by Dharshan Weerasekera,
Legend has it that when King Vijayabahu was in hiding and regrouping to fight the Cholas an old woman advised him that just as it is easy to break a single stick of firewood but much harder to break a bunch of sticks when held together he should first find the right allies to advance his objectives. The story is very useful when thinking about how to address Sri Lanka’s present-day foreign policy challenges the most important of which is the “Pivot to Asia” by the United States.
The Pivot has the potential to affect the sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity of our country now and in the years to come. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge there is very little discussion in local academic journals or newspapers on ways of dealing with this threat other than appeals to “neutralism” and “non-alignment.” Without prejudice to the efficacy of those concepts in meeting present needs, it is in the public interest to explore new ways of responding to the Pivot.
The purpose of this article is to suggest such a way. I argue that Sri Lanka should take the lead in forming a new alliance of the low to middle-income countries that come under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In this article, I shall briefly discuss: a) the most urgent challenges related to the Pivot that Sri Lanka is facing at the moment, b) the failure of the traditional alliances such as the Non-Aligned Movement, SAARC and others to protect Sri Lanka’s interests on issues that really count, c) the plan.
1) The challenges
There are two urgent challenges. First, the recent blacklisting of leading Chinese companies by the United States. Since Sri Lanka is a poor country and heavily dependent on the US and its allies for economic support, it is unreasonable to suppose that the GOSL can or will do anything on its own to protest against unilateral actions by the US against China or any other country even if such actions indirectly harm this country.
However, if Sri Lanka is in an alliance with a group of nations all of whom are harmed by the actions in question they could more easily protest against them. Also, by providing a market for each other’s goods the members can help each other dissipate the effect of any retaliatory actions the US might take against an individual member.
Second is the continuing effort by the pro-LTTE groups active overseas to get the international community to endorse a purported right to self-determination of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It goes without saying that this effort benefits certain powerful nations that for their own reasons wish to destabilise Sri Lanka. Under these circumstances, the worst-case scenario would be for such nations to push for a resolution at a UN organ such as the UNHRC suggesting a “two-state solution,” “referendum on secession” or suchlike thing on the grounds that the government is not doing enough to address the ‘grievances’ of the minorities.
The initial resolution could be expanded over time in the same way that the UNHRC resolutions starting in 2012, which called for an international war crimes investigation against Sri Lanka, were expanded at successive sessions of the Council until the sought for goal was achieved in March 2014. It is crucial that if there is the slightest attempt at a repeat performance except this time in regard to a “two-state solution” the GOSL nip such attempt in the bud. The value of an alliance of nations that would stand with Sri Lanka in this situation is incalculable.
2) The Failure of the Traditional Alliances
a) Non-Aligned Movement
Pandit Nehru, one of the architects of non-alignment explained that the purpose of the movement was to help the former colonies pursue an independent foreign policy without getting dragged into military alliances either with the US or the Soviet Union. In 1961, at the first summit of the movement held in Belgrade he said:
“We call ourselves non-aligned countries. The word ‘non-aligned’ may be differently interpreted, but basically it was coined and used with the meaning of being non-aligned with the great power blocs of the world. ‘Non-aligned’ has a negative connotation. But if we give it a positive connotation, it means nations which object to living up for war purposes, to military blocs, to military alliances and the like”
Unfortunately, today, the NAM is all but dead because of three reasons: a) many NAM members including India are now firm allies and “partners” of the US, b) the common experience of colonialism no longer evokes the same passion among the various members as it once did and many members especially in Africa are racked with internal conflicts including the rise of Islamist extremism, and c) regional organizations such as the African Union, Organization of Islamic Cooperation and others now cater to the needs of their members far more than the NAM.
The NAM has failed Sri Lanka specifically in recent years when the series of UNHRC resolutions mentioned earlier were being brought against this country. It is now universally recognized that the culminating resolution in that series, resolution 30/1 of October 2015 contains provisions inimical to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. To my knowledge, the NAM did not utter a word of official condemnation at what was being done and key NAM members such as India even voted for the resolution.
SAARC was established in 1985 as a forum to address the security and economic concerns particular to South Asia. However, many critics have pointed out that SAARC has been perennially impeded in reaching its goals because of two reasons: a) the continuing rivalry between India and Pakistan, b) India’s hegemonic ambitions. Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, the Pakistani scholar says, “South Asia’s structure is such that there exists the overwhelming predominance of India contained by the presence of Pakistan, which is strong enough to resist the domineering attempts of India. The feelings of being subjected to a hegemonic system are not conducive to accelerated evolution of collectivity.” (Gonzalvez and Jetly 1999: 95)
The Commonwealth is based on the shared experience of its members as former colonies of Great Britain. Presumably, these members are committed to the institutions that Britain bequeathed to them chief amongst which are: the tradition of the Common Law, respect for the rule of law, democracy and individual rights. The Commonwealth has failed Sri Lanka in recent years by not protesting when the UNHRC resolutions mentioned earlier were being brought against it. Worse, a number of Commonwealth nations most notably the UK played a key role in pushing the said resolutions.
The UK also remains a staunch supporter of resolution 30/1. Recall that, the GOSL withdrew from the co-sponsorship of that resolution in March 2020 stating that it was harmful to Sri Lanka’s interests. However, the UK along with four other nations—the so-called “core group” on Sri Lanka—told the Council this past June: “We reiterate our profound disappointment at this development. We remain firmly committed to advancing the resolution’s goals.” (30th June 2020, www.gov.uk.) In sum, the question arises whether with friends like this one needs enemies.
3) The Plan
The BRI is a vast network of roads, railroads and harbours connecting Asia with the Middle East, Africa and Europe. There is no question that the network offers the low to middle-income countries along the route an unparalleled chance to achieve rapid economic growth. Accordingly, the BRI is a resource that these nations share and it is in their mutual interest to ensure that the network is maintained and indeed developed to its full potential.
This economic self-interest is a powerful incentive for the nations concerned to band together regardless of differences in ideology, religion, language and culture in order to oppose powerful nations—whether the US and its allies on the one hand or China on the other—if they impede their ability to enjoy the full benefits of the BRI.
The main difference between this alliance and previous alliances is that this is forward-looking, meaning that the physical infrastructure of the BRI is the basis for the relationship and so an intellectual and social culture common to the network can develop over time based on mutual cooperation. Sri Lanka is in a unique position to initiate a dialogue on the alliance because of its history as a vital link in the ancient ‘Silk Road’, of which the BRI is the modern-day incarnation. Sri Lanka has had contacts with most of the nations along the route for hundreds of years.
The “Pivot to Asia” by the U.S. poses challenges that Sri Lanka simply cannot face alone. The BRI offers a basis for an alliance with nations similarly situated to Sri Lanka, which it is in this country’s interest to explore.