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We must be mindful not to be a strategic concern to India

An Exclusive Interview With Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary

TOP NEWS-ENG-14-09-2020

Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary, Adm. Prof. Jayanath Colombage, sees Sri Lanka’s geostrategic position in South Asia as both a challenge and an opportunity. In an exclusive interview with South Asian Monitor’s P.K. Balachandran, he spoke of various aspects of the island nation’s foreign relations, developments in the South Asian region and more. 

South Asian Monitor (SAM): The Indian Ocean region is of utmost geostrategic importance, both regionally and globally. The eyes of all regional and global powers seem to be on Sri Lanka by virtue of its geographical location. Do you think this is an advantageous position for the country, or does it mean more pressure from all directions? How does Sri Lanka plan to benefit from the prevailing geopolitical scene?

Jayanath Colombage (JC): There are many things which may change in a country. It can change its economic or political policies but there is one thing it cannot change, and that is its geographical position. Because of the geostrategic location of Sri Lanka, it is hugely attractive to major powers in the Indian Ocean and the surrounding regions. India, China, America, Japan, Australia and Russia are all interested in Sri Lanka’s geo-strategically important location. But this attraction comes with a lot of challenges. Sri Lanka should convert these attractions-cum-challenges into opportunities. We should be clever enough and work hard enough to use this opportunity for the benefit of the people of Sri Lanka economically, politically and diplomatically. 

We don’t know how long this strategic interest will be there, as things can change in the world. This is why the president is wanting Sri Lanka to be a neutral country, not a non-aligned country, but a neutral country, maintaining friendly relations with all the countries in the region. 

But we should be very mindful that we do not allow Sri Lankan soil or Sri Lankan waters to be used by one against another, especially against India, because we have to understand India’s security concerns. 

Sri Lanka is within India’s maritime and air security umbrella. We should never be the ‘aircraft carrier’ which is parked within 40 nautical miles from the Palk Strait as Shiv Shankar Menon put it in his book “Choices”.We have to be very mindful not to be a strategic concern to India. The president has been reiterating this. We need to be very mindful of India’s strategic security requirements and aspirations and never allow Sri Lanka or our waters to be used to be a threat to India’s security concerns.

While in the domain of security we have a very good relationship with India, we also see that many countries are interested in having military relations with Sri Lanka. But we have to be very careful about the defense agreements we enter into with other countries. We have to be very careful about the impact of these agreements on our national and regional security and also on the Sri Lankan economy. We do not want to separate military linkage from economic linkage. 

Even India has this policy. I have heard Ajit Doval and Jaishankar saying that India should have a ‘multi-alignment policy based on issues.” We in Sri Lanka have been following this. For example, when the issue of piracy was there, Sri Lanka welcomed all the navies to come here. But it was in relation to a particular issue.

SAM: The US and China are in a cold war. The US is doing everything it can to cripple China economically and politically. How is Sri Lanka affected by this? China has made, and is making, huge investments in Sri Lanka. Will these investments be adversely affected?

JC: When two elephants fight, the grass will get trampled. The US-China row is now a trade war. That could hurt Sri Lanka in some way. For example, the US’ unilateral sanctions against Iran have hurt Lanka’s tea exports to Iran. Now the US has listed 24 Chinese entities including some belonging to the China Communications and Construction Company (CCCC) which is involved in major Sri Lankan projects. One of CCCC’s subsidiaries, the China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC), is building the Colombo Port City, though the CHEC is not in the US list. However, we do not know how the trade war will affect this project in the future. Land reclamation from the sea has been done in the Port City and the next step is the building of the infrastructure to attract leading international investors.

The developing situation demands that we get investments from multiple sources. This is important because the Colombo Port City cannot be abandoned. We cannot throw the land reclaimed from the sea into the sea again!

SAM: The US is putting pressure on Sri Lanka to accept the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) in too and also agree to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). But experts have said that some of the provisions are unconstitutional and have to be changed. What is the government’s stand? 

JC: When the government’s view on the MCC is formulated it will be presented to the cabinet and then to parliament. The government has chosen to take the democratic route to decision making.

The earlier defense pact ‘Access and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA)’ with the US was signed in 2007 and was renewed in 2017. That agreement helped Sri Lanka locate and destroy LTTE’s floating warehouses. But SOFA is contentious because it will enable US Department of Defense Personnel to carry weapons, communication equipment and use their own vehicles outside the framework of Sri Lankan laws. The final decision on any agreement will take into account the country’s interests, constitution and law.

SAM: Colombo port is India’s transshipment hub. India wants a stake in the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the port. But Sri Lankan nationalists oppose Indian involvement. How will Sri Lanka resolve this tangle?

JC: The President is committed to honoring the agreement already reached with India and Japan in regard to the ECT. However, port workers are against the agreement. Also, there is the government’s policy of keeping national assets like ports in Sri Lankan hands. Sri Lanka has to have a minimum of 51% stake in these assets. A final decision will be taken after considering all aspects and all stakeholders.

SAM: In your opinion what could be the reasons for SAARC being ‘dysfunctional’? With India promoting ‘Neighborhood First’ policy, don’t you think SAARC has potential as an integrator?

JC: India began with a “Neighborhood First policy”, but now it has become ‘Neighborhood Minus One’ policy, that is, minus Pakistan. However, the visits of the India’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to the neighboring countries show that India gives priority to the immediate neighborhood. We are very happy about this. As for SAARC, it has not lived up to its potential at all. SAARC is an old organization, started with a lot of enthusiasm. But if compared with ASEAN, SAARC is not economically integrated. Of course, people-to-people contacts among SAARC countries have increased, but economic integration is at a very low level. SAARC’s economic integration is around 5% while ASEAN’s integration is about 20%. This means that ASEAN countries are looking within their group for markets while also looking outside. On the contrary, we have been looking at overseas markets rather than markets within the South Asian region. 

In SAARC, we don’t see the political will to see progress. This is the reason why India is now focusing on BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). 

South Asian nations need to work together in the economic sphere for the development of SAARC. We have to realize that we have to work together to develop. We in South Asia have a huge population in the region with a big middle class which earns more and spends more. So, we have to produce more and trade more amongst ourselves. One thing that is lacking in SAARC is political leadership to make things happen. SAARC does have activities in the cultural and educational fields but we need to go beyond that with trade, economic and political agendas. Unless we do this the future of SAARC is not very bright.

SAM: What do you think Sri Lanka can do to improve matters in SAARC?

JC: Sri Lanka is one country which is considered as being friendly to all the countries in South Asia. I believe Sri Lanka can play a catalytic role. Sri Lanka is not a big country but it can be a mediator. However, the two major powers in the region, India and Pakistan, must have the political commitment to revive SAARC. Without that nothing can be done. 

SAM: Bhutan is in SAARC, and yet it is being ‘ignored’? Most of SAARC countries do not even have an embassy in Thimpu. Did Sri Lanka ever think of establishing a diplomatic mission there?

JC: Bhutan is an independent and sovereign nation state. We cannot go by the size of the state or its population. We have to treat all nation states as equal partners. But Bhutan is geographically quite far from Sri Lanka and there is no connection by land or sea. Therefore, there is a reluctance or lack of interest in having business relations with Bhutan. And the other factor is the cost involved in having diplomatic missions. There has to be a cost-benefit analysis in this regard. We cannot have a diplomatic mission for the sake of it. We need some economic activity, some people to people contacts or political activity. This is where SAARC and BIMSTEC can help.

SAM: Among countries in South Asia, Sri Lanka has done relatively well in curtailing the prevailing coronavirus pandemic. Does Sri Lanka have any message or ‘lesson’ to give to its neighbors regarding the control of coronavirus?

JC: The answer to this is in what we did in Sri Lanka and that is for all to see. We have done extremely well in controlling the virus. We have been a COVID-free community for the past 150 days. Deaths have only been 0.4% and our recovery rate has been 85% to 90%. A few cases are coming up but they are all arrivals from abroad. These are put up in quarantine centers so that they do not affect the community at large. There is no community spread, as on date. 

If I were to mention the determinants of this success it is first and foremost the political will and political determination at the top, namely, the leadership of the Sri Lankan president. When the epidemic broke out in China, the Lankan President immediately took proactive measures. We setup quarantine centers, screening and testing facilities. We did contact tracing using intelligence agencies, Public Health Inspectors and technology. We identified the first ring and the second ring and all were taken for quarantine. A COVID-19 Task Force was set up to direct and coordinate the work. We listened to scientific and medical advice. They got officials in the health, army, foreign ministry, police and intelligence sectors to work hard. The other critical factor has been the existence of an island-wide public health system engaged in community health. This helped battle COVID-19. Then Sri Lanka got support from India, China and other countries in terms of equipment and medicines. We were getting feedback and were making course corrections based on the feedback to take the ship in the right direction.

SAM: The State Minister of Provincial Councils Rear Adm. Sarath Weerasekara has said that the 13th.constitutional Amendment (which set up elected Provincial Councils following the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987) will be abolished. What is your take on this issue given the fact that it involves India as its progenitor?

JC: I am not qualified to talk on this issue. But I can say that there is a view that the provincial councils are a White Elephant. However, the country is going to have a totally new constitution. The issue of the devolution of power or the 13th Amendment will be debated from all angles when the new constitution is drafted.

Adm (Rtd) Colombage is a former Sri Lankan navy chief, whose PhD thesis was published as "Asymmetric Warfare at Sea: The Case of Sri Lanka” in 2016. Prior to taking over as Foreign Secretary he was International Affairs Advisor to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa