Non-alignment emerges as SL’s unavoidable choice


Aircraft carrier Nimitz

The arrival of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group of the US navy at the Port of Colombo recently apparently ‘passed without incident’ but it seems to have intrigued some local nationalist sections.

Predictably, the ‘historic’ visit of the US aircraft carriers, including the well known Nimitz, caused some worries as to whether Sri Lanka was further tilting towards the US in its foreign policy outlook.

Simultaneous, however, to the visit by the aircraft carriers, Sri Lanka has consolidated its engagement with China with clear indications that she would not be strengthening her relations with the US at the expense of China. During a recent visit by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Thilak Marapana to China, his counterpart Wang Yi had reportedly told him, among other things, that, ‘China is willing to enhance cooperation with Sri Lanka within the framework of the "Belt and Road" initiative.’

Marapana was in China in connection with two events of immense importance in China-Sri Lanka ties: the 60thth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries and the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Rubber-Rice pact between the countries, which is seen as historic.

Does Sri Lanka, a small player on the international scene, have a choice but to be on the most amicable terms with the biggest powers in the current global political order? Clearly, she has no choice but to be on the most cordial terms with all the powers that matter. This policy is dictated by the fundamental requirement of surviving as an independent but small and vulnerable state. In other words, Sri Lanka has no alternative to being Non-aligned in its foreign policy orientation.

The term ‘Non-alignment’ did not figure at an important panel discussion that was held on Tuesday at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI), Colombo, but if used, it would have encapsulated this key concept that ought to feature notably in any current ‘discourse’ on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. There is a tendency among some sections in Sri Lanka to see Non-alignment as ‘obsolete’ but how else would one characterize a policy of ‘Friendship towards all and enmity towards none’, which is essentially what Non-alignment is all about and which policy is forcing itself on small states such as Sri Lanka, in the backdrop of numerous, mounting international pressures?

It would be incorrect to consider Non-alignment as having been valid only during the Cold War years, although the concept had its heyday in those times. It continues to be relevant today even as multipolarity rises in world politics.

The panel discussion in question followed an informative lecture titled, ‘A Recovering Global Economy? The Dynamics of China and India in the Future of Global Growth’, delivered by the Chair of the Global Economy Programme of the LKI Dr. Ganeshan Wignaraja. The panellists who were moderated by Central Bank Governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy consisted of Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs Dr. Harsha de Silva, former ambassador of Sri Lanka Dr. Sarala Fernando and Visiting Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore (NUS) and Contributing Editor to the Financial Times James Crabtree.

As a relevant ‘aside’ it must be mentioned that through lecture series such as these and other forums the LKI is filling a gaping void in the dissemination, locally, of a knowledge of International Relations in its most vital dimensions.

Hopefully, LKI would continue with its good work.

Of the panellists, Dr. Harsha de Silva came closest to focusing on the foreign policy dilemmas confronted by Sri Lanka as a small and vulnerable state. He pointed to the need for Sri Lanka to learn to work with Asian giants India and China. He also made it clear that Sri Lanka needed to build cooperative bridges internationally to further its legitimate interests. Although the deputy minister did not name the concept, he was making a case for Non-alignment.

However, walking a tight rope among the world’s biggest powers and their very often competing interests would prove difficult for a small state. At present, Sri Lanka is compelled to forge closer ties with India and the US, for example, without unduly upsetting China. The latter is closing in on the US as the world’s number one power and Sri Lanka needs to bear this in mind. Sri Lanka needs to be on the most cordial terms with the US without creating the impression that it is a staunch ally of that major power. Likewise, Sri Lanka would be acting in its best interests by consolidating its ties with India, but it cannot do so at the cost of alienating China.

What is essentially needed is friendship towards all, without being inveigled into forming alliances of a strategic kind with any state or blocs of states.

Such linkages would prove harmful to this country’s important interests in the long term. In this task Sri Lanka would need to go well beyond commercial diplomacy. Very interestingly, this was the vision of the Non-aligned Movement in its formative decades. It is time local opinion and decision-makers ceased being reluctant to use the term Non-alignment. It is by no means a misnomer although the world situation has changed.

In the days ahead, Sri Lanka would need to fine hone its diplomatic skills as never before in view of the above challenges which are heightening. For example, India and the US are drawing increasingly closer in numerous areas of mutual concern and the growing economic, military and political clout of China is necessitating this development.

In other words, the global distribution of power, in the main, would be among the US, China and India, and Sri Lanka would be compelled to craft a policy of equi-distance among these powers in a spirit of friendship without offending any one of them.

Accordingly, Sri Lanka is up against unprecedented challenges on the foreign policy front. It needs the support of the US and the West to overcome its challenges in the UNHRC but it cannot afford to be seen as a tool of the US. However, a stance of disregarding China’s interests could backfire on Sri Lanka because China has emerged as the world’s number one investor. These are huge problems which, hopefully, would be seen as opportunities.


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