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Sri Lanka in Superpowers’ battle

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka lacked backbone, at least to set the record straight. Sri Lanka’s failure to efficiently counter war crimes accusations has facilitated high profile external project to snare the country in Geneva.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Where do the political parties, represented in Parliament, stand on foreign policy? Caught between a deadly battle for supremacy between the West (US), backed by Japan, Australia, and India, and emerging power China, Sri Lanka is struggling to maintain a balance in foreign relations.

It must, however, be noted that South Korea has apparently refused to be part of the US-led Quad, ranged against China, for obvious reasons; we believe primarily being Seoul needs China’s help if it genuinely wants to reunite with North Koreas and other being economic. But whether it likes it or not, Seoul is part and parcel of whatever Washington strategy as it is virtually bonded to now solitary superpower since the Korean war of the early 1950s in which China fought the US and its allies to a stalemate.

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi in video conference with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on July 6 (pics courtesy Japanese Defence Ministry)

South Korea recently also adopted a strongly critical position over Japanese announcement of plans to release toxic waste water from the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster to the Pacific Ocean, very much similar to warnings from Beijing over the issue.

Cash-strapped Colombo faces an extremely difficult situation against the backdrop of challenging economic challenges and political instability, caused by often opportunistic squabbling.

Both groups are determined to make Sri Lanka part of their overall strategic planning, in spite of the Western camp accusing the current Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government of being too close to China (Chinese Community Party). Sri Lanka’s relations with the US-led grouping cannot be examined without taking into consideration the enactment of the Colombo Port City Commission Bill, in May 2021 in spite of strong objections. Among those who opposed the Bill were the main Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the United National Party (UNP), and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL).

It is pertinent to mention that CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited had been the principal sponsor of the National Law Conference 2020 at Jet Wing Blue, Negombo, where the controversial project was endorsed. But that didn’t discourage the BASL from moving the Supreme Court against the Colombo Port City Commission Bill. The funding made available by the Chinese government project to the BASL should be discussed along with United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsorship of the same event. Similarly the BASL, obviously, in its haste to secure financial support for mega events had no qualms in securing sponsorship for the 2016 Law Asia Conference from tainted primary dealer, Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL), over a year after the exposure of its direct involvement in the first Central Bank treasury bond scam, perpetrated on Feb. 27, 2015. By the time, BASL held the event, in five-star comforts; the PTL had already perpetrated the second Treasury bond scam, in March 2016.

Let me discuss Sri Lanka’s foreign policy dilemma leaving questionable BASL transactions for another day. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy challenges cannot be deliberated without taking into account India’s growing relationship with the US and its role in Quad, comprising the US, Japan, Australia and Delhi Vis-a-Vis China.

India will continue to pursue its two-pronged strategy here – (i) preserve the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that was forced on us by her to appease the Tamil community and (ii) be party to overall US strategy meant to meet the Chinese challenge. Facing China’s rapid military buildup and modernization of its armed forces, Japan, India, Australia and South Korea are compelled to play a larger role in their security alliances with Washington.

China’s Sri Lanka strategy suffered a severe setback in 2015 when Mahinda Rajapaksa failed in his bid to secure a third term. In spite of that, China managed to secure the Hambantota port, on a 99-year-lease.

The UNP installed President Maithripala Sirisena cooperated with Wickremesinghe to finalize the deal to give away on a 99-year lease the Hambantota port in 2017. China managed to wrangle through the Colombo Port City project after yahapalana rule at the onset caused quite a crisis by suspending the high profile venture.

Eventually, the then government gave in to pave the way for the Colombo Port City project. Whatever the rhetoric in and outside Parliament, both the UNP/SJB contributed to the legal authorization of the Colombo Port City project received in May this year.

Post-2015 Lanka-Japan relations

The change of government here, in 2015, paved the way for Japan to take its relationship with Sri Lanka to the next level. The recent conversation, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had with Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, should be viewed against the backdrop of the 2015 Japan-Sri Lanka Comprehensive Partnership. House of Representative member Kishi, of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is a younger brother of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

The then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe signed the Comprehensive Partnership agreement on Oct 6, 2015 in Tokyo. The 25-point declaration dealt with Japanese warships of its Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) visiting Sri Lankan ports.

In terms of political consultations and maritime cooperation therein “Both leaders recognized the importance of cooperation and exchanges between the two defence establishments on maritime security…”.

Itsunori Onodera, also of the LDP, who served as the Defence Minister (Aug 2017-Oct 2018) visited the Trincomalee and Hambantota ports, in 2018. Before Kishi received the defence portfolio, in September, 2020, Takeshi Iwaya (Oct 2018-Sept 2019) and Taro Kono (Sept 2019-Sept 2020), both members of the LDP, held the key portfolio.

According to a Japanese Defence Ministry statement, issued on July 6, Defence Minister Kishi held a 30-minute teleconference, commencing 2.10 pm, with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The following is the text of the statement issued from Tokyo: “Both sides exchanged views on bilateral defence cooperation and exchanges and welcomed the steady progress being made in a broad range of areas, including naval cooperation and aerial cooperation. In this context, both sides welcomed the bilateral exercise “JA-LAN EX” which was successfully conducted in September 2020, Maritime Self-Defence Force vessel’s first participation in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise hosted by Sri Lanka and the U.S., which took place last week, as well as the successful delivery of the online Air Rescue seminar in May 2021.Both sides confirmed that they will share knowledge and lessons learned from infectious disease control measures taken by the defence authorities. Furthermore, both sides concurred that Japan and Sri Lanka will further promote bilateral defence cooperation and exchanges based on the Memorandum on Defence Cooperation and Exchanges signed in 2019. Both sides also exchanged views on the recent regional security issues, including the East China Sea and the South China Sea. In this context, Minister Kishi expressed strong opposition to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion in the East and South China Seas. Both sides affirmed that they will send a clear message about the importance of free, open, and rules-based maritime order. Both sides also concurred in maintaining close communication between respective defence authorities and proactively promoting defence cooperation and exchanges to uphold and reinforce a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Regional security issues

Japan is at loggerheads with China. Japanese Defence Ministry statement released by the Japanese Embassy in Colombo dealt with what the US ally called regional security issues, including the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The Japanese Embassy also issued statements in Sinhala and Tamil regarding the discussion which covered both bilateral issues and regional security issues. Why on earth does Tokyo wants Sri Lanka to underscore the importance of free, open Indo-Pacific and rules-based maritime order? China’s disputes with Japan other states over territorial sovereignty and resource claims in the East and South China Seas are matter of grave concern. Obviously, Japan raised complex security concerns with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa because Tokyo considered Sri Lanka-China relations inimical to the interests of those opposed to rapid Chinese strides. Simmering disputes centre on (i) overlapping maritime resource claims and sovereign control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands northeast of Taiwan, and (ii) the complex web of disputes between China and several Southeast Asian countries (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan) over many islands, atolls, reefs, and shoals in the South China Sea. In addition to those issues, there are a range of disputes over naval operations within China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and ‘activities’ at other theatres. Japan and those who are concerned about Chinese military presence in other parts of the world, including Chinese investments in Sri Lanka conveniently forget significant US military presence in Japan, South Korea, Australia, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, Guam, etc. (On the invitation of US State Department, the writer had an opportunity to visit US military facilities in South Korea, as well as Hawaii in the ‘90s) et al. One-time Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, during a high profile visit to Hambantota, commented on the availability of the Hambantota port leased to China to all countries. Japanese NHK TV covering Onodera’s visit to Sri Lanka, the first by a Japanese Defence Minister, stated: “Top defence officials of Japan and Sri Lanka have confirmed that a Sri Lankan port leased to China should be open to all countries to ensure freedom of navigation. Minister Onodera said the Hambantota port, in southern Sri Lanka, is located on a crucial shipping route. State Minister for Defense Ruwan Wijewardene said his country will not permit China to use the port for military purposes.”

Obviously, Japan, India, South Korea and Australia pursue a common strategy Vis- a- Vis Sri Lanka regardless of political developments here. Can we forget how former President Maithripala Sirisena finalised Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the US in early August 2017? President Sirisena acknowledged the signing of ACSA at a meeting with senior representatives of print and electronic media at the President’s House in response to a query raised by the writer. The writer sought clarification from President Sirisena after he claimed he wouldn’t give into US pressure over ACSA, SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact under any circumstances. During Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure as the President, Sri Lanka engaged in a dialogue with the US over ACSA, MCC and SOFA. It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka first entered into ACSA way back in March 2007 with the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa signing the agreement on behalf of Sri Lanka.

13 A

India is deeply concerned about Sri Lanka’s close relationship with China. India put pressure on the previous Rajapaksa government to halt major Chinese infrastructure projects. India also sought US intelligence on the Hambantota port, at the onset of the Hambantota port project during the early stages of the war. India’s concern over the growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka is exploited by Western powers to their advantage. However, India, on a collision course with China needs the US backing, though Washington humiliated Modi before the world by a much publicized denial of a visa to him to visit US in 2005. The US found fault with Modi for violence directed at the Muslim community in 2002. The US alleged that Modi’s Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) carried out the massacre of over 1,000 Indian Muslims. As a member of Quad, the US now expects New Delhi to play a certain crucial role against Beijing. The US seems confident of India’s wherewithal to meet the Chinese challenge, alongside Western powers. The pressure being mounted on Sri Lanka is part of that strategy. However, India has a separate project going on in Sri Lanka. A project meant to preserve the gains New Delhi made here in 1980s by enactment of the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution. While battling the Chinese, India is busy, cleverly advancing its political project by working with lawmakers and other interested parties, including ex-members of the LTTE. Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Gopal Baglay and Deputy High Commissioner K. Vinod and Political Councillor Mrs Banu Prakash over the past several months reiterated India’s support for devolution on the basis of full implementation of the 13 A and the early conduct of Provincial Council polls.

One-time LTTE field commander and ex-lawmaker Karuna (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan), ex-LTTE cadre lawmaker Pillayan (Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) were among those invited by the Indian High Commission.

However, the recent meet Baglay, Vinod and Prakash had with lawmakers of Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) is far more interesting as the outfit is part of the main Opposition SJB. Four TPA members elected on the SJB ticket met the Indian delegation at India House on July 6. The discussion covered what the Indian High Commission declared as the significance of the Indian Housing and other community development projects implemented in the plantation region.

India cannot be faulted for adopting strategies meant to advance its clout here. Over the years, Sri Lankan political parties have paved the way for external interventions with some members of Parliament repeatedly seeking foreign interventions. Some Tamil political parties represented in Parliament, early this year, sought foreign intervention here in the run-up to the 46th Geneva session.

The TNA led grouping urged member states of Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights council and (1)other organs of the United Nations, including the UN Security Council, and the UN General Assembly take up Sri Lanka accountability issue and take suitable action by reference to the International Criminal Court and any other appropriate and effective international accountability mechanisms to inquire into the crime of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity (ii) The President of the UNHRC refers matters on accountability in Sri Lanka back to the UN Secretary General for action as stated above (iii) Member States to mandate the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to continue to monitor Sri Lanka for ongoing violations and have an OHCHR field presence in country and (iv) Without detracting from that which has been stated in point 1 above, take steps to establish an evidence gathering mechanism similar to the International Independent Investigatory Mechanism (IIIM) in relation to Syria established as a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly with a strict time frame of twelve months duration.

Those relentlessly pushing Sri Lanka on the human rights front on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes accusations are opposed to Sri Lanka’s relationship with China. The UK, in its capacity as the leader of self-appointed Sri Lanka Core Group and Canada embroiled in controversy over the secret deaths of nearly 900 indigenous children, who were recently found buried in unmarked graves are spearheading the campaign against Sri Lanka. The UK and Canada never bothered to inquire into how they contributed to terrorism in Sri Lanka by giving a free hand to the LTTE to raise funds and operate in their countries.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka lacked backbone, at least to set the record straight. Sri Lanka’s failure to efficiently counter war crimes accusations has facilitated high profile external project to snare the country in Geneva. The TNA that served the LTTE’s macabre cause till it was militarily defeated on the banks of the Nandikadal lagoon in May 2009, received recognition as the saviour of the Tamil community at the end of the conflict. The incumbent government is obviously incapable of setting the record straight. British High Commissioner Sarah Hulton recently received a TNA parliamentary delegation to discuss Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Perhaps, HC Hulton should have inquired from TNA leader R. Sampanthan the circumstances (i) he recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil community at the expense of his party and all other Tamil lawmakers (ii) engineered UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the 2005 presidential election and lastly (iii) backed General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election having accused his Army of massacring thousands of Tamil civilians.

As long as Sri Lanka fails to address domestic issues, including rapidly deteriorating national economy due to the pandemic, waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence, foreign powers will have an opportunity to intervene. Sri Lanka is a glaring example of system failure. A simple scrutiny of COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance) will reveal the pathetic situation. A weak economy opens the country for foreign interventions in various forms. Sri Lanka is certainly a case in point.

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