US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Sri Lanka after the recent visit of a high-powered Chinese delegation, led by senior Chinese leader and top foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, who is a member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo and the Director of the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the press conference with Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena called the Chinese Communist Party a predator. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka tweeted that China was not interested in his Alien vs. Predator game invitation.
Secretary Pompeo visited Sri Lanka after the recent visit of a high-powered Chinese delegation, led by senior Chinese leader and top foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, who is a member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo and the Director of the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission.
As a precursor of the visit, Dean Thompson, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs of the State Department, said: “We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity,” to which Chinese officials responded that it was cold war mentality and bullying of weak nations.
During the early part of the Trump presidency the trade war with China was started, violating the norms of the World Trade Organization, and now it has gone to the level of a cold war. After resurrection in 2017 the alliance called the Quad, comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US, emphasised the liberal rule based international order which was undermined by China and now it is openly anti-China.
The foreign policy of US is an extension of its defence policy. The US at present seems to perceive that the existence of China is a threat to the US. Therefore, given the deepening relationship with China, Sri Lanka is likely to get trapped between the US and China unless Sri Lanka acts cautiously.
Ginger vs. Chillies
It is a well-known idiom in Sri Lanka that the act of King Rajasingha II requesting the help of the Dutch to expel the Portuguese from the coastal areas of Sri Lanka which happened in 1656 was like exchanging ginger for chillies.
A century later in 1766 King Kirti Sri Rajasingha had to enter a treaty with the Dutch of which the conditions were not favourable to the Kandyan Kingdom since the King had to enter the treaty after the Dutch Governor Van Eck entered the Kandy city, ransacked it and occupied the palace. The King had taken refuge elsewhere. Van Eck left the city since he could not hold it and did not get the support of the civilians. The treaty was signed with the Governor Falck, successor of Eck. One of the main adverse conditions of the treaty was that the Dutch could claim the sovereignty of the coastal lands they occupied.
In 1781 the British occupied Trincomalee and the British sent an envoy to Kandy. Having heard that a British envoy was in Kandy, the Dutch also sent an envoy. Now the King was Rajadi Rajasingha. With the envoys of two European nations ardently wooing him, the King began bargaining.
Having evaluated the two parties the King rejected the offer of the British which was more attractive and asked the Dutch if they wanted to remain in peace in Kandy they had to return the coastal lands. Governor Flack was constrained to oblige. The events that followed proved the foresight of the King for soon after the British lost Trincomalee to the French and later it was restored to the Dutch. (‘The Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka 1707-1782’ by Lorna S. Dewaraja, pages 136-160.)
Formula of N.Q. Dias
China entered into Sri Lankan foreign policy back in the 1960s. Neville Jayaweera, top civil servant in his autobiographical reflection on the ethnic conflict, ‘Jaffna, Exorcising the past and holding the vision,’ comments as follows about the then powerful Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs N.Q. Dias:
“Dias also unfolded to me a brand-new foreign policy he was working on. He was of the view that basically Sri Lanka had no coherent foreign policy and was consequently too dependent on the West and trusted the bona fides of India, which he said was a huge mistake. He emphasised the need for Sri Lanka to veer away from India and forge new alliances. He said that to this end he was planning to open up closer relations with China as a countervailing force against India and to set his project in motion, was plaining to send Mrs. Bandaranaike on an official visit to Beijing.”
“As for my role as GA of Jaffna, Dias said that while facilitating the construction of the propose military camps girdling the Northern Province, I should be ‘unrelenting’ towards Tamil demands, and wherever possible ‘force confrontations’ with them and establish the Government’s ‘undisputed ascendancy’” (pages 74-75).
The plan of Dias was to encircle the Northern Province with a chain of military camps to contain a future Tamil revolt and the new GA Jaffna had to facilitate the construction.
Dias was trying to harass Tamils and made plans to contain a future revolt in the capacity of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and at the same time was trying to move away from the West and from India and trying to build up close relationship with China in the capacity of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs. This was the root cause of our subsequent dilemma in foreign policy.
Role played by India
When President Jayewardene moved towards the West ignoring India in 1980s when India was aligned with the Soviet Union during the cold war, he was advised by the US to settle matters with India since US did not want to interfere with the affairs of a country which was in the backyard of India. Eventually India trained Tamil militants who revolted against the State, making the plans of Dias a flop.
When the war dragged on, the West did not support Sri Lanka since there was a strong ethnic issue against Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka had to rely on Pakistan for the supply of arms. Eventually when the LTTE killed Rajiv Gandhi and became a power with naval and air force, the West supported to defeat the LTTE, but the arms came mainly from China. India also did not interfere as it did in the Rajiv-JR era.
After the end of the war the Sri Lankan Government did not fulfil the promises made to India during the war related to a political settlement to the ethnic issue, which were helpful to neutralise India during the war. When Indian pressure was building up, Sri Lanka turned to China.
In the 1980s Ralph Buultjens said that the pivotal point of the Indo-Lanka relationship was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. This was changed with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi but the Centre of India cannot ignore the sentiments of the Tamil Nadu towards the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
The situation Sri Lanka faces today is a complicated extension of the dual policy of N.Q. Dias. It is complicated because of the cold war of US and China. President Jayewardene also faced the same situation but during that time the Chinese factor, the other component of Dias’s formula, was not there.
US and Chinese interests
It was evident that the US supported authoritative regimes around the world when those regimes supported to counter the overall defence concerns of the US. In those instances, the US was not concerned whether those regimes supported the liberal and democratic values, which were propagated by the US around the world.
For the US, defence comes first and then liberal and democratic values. Therefore, as a trade-off it may be possible that the US may forgo the pressure to Sri Lanka to its commitment to the reconciliation process in exchange for loyalty to the US against China. If so, Sri Lanka would not be able to come up as a nation for generations to come. However, this is unlikely due to the concerns of India towards Sri Lankan Tamils. Secretary Pompeo confirmed this in his speech by emphasising on reconciliation. Sri Lanka would be stronger if we have resolved the ethnic conflict, which means taking away the second component of Dias’s formula.
The other aspect is cash. Minister Cabraal said that at this juncture of the history China is the most cash rich country. During the war China supplied arms on loan. Thereafter, China funded several projects where there were no economic returns in the short run. China is accused of debt diplomacy around the world. Sri Lanka is a country which had inappropriate financial management for a long period. Sri Lanka turned to China at this point due to the same reasons a rural farmer turns to a local money lender instead of a bank.
The choice of Sri Lanka is constrained by the Indian factor. It is much more complicated than the situation King Rajadi Rajasingha faced. With the national problem remaining unresolved if Sri Lanka moves towards China, the country may inherit the same fate of President Jayewardene. We should not forget that there is a strong Hindutva movement emerging with the backing of the ruling BJP. On the other hand emergence of China in a unipolar world is a positive one. Therefore, the choice for Sri Lanka is difficult.