Acknowledging realities of geopolitical proximity | Daily News


Acknowledging realities of geopolitical proximity

The rapidly growing inter-state intimacy between Sri Lanka and India are a clear demonstration of the value of pragmatic politics: the sound praxis of building relationships acknowledging the realities and value of geopolitical proximity.

It also demonstrates a return to pragmatism on the part of Colombo in its practice of ‘foreign relations’ (as our Foreign Affairs Ministry has now been formally re-named). While in the immediate post-colonial era Colombo did recognise the reality of India’s geo-physical proximity and its political implications, in later decades this shifted toward an estrangement across the Palk Strait.

J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP regime was more ideologically weighed down and attempted to swing Westwards, only to suffer from the consequences of rudely (R. Premadasa jeered at Delhi in Parliamentary discourse) ignoring our giant neighbour’s regional interests. Delhi allowed South India to become a ‘hinterland’ for our separatist insurgents. Subsequently, the domestic politics of nationalist mobilisation toward defeating the 30-year Eelam war drove India to the background, although Delhi yet played a crucial, but quiet, role in maritime surveillance and intelligence support. China, in any case, became Sri Lanka’s long term military supplier, providing quality weaponry at lowest prices. India, still developing its arms industry, never complained when, since the 1970s, Sri Lanka shifted from more expensive British and NATO weaponry to China’s cheaper hardware (primarily from NORINCO).

The Wickremesinghe regime, too, was blinded by Western leaning liberal ideology and ignored geopolitical realities.

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime has benefitted from two experiential factors in its practice of foreign relations. Firstly, thanks to the defeat of the separatist insurgency during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, there is no longer the same compulsion for inward-looking nationalist mobilisation. At the same time, in Gotabaya Rajapaksa we have a President with the valuable experience of both militarily engaging with the insurgency as a soldier himself and then, most importantly, overseeing the defeat of that powerful insurgent movement as the senior-most State defence bureaucrat.

As Defence Secretary, Mr. Rajapaksa learned at first hand the vital necessity of regional collaboration in countering modern insurgency that operated at a global level. While China continued to be the faithful hardware supplier, it was big neighbour India that – with its own regional security interests in mind – provided some of the most crucial (and constant) long-range maritime surveillance support and intelligence co-operation. It was such co-operation that helped starve the insurgency of its international re-supply as well as the international legitimacy it sought as an asymmetric counter to the Sri Lankan State’s military prowess.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in prioritising relationship-building with India, has demonstrated a foreign policy pragmatism as well as an adeptness that has taken Sri Lanka-India relations to a level hitherto un-attained except during the Indo-Lanka military collaboration of the late 1980s. It is very significant, however, that the current developments are President Rajapaksa’s own, popularly legitimate, initiatives in sharp contrast to the geopolitical compulsions under which the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement was signed and implemented by a government under siege in Colombo.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s current official visit to India follows President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s state visit to India a couple of weeks into his Presidency. In fact, it was his first State visit abroad. That state visit was briskly followed up by the Indian National Security Adviser’s visit last month.

The fact that both the Sri Lankan President and the Prime Minister have visited New Delhi within three months highlights the importance attached by Sri Lanka to Sri Lanka-India relations. Moreover, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to visit Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday attacks, for which Prime Minister Rajapaksa thanked him profusely. It must also be recalled that both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, as well as practically everyone in the highest levels of local politics including former presidents, attended the farewell reception of the outgoing Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu, an honour that is not usually accorded to other envoys.

If India’s military intervention in 1987 was partly a forced initiative, the contours of collaboration now emerging in the current Delhi-Colombo tete-a-tete is one of a detailed, bilateral military collaboration that meets a range of calibrated geopolitical needs of mutual interest and benefit. At the same time, India and Sri Lanka are exploring economic co-operation on the basis of a mutual respect from which the previous Wickremesinghe-Sirisena regime did not benefit.

After last year’s Easter Sunday terror debacle, it is no secret that this co-operation is being taken to this level of intimacy and vigour due to the mutual benefit for both countries. Reiterating what President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said during his state visit earlier, the two Prime Ministers, in a joint press interaction in New Delhi, emphasized the need for joint action to root out terrorism in the region.

The ruling BJP’s “Neighbourhood First” policy is also a refreshing maturing of Delhi’s foreign policy that seems to break free from the Kautilyan traditionalism that viewed immediate neighbours as ‘rivals’ who needed to be bettered.

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