By Dr Ranga Kalansooriya
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s views on the resultant crisis differed somewhat from other MPs. Holding the one and only seat allocated to his party in Parliament, Wickremesinghe argued that Ukraine had antagonized Russia without seeking a peaceful diplomatic solution, and that the West played a game in creating the crisis.
By all accounts, his opinion was biased towards Asia. Ranil in his local interviews urged Indonesia, as ASEAN leader and the current Chair of the G20, to play a cardinal role in mitigating the adverse effects of the War.
These comments compelled coverage and commentary from major media houses in Jakarta in early March and Ranil was extensively featured in interviews with Indonesian media, where he came out more strongly in his opinion about the role of the country in the unfolding War.
“With your historical background on international coalition building through the Bandung Asia-Africa Summit I suggest Indonesia, together with China, India and the United Arab Emirates to hold a conference of all Asian countries.” (Interview with Tempo.com, March 7, 2020)
Indonesia had no intention of getting involved in such a diplomatic endeavor, at least then.
In his engagements with Indonesian media Wickremesinghe was critical of the West, predicting Asia’s rise as a world power in the next decade. As far as he was concerned, Asia should be able to stand on her own and make its voice heard aloud, ensuring a similar response to the West from Africa.
Whether going by Ranil’s advice or not, Indonesian President Joko Widodo embarked on a shuttle diplomacy effort between Kyiv and Moscow a couple of months later, determined to defuse tensions between the two countries. Leaving Jakarta in late June, Jokowi, the only Asian leader to engage in such an effort, told the media that he would try to convince Ukrainian and Russian leaders to end the war, which had stoked inflation and caused food and energy shortages in the developing world.
The very same solitary parliamentarian who suggested the world’s largest Muslim nation to take the lead, in Asia, to resolve the Russia-Ukraine War a few months ago, has now become the latest in a gamut of Asian leaders to speak up on such issues. Wickremesinghe counts a particularly long experience in global diplomacy, having started his parliamentary career as the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister 45 years ago. Whether he is the longest serving politician in South Asia with such a depth on the knowledge of international relations, one can never really tell. One can, however, conjecture.
However, Wickremesinghe managed to raise many eyebrows when he made a strong statement, within 48 hours into his new office as the President of Sri Lanka, drawing parallels between the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol Hill building in the US and the Galle Face protests in Sri Lanka. The state responses in both cases were somewhat similar.
The newly appointed President emphasized this latter point to Colombo based diplomats at a time when the US Ambassador the country had already tweeted her condemnation of the attack on the protesters.
It did not stop there. Last week he made certain remarks to the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo, after US Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan, where China commenced a series of ‘military drills’ around Taiwan.
The President reiterated Sri Lanka’s firm commitment to the one-China policy, as well as to the UN Charter principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, while contending that countries should refrain from provocations which could further escalate current global tensions. Mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, he was quoted as saying, are important foundations for peaceful cooperation and non-confrontation.
Of course, though rather ambivalent, this appears to be a clear message to the West not to antagonize a powerful nation against a small state. The world cannot afford to have another crisis on top of the Russia-Ukraine War and furthermore Asia cannot tolerate such provocations, at a time when many countries in South Asia are facing serious economic downturns. Sri Lanka is already on her knees and a few of her neighbors are feeling the heat.
In that sense, it is true, as Wickremesinghe has implied, that we would have have to oppose any such provocation at any cost. But voices such as ours will not be strong enough to be heard. That may well be why, a few months before he became the President, he urged Indonesia, India, China and the UAE to take the lead.
By all accounts, Wickremesinghe’s logic is valid and justifiable. But the million-dollar question is not about the validity and justifiability of Sri Lanka’s stand on these global issues, but about the current fate of the country itself. Sri Lanka is now facing its worse economic crisis in her history and in the midst of tense negotiations with IMF and other global lenders, one wonders whether we could afford to be critical of powerful nations. Is it a case of taking the right stand at the wrong time?
Unlike his uncle, J R Jayawardene, who was seen as a strong ally of the West, Wickremesinghe is perceived as a strong believer of Asia’s global leadership in the coming decade. No wonder, then, that he is looking at India and China as the two major powerhouses in the region, followed by countries like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam. One can be certain that he has included the Middle-East in this cluster too.
In fact, his inaugural speech in Parliament last week was a clear indication about his new foreign policy. Many observers would see it an attempt at a balancing all major international players, or conversely as an attempt at repairing strained ties with countries like Japan and India.
Ironically, the very same two superpowers he is promoting as next global leaders are giving him a tough time. The fault is not Wickremesinghe’s: wrong policies by successive regimes here have turned the country into a playing field for India and China, pitting one against the other.
Both these countries figure in among the country’s most important friends, and have offered a helping hand when needed. But managing the geopolitical interests of these two competing nations has become a most challenging task for the new government, at a time when Sri Lanka finds itself in a weak position economically and politically.
The latest development in this regard is the drama around a Chinese “spy vessel”, for which Sri Lankan authorities had provided approval before Wickremesinghe assumed the presidency.
It is natural that India should express its concerns at a time when there is an ongoing missile operation on Wheeler Island, off the coast of Odisha. President Wickremesinghe has already requested authorities to postpone the anchoring of the ship at the Hambantota Port, but such a request may cost the country heavily at a time when it is seeking to repair damaged relations with Beijing. On the other hand, India’s concerns will escalate if the vessel is allowed to dock in the already controversial Chinese built southern port in Sri Lanka.
The bottom line to all this, of course, is that whether we like it or not, this country will continue to be sandwiched between two powerful nations. These incidents will in that regard certainly pop up into the near future.
One concern that Indian media has been highlighting is the fact that New Delhi was not informed about Yuan Wang 5 Tracking Vessel until it sought clarification from Colombo. Whatever the real story behind may be, this concern reminds one, dubiously, of a conversation said to have ensued between the then Premier Sir John Kotelawala and his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru, at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955.
Nehru was not comfortable with Sir John’s speech, which he saw as deeply pro-Western. As a result he is said to have asked Sir John, “Why did you do it? Why did you not show me your speech before you gave it?” The response from Sri Lanka’s leader, who prided himself as a strongman, was spontaneous and straightforward, if not frank and forthright.
“Why should I? Do you show me yours before you give them?”
That was then. This is now. In many ways, times have changed. In many others, however, they have not.
Factum Perspective: Ranilism in foreign policy