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One Blunder after the Other in Foreign Policy

| by Laksiri Fernando

( July 17, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka is making one blunder after the other in its foreign relations with India quite reminiscent of the days of President J. R. Jayewardene which finally resulted in strengthening the separatist forces in the country and the Indian intervention in 1987. Whether this is happening without provocation or reason is a debatable matter. Even if the tug of war with India is understandable on the human rights resolution at the UNHRC or the 13th Amendment, there is no reason to repeat a similar confrontation on the Nuclear Issue. It is absolutely a dangerous sphere to enter and only the fools would rush in where the angels fear to tread.

In the 1980s, the US was not behind India. Now the situation has dramatically changed particularly with the Indo-US Nuclear Deal (2005) and the present Russia is not exactly the Soviet Union of the Cold War period that a country like Sri Lanka can completely count on. Whatever the long term intensions or prospects of China, in the current period, it would drop Sri Lanka like a hot potato if the stakes with the US are high.

This is not to say that Sri Lanka should not have an independent foreign policy but to say exactly the opposite that Sri Lanka should be independent from all dubious patrons by firmly following its age old non-aligned and neutral policy in foreign relations whatever the short term temptations or impulsive and subjective urges of short sighted military advocates.    
Strained Relations

The immediate prompt for this article is the news item that “Sri Lanka ignores Indian nuclear pact, looks to Pakistan” (The Island, 15 July 2013). When it says that “Sri Lanka is moving in the direction of a nuclear pact with Pakistan after India voted against it at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)” it is as if nuclear power is something that you utilize in confronting human rights issues. At least that is the impression created in New Delhi as reported by S. Venkat Narayan. Voting at the UNHRC is something that you can discuss, negotiate and make them understand if they have done something wrong. If that has failed then that is an utter failure of our constructive diplomacy with India. But a Nuclear Pact is completely a different ballgame especially with a country like Pakistan, India’s well known competitor if not the arch enemy in the region.
The situation is much worse especially when there had been discussions with India even before 2010, during Prof Tissa Vitarana’s time as the Minister of Science and Technology, to seek Indian assistance in developing Sri Lanka’s atomic capabilities in utilizing them for purely civilian purposes. The correct word to use in the context of civilian purposes is atomic energy and not NUCLEAR. There is nothing wrong in that kind of an effort and all countries have legitimate rights in that direction if those are governed by international norms and accepted safety practices. The Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) of Sri Lanka is much older, formed in 1969 as a Statutory Body under the Atomic Energy Authority Act No. 19 of 1969 and all these years its pursuits were conducted completely under the terms of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and without ruffling any feathers in the regional or international players. This is not to be the case under the present Minister, Patali Champika Ranawaka, who is well known for his anti-Indian stance on many matters as the leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Sinhala extremist political outfit nevertheless within the ruling UPFA.

The government on the one hand says that India was lukewarm in their response to the Sri Lankan proposals and that is what reported by the Ceylon Today in its top story on the 15th July. However, the Indian understanding or the claim is completely different as Narayan has reported which says that India in fact offered a Comprehensive Draft Pact last October and was eagerly awaiting Sri Lanka’s response. For this question, the government sources have given a dubious and a contradictory answer, quite intriguing and rather worrying. The following was what Gagani Weerakoon reported.  

"Indian officials reached us with a comprehensive nuclear energy plan in the latter part of 2012, but we had to put it off, as Sri Lanka had not yet pursued avenues of nuclear energy and had been only concentrating on using nuclear energy for civil purposes, a government source said.”

Even after admitting that there could be some inaccuracies in the reporting, it is clear that the Indian proposal had been ‘put off’ on flimsy grounds and even in fact without informing them properly. Then the question arises how come then Sri Lanka signed an agreement with the Russian ROSATOM last month which is well known for setting up nuclear reactors for energy purposes and even Indian reactors at Kundankulam are set up by them? What is clear is that the relations between Sri Lanka and India have gone fundamentally sour, if not completely astray, after the end of the war for reasons known to both countries perhaps.

Reasons Behind

It is an undeniable fact that India indirectly and directly supported the government’s efforts in completely crushing the LTTE militarily and the strained relations are the results of subsequent events much to do with the military handling of the post-war situation in the North and particularly the rehabilitation, resettlement and reconstruction (3 R’s) without resorting to much civilian efforts, and for less military presence as requested by India. At least the civilian authorities should have overseen the 3 R’s which is a standard practice internationally to facilitate reconciliation. 

Sri Lanka should have recognized and in fact appreciated India’s generosity particularly in keeping the resistance from Tamil Nadu at bay during the difficult times. It was also a major mistake on the part of Sri Lanka to allow the handling of the India relations mainly to the defence establishment or to the two brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa, rather than to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs whatever the apparent weaknesses on the latter’s part. If all the above were peripheral, the major stumbling block undoubtedly is Sri Lanka’s increasing relations with China both on the economic and military fronts.  

It is true that Sri Lanka has not (or not yet) signed an agreement with China on nuclear matters. But it is reportedly in the pipeline. Equally offensive might be the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Russia virtually bypassing India on nuclear research last month. India would not have taken it seriously if not for the swipe it had created by abandoning the previous negotiations with India. Although it was only a MOU, the Defence Ministry website hailed it as an Agreement based on a Daily News report saying “Sri Lanka and Russia signed a bilateral agreement to obtain Russian assistance to develop and research on nuclear technology in Sri Lanka.” Further it created an undue importance since the signatory to the MOU on Russia’s part was the former Russian Prime Minister Sergey Kiriyenko, of course as the Head of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency, ROSATOM. Yet this was in a context where ROSATOM and India have increasing disagreements on Kundankulam nuclear plant liability issues in the event of an accident (The Moscow Times, 7 July 2013). These matters cannot be unknown to the Sri Lankan authorities. 

If Sri Lanka is only keen in developing radiation and radioisotope technology which have wide range of application in areas of medical, agricultural, industrial and environmental sectors, as in the past, then partnership with India or some other countries are quite sufficient. However, partnership with ROSATOM raises obvious eyebrows since it as a Russian state corporation is keen in setting up nuclear reactors for energy and other purposes. Therefore it is quite legitimate for the anti-nuclear lobby inside the country and outside to question nuclear intentions of the Rajapaksa government particularly given its overt and covert military and other ambitions.  

More worrying might be the efforts on the part of the Ministry of Defence to link up very closely with the Pakistani establishments in obvious retaliation to India with repercussions on our relations with her as well as opening floodgates for dubious international machinations that would result in virtual chaos in internal security. In a sequence of events and alliances is the effort to set up a research facility at the Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KGU) at the cost of $ 10 million to allegedly research on chemical and biological matters (Colombo Page, 13 July 2013). Pakistan as at present is an infested country of international terrorism and espionage and close links with Pakistan would make Sri Lanka vulnerable to the same predicaments. Its credentials on ‘non-proliferation’ policies are seriously suspect by the US and other countries in the West. What Sri Lanka requires are balanced relations with India and Pakistan, like in the period of Sirimavo Bandaranaike or Dudley Senanayake and not aligning with one against the other.   

Misplaced Premises

No one would say that India has been completely correct in handling the Sri Lankan matters today or in the past. Whatever the reason, India’s support for an outfit like the LTTE resulted into drastic consequences for both countries for decades. But on Sri Lanka’s part it is abundantly clear that Sri Lanka’s antagonism towards India is fundamentally unnecessary and largely governed by complete miscalculations of international relations today like in the past.

During Jayewardene’s time, Sri Lanka tried to overplay the American card in a presumed Cold War context against India until Ronald Regan had to tell the Sri Lankan President to cooperate with India on the Tamil issue. Now the present government is playing the China card quite excessively against India and it is also on a misplaced premise that China would come to the aid of Sri Lanka in any future confrontation with India. This is wishful thinking for the following reasons.
  1. China is still an emerging country and not a fully-fledged world power like the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. Chinas power should not be exaggerated vis-a-vis the US.
  2. In the world context, China is more of a Merchant than a Prince. Economic relations with China are beneficial for Sri Lanka but overdependence might be even economically suicidal. Chinas current boom is already over and in contrast the US (along with Japan) has largely been able to recover from the recent crisis.
  3. China is pragmatic in its foreign policy. China like Russia may defend Sri Lanka over human rights issues however on the nuclear issue no country would be in a position to defend Sri Lanka if nuclear ambitions could be attributed rightly or wrongly on Sri Lanka.         
Sri Lanka undoubtedly is treading in a dangerous path and it has already given much ammunition for the foreign critics by linking the nuclear ambitions to the defence establishment and the Sinhala extremists. Sri Lanka needs to normalize its relations with India urgently and revert back to the time tested foreign policy of non-alignment and neutrality. Sri Lanka needs the good will of all countries for its development and progress and its natural friends should be democratic countries and not dictatorships or authoritarian regimes.  
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