Keeping good ties with all regional powers in the interest of Sri Lanka

Reconcilation & conflict resolutionDuring Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections last week, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat, ending his hopes of returning to power as prime minister. With President Maithripala Sirisena’s power further strengthening, some media believe this marks a new era for the country.

After Sirisena took power early this year, he made notable foreign policy adjustments. He has stressed omnidirectional diplomacy, favored improved relations with the West, advocated ties with India, and vowed to alter polices adopted by Rajapaksa which were considered too “pro-China.”

The driving force behind the change of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was domestic politics. During the elections, Sirisena accused Rajapaksa of autocracy, corruption and cronyism. He said he would carry on anti-corruption campaigns and keep his every promise after being elected. The alleged corruption referred to large-scale projects, which were mostly funded or built by China, such as the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City projects. An investigation into alleged corruption in these projects will inevitably involve Chinese enterprises. Sirisena’s omnidirectional diplomacy has more or less hurt ties with China.

A pro-China diplomacy was not deliberately adopted by Rajapaksa and the Chinese government. For a small country like Sri Lanka, omnidirectional diplomacy is the wisest choice. In this regard, Rajapaksa and Sirisena have held the same view. Early on during Rajapaksa’s rule, he didn’t rely on China too much and hoped to establish favorable ties with the West and India. He only turned to China when he suffered setbacks in dealing with the West and India, whose exclusion of Sri Lanka drew Sri Lanka closer to China.

Ending the civil war was in Sri Lanka’s core interest. After the government forces wiped out the Tamil Tigers, the West turned a blind eye to innocent casualties in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan initiated by the US, but severely pointed its fingers at Sri Lanka’s government forces and accused Rajapaksa of violating human rights.

Sirisena wants to mend ties with the West, but cannot satisfy the West on the human rights issue. Rajapaksa brought an end to the civil war and became a national hero. He was highly supported by the majority Sinhalese ethnic group.

Meanwhile, as an important figure in the Rajapaksa administration and leader of the then ruling Freedom Party, Sirisena played a significant role in sweeping away the Tamil Tigers and was also accused by the West of human rights violations.

Sirisena chose India as his first state visit after taking power, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon paid a visit back, making bilateral ties warmer. It is not that Rajapaksa didn’t want close ties with India. But when Rajapaksa asked for funding and contracts from India when the country built the Hambantota Port, India declined to help and Rajapaksa had no choice but to turn to China.

India is willing to see Sirisena reduce his dependency on China with an omnidirectional diplomacy, but India doesn’t like it unless Sri Lanka puts India first.

Sirisena’s wish to get investment and assistance from India is unrealistic. India itself needs enormous funds to improve its own basic infrastructure. Despite Modi’s ambition, the Indian government is not capable of providing large investment and loans. Besides, Indian enterprises, especially in the construction and infrastructure sectors, cannot compete with Chinese ones in either funds or technology and can hardly replace the Chinese ones in Sri Lanka.

Japan adopts a milder approach toward Sri Lanka’s human rights issues and can offer more investment and aid than India. Although Japan seems be a rival to China, the two have common interests in safeguarding freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. China is willing to see Japan provide assistance to Sri Lanka. At the same time, India is not against Japan’s presence in the Indian Ocean.

The growing importance of the Indian Ocean has made Sri Lanka of greater interest to big powers, which will bring huge development opportunities for the country. Sirisena should retain a good relationship with China, and meanwhile warm up ties with the West, India and Japan. He should inject new impetus to the country’s development rather than striking a poor balance with these partners at the cost of relations with China. (Global Times)

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