be exploited to yield maximum benefits for the people of this country, not serve the strategic interests of other countries.

It is axiomatic that no country’s security interests be threatened by providing facilities at home to another country, say, be it India or China. Sri Lanka should not link up its security interests with any other country or consider its security interests indivisible with another, if it is detrimental to the interests of other countries.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy should be focused mainly on the security of its own people and not so much that of others.

 

 

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