Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has often been termed as being fundamentally nonaligned. But what does ‘nonaligned’ really mean in the post-cold war era? Since the end of the cold war, academic and scholarly publications have oft criticized the ambiguity surrounding both the term and the membership of the nonaligned movement. In this brief speech I don't intend to discuss or decipher what form of nonalignment Sri Lanka followed in the past. I'm sure the diplomats present here today have a better understanding than I do of the varied nuances of previous administrations foreign policy. Instead I intend to re-define the meaning of nonalignment as I perceive in the present administration’s foreign policy.
The present administration of Sri Lanka is focused on building amicable relations with all countries. This has been repeatedly iterated by the president, prime minster and the foreign minister on numerous occasions. I believe that the present administration has redefined the import of the term nonaligned. This new form of ‘nonalignment’ is not centered on a cold war mentality but instead, is more focused on developing friendly ties with great and small powers to an equal degree. As a small developing state, Sri Lanka’s friendly foreign relations have supported the country's image as a peace-loving country which wishes to engage with all states.
The crux behind this foreign policy can be illustrated as one which encompasses; a unified and interconnected security architecture. Establishing relations with great and small powers - to a more or less equal degree - has enabled Sri Lanka to obtain significant economic and financial support as well as other forms of assistance. This new security architecture enables the island to have amicable relations with all the major and small powers without being seen as being aligned to any. Not only does this enable Sri Lanka to escape from creating a security dilemma among the great powers but it also circumvents any external pressures from neighboring and distant great powers.
I also intend to briefly skim through some of the highpoints I have discerned over the recent weeks with regard to Sri Lanka’s relations with the following great powers: U.S.A, China, Russia and India.
Since the regime change of 2015, relations with America have noticeably improved. This is undoubtedly reflected in the government’s action of co-sponsoring two resolutions on Human rights, accountability and reconciliation with the U.S.A. Present cooperation on one of the most contentious issues between the former Sri Lankan government and U.S.A; are a testament to this enhancement of ties. The first-ever Pacific Partnership goodwill mission to Sri Lanka by America as well as the inaugural US – Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue reflects the American administration’s desire to reset its relations with the island.
Relations with Russia have also been amicable. Naturally the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to which the present president belongs to, have had considerably good ties with Russia since the cold war. The recent visit of the Sri Lankan president to Moscow to meet President Putin and the latter’s gifting of a royal sword; is symbolic of the enduring relationship between the two countries. I perceive the timing of the visit as especially emblematic of the present presidents desire to appear nonaligned; not only to the international community but also to the domestic public.
2017 marks 60 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Sri Lanka as well as 65 years since the signing of the rubber-rice pact between the two countries. This clearly emphasizes the historic connection between the two countries. Although the present administration has recalibrated its ties with China in contrast to the previous regime, ties are still strong and will continue to remain so. General Chang Wanquan’s (Minister of Defense and State Councilor of the People’s Republic of China) official visit to Sri Lanka last week is a clear signal of this unchanging rapport.
Ties with India and Sri Lanka have historically had its ups and downs. However a noticeable feature of late is the strong personal ties that exist between the Indian Prime Minister Modi and the Sri Lankan president. Although the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India has had a recent spurge of public protests I do not believe that the relationship between the two governments and especially between the two presidents will undergo any impairment in the foreseeable future. India’s decision to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with United States in 2016 (which gives the militaries of both countries access to each other’s facilities for supplies and repairs) as well as India's desire to enhance its maritime defense strategy gives added reason why Sri Lanka should adopt a balanced foreign policy of maintaining friendly ties with all countries; both near and far.
Among the most important components of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy considerations must be its closer great powers; China and India. While China’s economic assistance is extremely important for the development of the country, India’s security concerns must also be factored in such considerations. Conducting joint military exercises with both countries - especially joint naval exercises - would be a step that Sri Lanka could take to balance its ties with both countries.
To sum up; the present regime has fashioned an altered formulation of nonalignment which is aptly suited to the 21st century’s geopolitical challenges. This security architecture which is focused on building amicable ties with great and small powers to an equal degree is indubitably one of the best foreign policies that a small state such as Sri Lanka could apply at present.