Today we live in a world where diplomacy, reconciliation and understanding are essential in order to create a world where peace and harmony prevail. International Relations is the study of the relations between states, people and non-state actors. This branch of knowledge helps to bring about a better and peaceful world. The Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) is dedicated to teaching and research in International Relations and its related disciplines. Founded in 1974 by the late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the BCIS was the first tertiary educational institute in Sri Lanka which started offering study courses in International Relations. The 2023 Convocation of the International Relations program of the BCIS was held last Friday at the BMICH main hall. It awarded certificates to a total of 390 students who successfully completed their studies in Certificate, Diploma, Higher Diploma and Postgraduate Diplomacourses. This convocation was of particular importance to the BCIS as it marked the 50th Anniversary of the institution in 2024.
In his welcome speech, the Executive Director of the BCIS Prof. Gamini Keerawella said that it is a time-honored tradition at the BCIS that its convocation is graced by the Head of State at a given time. In that context, he thanked the President Ranil Wickremasinghe for gracing the BCIS Convocation 2023 as the Chief guest enabling the center to continue that tradition. He further said that “ In establishing the BCIS in 1974, the late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was very keen to take the study of International Studies to a wider section of Sri Lankans, especially its youth. This institution has continued to remain committed to that vision during the last five decades.”
A special feature of the Convocation 2023 was that the BCIS honored two veteran diplomats in Sri Lanka in recognition of their multi- dimensional contribution to the practice of international relations. The late Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala was a former ambassador of Sri Lanka to the USA and was a former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs. He was honored posthumously “in deep appreciation of his stellar contribution to the practice of International Relations and his exceptional commitment to global peace and disarmament.” Ambassador HMGS Palihakkara has served as the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations. Upon his retirement from foreign service, he was appointed a member of the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” in 2010 and as the Governor of the Northern Province during the period 2015/2016. The Ambassador Palihakkara was conferred this honor in recognition of his contribution to Sri Lanka’s foreign service, preventive diplomacy, peace building, arms control and disarmament.
In his speech as the Chief Guest, President Ranil Wickremesinghe expressed his deep appreciation for honouring these two diplomats. He said that both men rendered a yeomen service to the country in formulating and implementing Government’s foreign policy. “Unfortunately Jayantha Dhanapala passed away recently. I remember him when I became the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. He advised Minister Hameed on issues of the non-aligned movement. Ambassador Palihakkara played an active role as Sri Lanka had to face a number of issues when the war was nearing its end in 2009, though he had retired by then.”
In his speech, President Wickremesinghe referred to a number of issues relating to Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and global politics. “Now we are in the post-Covid age, which I would call the geo-politics of the Global Poly-crisis. Today we have seen a number of crisis, first being the Covid itself which sparked off the debt crisis. That added onto the already delayed implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG goals). That has also come in with the Paris Climate Pact targets, which have still to be achieved – the whole question of mitigation of climate change. The question of trade is another issue. Finally, we have the main issues of the US-China rivalry, the Ukraine War and now the Gaza War. Another threat is the growing disenchantment of the South with the developed North. This is the background where we have to formulate our foreign policy.”
It is quite different from the Cold War. Now there is a number of Cold Wars and a few Hot Wars going together. “One of the issues that I have noticed is basically a change of US policy. From the time of Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, there was continuity in the US policy. We could understand that. Then came President Trump. Well, there was continuity in his policies but he disrupted some.The present day policy statements, which I myself sometimes question. For example, the views that have been expressed very forcefully firstly by the National Security Advisor of the United States, Jake Sullivan. They call for a foreign policy for the American middle class. Now, I don’t see how you can have a foreign policy for one part of the country and not for the other part. No more open trade. So you can see a rolling back of the economic framework and the trade framework that we have been used to. It is not merely an issue of removing investments from China or what is called de-coupling. It is a completely new approach that has been taken, which has also led to the escalation of the tension between China and the US,” said President Wickremesinghe.
Referring to the Chinese policy of asserting itself and making its claims, President Wickremasinghe said, “Part of it you can understand. China is the second largest economy in the world, and China, like many other Asian countries, feel that they have not been given their due place. And then there are different groupings. Firstly, the coming together of Russia and China. In the earlier American policy, it was to keep Russia and China divided, and to ensure that both countries had better relationships with US than with each other. Now you have China and Russia having good relations at the expense of the US. That is another feature of the present time,” he added.
Economic Cooperation, Debt Relief, and Selective Assistance
This is also a result of the economic power moving from the West towards Asia, which started funnily enough in East Asia and now it is coming to South Asia and the Indian Ocean then going on to Africa. “So within it firstly is the Indo-Pacific, a new concept. On this we have taken the same line as the ASEAN. What is the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific? It is that we are two interconnected oceans. We are not one space. We are two interconnected oceans. And each one has its own character.
This is why it is important. Because Asia Pacific has what is called the hub-and-spoke system of the US plus China. But we are not so. The Bandung Conference and subsequently the IOPZ which was presented by Mrs. Bandaranaike has laid down the principles which was again confirmed at the Jakarta Concord of the IORA leaders in 2017. So let us work within it. Let us work on the basis that there should be no big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean.”
Secondly we have to look at economics. Foreign affairs is not merely political relations. We have to find our markets and economic ties. “SAARC as a concept is dead. Someone has forgotten to tell SAARC that it is dead. In practice it is no longer functioning. I think we have to move further. We have BIMSTEC. which is still coming together as a group. The other option available for us is to join RCEP. So the Government of Sri Lanka applied to join the RCEP which would give us a big market.It is not like the comprehensive and progressive trans pacific partnership, but nevertheless I think it is the best economic bloc that Sri Lanka can join. At the same time we are negotiating with India on a separate treaty that will certainly upgrade the present free trade agreement and will be going to a comprehensive economic and technological partnership.
So we have India, we have RCEP, and we have to further strengthen our relations with EU and expand our relationships there. Sri Lanka wants to develop its economic relations with all the countries in Asia and Europe and look at Africa as a potential market later on. But as far as the political direction is concerned, we will treat the Indian Ocean as being free from big power rivalry. We should not allow big power rivalry to take place there. Sri Lanka has taken that stand at every international forum,” he said.
We now come to the next issue. Between the North and the South in regards to climate change and debt relief. “It is our view that there should be a debt write off of all the low income countries especially in Africa. Africa cannot carry this burden. We have to ensure that Africa is relieved of this burden. Therefore, we have taken a firm stand that there should be a write off of the debt in respect of all low income countries. As far as the middle income countries, there should be a window for concession and lending. Sri Lanka has made it out. We have got the letter from the Chinese Exim Bank today, so we are now on our way, leaving our status of bankruptcy behind us. But other countries may not find it that easy. We have to help them. The next issue connected to it is the question of loss and damage.
Ongoing Gaza War
What is the loss and damage going to be? The view of the Northern Developed countries is that loss and damage should be limited to the island states that will disappear. I don’t think that is going to work. There are other countries that need help. And they have to be helped. You can be selective. I don’t think we can expect the developed economies to bail everyone out, but you can be selective. Look at the plans that are now being put forward,” pointed out President Wickremesinghe.
The President’s worry is the Gaza War.“The Israeli aim is to destroy the Hamas leadership. Let’s say they destroy the Hamas leadership. That is not the end of it. You will get the next generation of Hamas. Half of the Arab world is with the Hamas. What impact that will have on our part of the world, we do not know. It is an extremely serious issue. You cannot destroy the Hamas. You can destroy the leadership, you can destroy everyone in Hamas, not only the fighters, but even the members. But still the next generation of Hamas has already been born. The whole Gaza war is brought into our living rooms by Al-Jazeera and other networks. And US should know best because the Tet War in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War was brought into the American living room by American TV and the whole attitude of America to the war changed. That is what is happening now. We have to ensure that there is a ceasefire and we can ensure that the situation will gradually or very slowly come back to a normal situation. The Ukraine War cannot go on for long. President Biden and President Xi are meeting in San Francisco for the APEC meeting. Let us hope there will be a positive outcome. A positive outcome is needed if we are to go ahead before the situation will become worse. This is the thinking of the Government in regard to foreign policy and the global developments. All of us have to find a way to steer our way through the geo-politics of the global poly-crisis,”he explained.
Foreign Policy for a Changing World
Chairperson of the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, said “The BCIS was created with the intention of formulating and promoting an effective foreign policy for Sri Lanka. However, somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost our way. Ten years ago, I had the privilege of assuming the leadership of this great institution. Since then I have strived to bring it back on course and upgrade it. We have restructured the institution, renewing teaching programs and its curricula, reviving research and its outreach programs, and all this in a challenging international context.
We believe that foreign policy is not simply maintaining good relations with other countries and with the international community. Foreign policy must situate a country in its relevant niche in the global arena, having identified its needs, its strengths and weaknesses in the context of its chosen vision. Let us not forget our most precious asset is our strategic location in the Indian Ocean. We were conquered and colonized for 500 years not for our precious gems, nor our ivory and spices.
Then and now we were and are the best landing and anchoring spot between the West and the East in the Indian Ocean for the powerful nations of the old world. In their quest to conquer the world for riches, Sri Lanka was a valuable outpost and strategic location in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, they helped themselves to our resources, but the major reason for their presence was our strategic location. Today, the rich powers wish to dominate us and gain strategic control of the Indian Ocean. However, the methodology differs today. Today it is called not conquest but credit and loans on easy terms, terms that are so easy that they end up by strangling us economically. Foreign policy must take this into very serious account and must be designed accordingly in this context.
Our foreign policy must be rooted in an understanding of these matters and must be formulated in such a manner that it promotes our role as a dynamic and responsible player on the global stage while promoting our national interests while protecting our cultural heritage.”
The Guest of Honor of the convocation 2023 was His Excellency Michael Appleton, New Zealand High Commissioner. He is the New Zealand’s first resident High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. Speaking of his own experience since the arrival in Sri Lanka, he said: “Within months of our arrival in Colombo, the specter and then the reality of Sri Lanka’s worst ever economic crisis became all too real. Indeed, my whole posting has been defined by this country grappling with and seeking to recover from unprecedented challenges. One of the reasons I feel so optimistic for Sri Lanka is to have observed here, over the past 18 months, a vibrant, future-focused debate about how to meet these current challenges – and to remake the country for the better.”
Speaking of his own country, he said that New Zealand was founded on a partnership between its indigenous people, Maori, and the British settlers during the colonial people. Thus, the two groups were able to cohabit with each other and create a new country – Aotearoa New Zealand – which has distinct Western, Pacific and Asian influences. Speaking of the Maori heritage of his country, Michael Appleton said: “New Zealand being a Maori country – indeed the only Maori country in the world – means our values are profoundly affected by what we call Te Ao Maori, or the Maori world view. This includes an emphasis on: first, Kaitiakitanga: the importance of acting as a guardian of our resources, for both current and future generations; second, Kotahitanga: the importance of collective action and purpose, which respects and seeks to mediate differences; third, Whanaungatanga: the importance of building relationships and connections; fourth, Manaakitanga: the importance of caring for others, of being supportive and inclusive.” He further added that “We are a pragmatic, proud and independent country with strong opinions about the region and the world around us. We are a democracy, and we believe profoundly that the problems we face – whether domestically or out in the world – should be resolved via dialogue, compromise, respect and in a way which recognizes the diverse interests of all the groups affected.”
He further added: “We are a pragmatic, proud and independent country with strong opinions about the region and the world around us. We are a democracy, and we believe profoundly that the problems we face – whether domestically or out in the world – should be resolved via dialogue, compromise, respect and in a way which recognizes the diverse interests of all the groups affected”.