The core of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s foreign policy is standing up for Sri Lanka’s sovereign rights. But his cast-iron nationalism is not mindlessly jingoistic or confrontational, disregarding geo-political and economic realities.
Gotabaya’s first international move was to reach out to India, which had been unhappy with elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency between 2010 and 2014 for its economic and geo-strategic tilt towards India’s Asian rival, China. The Rajapaksa brothers suspected that India had been part of an international conspiracy to bring about a regime change in 2015 by propping up a united national opposition with Mithripala Sirisena as the candidate in the January 8 2015 Presidential election. Mahinda lost the election.
It was only in 2017 that the frosty relationship began to thaw when India realized that the Yahapalanaya government headed by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had failed to deliver on the promises it had made, and was cosying up to China instead. While almost 15 major Indian project MOUs were gathering dust, China was given new projects including a 99-year lease on, and a 70% stake in, the strategically located Hambantota port.
Be that as it may, India still hoped that United National Front’s Sajith Premadasa would win as he was thought to be amenable. But when Sajith was defeated and Gotabaya won the November 16, 2019 Presidential election, Indian swiftly extended its hand of friendship to the new President in the belief that it is the early bird which catches the worm. Foreign Minister Dr.S.Jaishankar flew down to Colombo and got Gotabaya to agree to make an official visit to India quickly.
Gotabaya used his New Delhi visit to delineate the basic contours of his regime’s foreign policy. The basic ingredients are Colombo’s mindfulness about India’s security concerns in the region and a rational approach to development projects. While assuring that Lanka would do nothing that would jeopardize India’s security, Gotabaya told the Indians frankly that he would consider projects from all countries including India and China, and choose those which are in Lanka’s interest. Fortunately for him, this dovetailed with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft repeated assurance that India would only do projects chosen by Lanka and execute them at a pace desired by Sri Lanka.
Modi had raised the issue of ethnic reconciliation and the need to implement the India-inspired 13 th.Amendment of the constitution to devolve power to the Tamil speaking Northern and Easter provinces. But this was mainly to please the Tamils in India and Sri Lanka and not to force the Lanka government to implement them. Gotabaya explained to the Indians that he cannot concede to the Tamils things which the majority community in his country does not want to concede. This would have gone down well with the Modi regime as it also sees domestic issues through the eyes of the majority Hindu community.
Following the President’s visit, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawadena and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaka also journeyed to India. Mahinda Rajapaksa had cordial talks with his Indian counterparts and visited Hindu Buddhist religious sites such as Varanasi, Bodhi Gaya and Tirupathi because Modi was keen on using ancient religious ties between India and Sri Lanka to cement present day political ties. Both sides avoided raking up the controversial Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA).
The net result of the Rajapaksa’s Indian visits is that Sri Lanka’s first political family now sees India as a benign power and not a hegemon as was the case previously.
Though the Rajapaksas were seen as pro-China, one of the first things that Gotabaya said on being elected, was that he disapproved of the previous government’s decision to give a strategic national asset like the Hambantota port to China on a 99 year lease, and that he would re-negotiate the deal. The President also said that he was not satisfied with the clauses relating to the security of the port and said that there should be foolproof clauses to ensure that border control is fully in the hands of the Sri Lankan navy. The latter should determine what comes in and what goes out of the port.
China panicked and sent top officials to Colombo to find out what the Rajapaksas were up to and whether they had come under India’s tutelage. On the Lankan side, on the advice of his more politically savvy elder brother Mahinda, President Gotabaya backed out partially. While Mahinda said that the President was quoted out of context, Gotabaya admitted that the commercial aspects of the Hambantota deal could not be changed, but about five clauses could be added to ensure that border control is entirely in the hands of the Lankan navy. The Chinese then issued a statement saying that the Lankan navy is in charge of security in Hambantota, as it is in every other Sri Lankan port.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who dashed to Colombo, went further to say that China will not allow any country to meddle in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, perhaps with the US and India in mind. This was music to the Lankan government and its electoral base in the island. But India was not pleased. When an Indian journalist asked Prime Minister Mahinda if Wang Yi had India in mind, Mahinda said it could not be because India does not interfere in Lanka’s internal affairs.
Gotabaya was invited to visit China “at his convenience.” He would have visited Beijing in February, had it not been indefinitely postponed because of the coronavirus epidemic.
Pakistan sent its Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to Colombo. He handed an invitation to President Gotabaya to visit Pakistan. Later, in recognition of the close military ties between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the Pakistan Air Force Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan visited Sri Lanka. When an Indian journalist asked if this would impact ties with India, Prime Minister Mahinda said that Pakistan had helped Sri Lanka with military equipment during the war against Tamil Tigers terrorists.
Given Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and Japan’s keenness to see that China does not arrogate the ocean to itself, Tokyo sent its Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to meet Gotabaya. Motegi highlighted the need to keep the Indo-Pacific Ocean free and open and security and stability is ensured. Gotabaya’s reply was couched in a way that it would not cause friction with China. He said that the Indian Ocean region should be maintained as a “peaceful region free from conflict.” Later he told a Japanese delegation that Lanka would welcome Japanese investments in certain technological areas in which it has expertise.
Gotabaya has indicated that while he would welcome Singaporean investments, he would re-examine the Lanka-Singapore FTA signed by the predecessor regime because Lankan businessmen had found it to be unfavorable to them.
With Russia wanting to reclaim its earlier role in Sri Lanka as an ideological friend and promoter of industrial development, and also to get a foothold in strategically located Sri Lanka, the Commander of the Russian Land Forces Gen.Oleg Salyukov came on a five-day visit and proposed military cooperation, which was gratefully accepted.
President Gotabaya had to face a challenge from an unexpected quarter – Switzerland. Following an alleged bid to abduct a local Sri Lankan staffer of the Swiss embassy in Colombo, Switzerland alleged that the lady was being unfairly portrayed as a liar by the government and the media, and that she was not being treated fairly either by the investigators or the court. The Swiss wanted to fly her and her family out to avoid further “harassment.”
But President Gotabaya as well as others pointed out that a very scientific investigation carried out showed that she had faked the abduction at the instigation of some opposition leaders to bring disrepute to the new government in the eyes of the world. However, Switzerland would not give in easily, and sent a very high official to persuade the Lankan President to give in. But Gotabaya stuck to his guns which made the Swiss beat a quiet retreat.
In the meanwhile, the US mounted pressure on Gotabaya to sign the US$ 480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), both of which were opposed by the majority community in Sri Lanka.
The MCC has two components. One is improvement of the transport infrastructure and the other is digitalization of land records with the view to making agricultural land saleable. Since in Lanka, agricultural land is given out on lease for farming, it is not saleable, per se. The system is seen as giving the peasant land security and therefore has peoples’ support. Making land saleable makes it look as if the Americans want to buy off Lanka’s lands. Hence the opposition. President Gotabaya submitted the MCC compact to a committee of economists which submitted its preliminary report this week.
The Gotabaya government has rejected SOFA outright because it allows American troops to bring in their equipment without let or hindrance, and the troops to move about with weapons and communication equipment. The troops are to be governed by US and not Lankan laws. Lankan sovereignty will go up in smoke if SOFA is allowed.
Designation Of Army Chief
With Gotabaya playing hardball, the US pulled out the sanctions card. Making use of the fact that the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) would be meeting in February-March and the High Commissioner of human rights will read a report on Lanka, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo banned the Lankan army chief Lt.Gen.Shavendra Silva and his immediate family from entering the US on the grounds that he had committed war crimes as the commander of a frontline division in Eelam War IV.
In a sharp reaction, the Lankan government summoned US envoy Alaina Teplitz and expressed its grave concern about the move which it said was based on unproved information. Prime Minister Mahinda in a statement, described the designation of Gen.Silva and his family without an investigation as “medieval collective punishment” and a violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
Withdrawal From Co-sponsorship
The Lankan cabinet then decided to withdraw its co-sponsorship of UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 on the grounds that the previous government had co-sponsored the resolution without consulting the cabinet, the Executive President and parliament. Therefore it the co-sponsorship has no legitimacy. Government also pointed out that since it had no legitimacy it could not be implemented since 2015 even by the previous government.
The Gotabaya government is bracing itself to lock horns with the US and Europe. It hopes to get help from China and Russia, and hopefully from India too. But its strength would ultimately come from its electoral base, the majority community in Sri Lanka.