New dimensions in foreign policy | Daily News


New dimensions in foreign policy

Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena assumed duties on Monday. Picture by Gayan Pushpika
Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena assumed duties on Monday. Picture by Gayan Pushpika

In today’s globalised world, no country can live in isolation. Islanders, including Sri Lankans, have what is called an “island mentality” where they tend to think that they can live insulated from the outside world. But this simply does not happen in real life. Links with the outside world are crucial especially for an island nation such as Sri Lanka with no land connections to a bigger continent.

But unlike most other islands, Sri Lanka occupies a very strategic location on the East-West sea route, a sort of halfway house between the Suez and Singapore. This means that Sri Lanka has often figured in the geopolitical ambitions of regional and global superpowers. The challenge, then, is to remain neutral without getting caught up in these power plays.

This is exactly what Non-Alignment is all about. Sri Lanka is a founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that started in Belgrade in 1961, which itself was preceded by the Bandung Conference of 1955. The fifth NAM Conference was held in 1976 in Colombo under the patronage of the late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Although some critics lament that the NAM may have lost its relevance in today’s geopolitical scenarios, the concept of Non-Alignment is still very much relevant.

The last few years witnessed Sri Lanka veering away from these principles, after former President Mahinda Rajapaksa kept Sri Lanka firmly within the Non-Aligned orbit till 2015. There was a pronounced shift towards the West in terms of foreign policy at the expense of Sri Lanka’s traditional allies in the East during the last four years. The West is no doubt important being a significant trading and diplomatic partner, but this has to be a balanced approach. Western nations also have a tendency to focus too much on extraneous issues, a trend not seen in the relationship with Asian or Eastern countries. In this respect, there is already an indication of revisiting the UNHRC resolutions that were inimical to the interests of Sri Lanka.

Non-aligned foreign policy

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has understood these complexities completely in formulating his foreign policy. In his nationally televised inaugural address to the Nation from the sacred precincts of the Ruwanweli Maha Seya, President Rajapaksa articulated the need for a non-aligned foreign policy where Sri Lanka does not lean towards one bloc or another. He also stressed that Sri Lanka wishes to have no part in any geopolitical conflicts or power games among regional and global superpowers. This approach of “friendly relations with all nations” has since been hailed by foreign policy experts and commentators.

When it comes to rejuvenating a moribund foreign policy, regional relations come first. Many Sri Lankan leaders have described India, our giant neighbour to the North, as a “brother”, which is why President Gotabaya Rajapaksa too has chosen India for his first official visit. There was a time when even relations with India turned sour, but fences have now been mended, especially with the ascension of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the presidency. India was among the first countries to congratulate the new President on his victory. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa have a nationalistic, patriotic outlook that has given their countries a new standing in the world. The duo will no doubt strike a personal and professional relationship that will immensely benefit both countries.

The President must also focus on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which is yet to realise its full potential. Tensions between India and Pakistan have stymied its output, but if SAARC can resolve such issues and move forward, it will benefit the entire South Asian region. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should work with other SAARC leaders to make SAARC a top-tier regional bloc that will one day have borderless travel.

Sri Lanka must also strengthen its links with the other Buddhist countries – it is humiliating that Sri Lankans have to apply for visas to visit even the less developed Buddhist countries in the region whereas we give them free visas on arrival. The President must lead an effort to change this situation.

Sri Lanka also has a prominent place in China’s One Belt One Road initiative which some have described as that country’s attempt to gain a foothold in the region. It is no secret that the world is watching with a keen eye China and India’s maneuverings in this part of the world. It is mostly to factors such as this President Rajapaksa alluded to in his speech. In an interview given to an Indian website, President Rajapaksa did not hesitate to call a spade a spade, saying the previous Government’s deal with China on the Hambantota International Port was downright wrong. It is now likely that this deal will be renegotiated.

Sri Lankan Diaspora

The President has also not forgotten the Sri Lankan Diaspora, whose contribution will be invaluable for rebuilding the country. Sections of the Tamil community in the Diaspora must now realise that there is no hope of achieving a separate country in Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, some of these agitators have never even been to Sri Lanka and they do not speak the native languages either. It is time that they accepted the President’s invitation to join the national development drive. Thousands of Sri Lankan expatriates came back to Sri Lanka to cast their votes for the President – let us hope that they accept his invitation to help Mother Lanka at this hour of need.

The two appointments made so far by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the foreign affairs arena offers hope for better and bigger things to come. Dinesh Gunawardena, though new to the Foreign Affairs portfolio, is an experienced politician with a pragmatic worldview who has held several ministerial portfolios in previous administrations. He will be ably assisted by Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha who has decades of experience on the global stage, including Geneva.

The President will do well to appoint more qualified Foreign Service officials (career diplomats) especially to key capitals, with eminent personalities from other fields too drawn in where applicable. They are the voice of Sri Lanka in foreign capitals from Abuja to Zagreb and must necessarily be top-notch individuals who can articulate the President’s vision and mission for foreign relations to the rest of the world.


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