Interview: Patrick Mendis

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Interview: Patrick Mendis

A discussion of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under President Maithripala Sirisena

Interview: Patrick Mendis

Patrick Mendis, a Rajawali senior fellow of the Kennedy School of Government’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University, is the author of Peaceful War: How the Chinese Dream and American Destiny Create a Pacific New World Order (2014), Commercial Providence: The Secret Destiny of the American Empire (2010), and Trade for Peace (2009). He served as a Pentagon professor and U.S. diplomat during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and is currently serving as a commissioner to the US National Commission for UNESCO, an appointment by the Obama administration. Mendis previously worked in the Minnesota House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the World Bank, and the United Nations. The views expressed are entirely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of his affiliated institutions or the U.S. government.

Mendis recently spoke with The Diplomat’s Muhammad Akbar Notezai about Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, and its relations with China, India, and America.

What paradigm shift do you see in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy?

To me, there is a 160-degree change from the previously isolationist, China-dependent model to a more autonomous but interdependent foreign policy in the newly elected government in Colombo.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had aligned himself with China, lost the presidential election in January 2015 to his own cabinet minister Maithripala Sirisena. The autocratic leader and his family members, who ruled the island for 10 years, are now being charged with corruption, human rights violations, and the extrajudicial killing and disappearance of journalists and political opponents.

The Sirisena-led coalition government had campaigned for good governance or “Yaha Paalanaya” and wanted to conduct a more balanced, so-called “non-aligned” foreign policy. Soon after the election, President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera traveled to China, India, Japan, Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European countries – signaling a fundamental departure from the previous regime.

Their “non-aligned” foreign policy, however, has Cold War undertones, which are long gone. I would rather call it a “Middle Path” or “Middle Way” foreign policy because the traditionally Buddhist nation strives to work with all countries for a shared destiny. In other words, Sri Lanka is emphasizing its diplomatic and commercial intercourse with other countries, just as the Founding Fathers of the United States had formulated its foreign policy with a vision of “trade with all – entangling alliances with none.”

Historically, the island nation of Sri Lanka has attracted India’s Buddhist envoys, Chinese pilgrims, European discoverers, Muslim traders, American adventurers, and many others. It is a splendid land for all visitors; therefore, the new paradigm shift should reflect its Buddhist tradition of Middle Way foreign policy welcoming others – irrespective of whether they are Americans, Chinese, Europeans, Indians, or Muslims.

What are your thoughts on Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to China?

President Xi Jinping warmly welcomed the visiting prime minister in Beijing. Both sides recognize the strategic importance of each country and are forging ahead with negotiating a range of agreements of mutual benefit. The Sirisena government wants continued Chinese investments and financial support for its ongoing infrastructure development, especially the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City project, which was suspended soon after the presidential election.

The prime minister was actually hoping to renegotiate or restructure some of the $8 billion Chinese loans to the Rajapaksa regime, which is being criticized for its alleged corruption and secrecy. On the other hand, Beijing also needs Colombo to move ahead with its Sri Lanka-centric 21st Century Maritime Silk Road strategy. Xi reportedly told the prime minister that the Chinese government would only consider the people of Sri Lanka and its policies but not the personalities and political parties. The latter was apparently referring to Rajapaksa and his political party of family members in government.

Overall, Wickremesinghe had a successful diplomatic mission, commenting while in Beijing that his government is committed to “freedom of navigation” in the Indian Ocean and good relations with India and the United States in search of the re-balancing of power dynamics.

Both the Colombo and Beijing administrations have agreed to strengthening economic cooperation, including the setting up of banking services of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and making the Colombo Port City a financial and business hub for the entire region of the Indian Ocean.

How was it viewed in Washington?

I simply don’t know because there is no official response. My guess is that Washington has come to realize that its traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere are increasingly acknowledging Beijing’s growing economic power. The clear indication for this is that many countries, like the United Kingdom, Germany, France and others, have ignored the Obama White House’s call not to join the China-led AIIB.

However, there is evidence that the United States would like to stay actively engaged with Sri Lanka through trade and investment opportunities, and, most importantly, through military-to-military contacts. This is showcased by the recent port visit by the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of the US Fifth Fleet, in Colombo, just before Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s visit to China.

After the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan Lugar-Kerry Report on Sri Lanka (2009), Washington now knows very well that it cannot ignore Sri Lanka anymore if the United States wants to maintain its strategic interests and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean region and beyond. Both Senators Richard Lugar (Republican) and John Kerry (now the Secretary of State) understood that the US has not given proper attention to Colombo and has limited its funds for Sri Lanka’s development needs; thus, making China a stronger partner for the island nation.

How do you see the Sri Lanka-China relations evolving in the future?

As “what’s past is prologue,” the Sino-Sri Lankan relationship that evolved from the Silk Road journey of the famous Chinese monk Fa-Hsien (439-414) to the Buddhist kingdom will continue in different forms. In fact, the New Silk Road strategy of President Xi is a revival of utilizing the ancient terrestrial and maritime routes of other visiting Buddhist pilgrims and visitors like Marco Polo (1254-1324) from the Yuan Dynasty and Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) from the Ming Dynasty to Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka-centric 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is now characterized by the Chinese-constructed Hambantota harbor, the Mattala airport, and the Colombo port city, among other projects. Among these massive investment projects, the Lotus Tower, South Asia’s tallest (350 meters) and most sophisticated telecommunication marvel, is the most symbolic example in the continued China’s Buddhist diplomacy.

After visiting over 25 provinces, climbing all the sacred mountains, and lecturing at more than 30 universities in China, I have met an increasing number of Sri Lankan students and professionals working and studying in China. Buddhist and cultural contacts are also growing between the two countries; more and more Chinese tourists visit Sri Lanka annually. I think these people-to-people exchanges and commercial relations will increase in the future, deepening their mutual understanding and bilateral business dealings between the two countries.

How do you perceive Sri Lanka-India relations?

Sri Lanka has always been part of the Indian family. But, the island nation has historically enjoyed its distinctive Buddhist culture, language, and racial identity (majority Sinhalese – 75 percent) as “Sri Lankans” despite their religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. At the national level, the two countries try to optimize benefits from economic and trade relations while there are disagreements at the local and provincial levels, especially when it comes to the ethnic related issues with Tamils in Sri Lanka and their kindred brothers and sisters in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Like everywhere else, these are highly contested topics for both countries but the geostrategic and geopolitical considerations seem to bring the national leaders in Colombo and New Delhi together to find a common ground for regional stability, peace, and prosperity.

What tensions do you see between Sri Lanka and India?

Bilaterally, the ethnic issue is central to Indo-Sri Lanka relations. It seems that the new government is committed to addressing it, especially after the Rajapaksa regime’s alleged wrongdoings during and after the Eelam War (1993-2009).

Strategically, there will be creative tensions as Sri Lanka continues to engage with China for investment opportunities and trade relations. This would allow the Colombo government to find the right equilibrium for an autonomous but interdependent foreign policy to achieve a more sustainable, transparent, accountable, and mutually beneficial development. I think this would eventually become the hallmark of the Middle Path approach.

Can Sri Lankan prime minister maintain a balance between China and America? 

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is widely viewed as a pragmatic statesman. Historically, he is considered pro-Western but he has traveled to China, India, Japan, and other countries over the 40 years of his public service.

In fact, he is the architect of their current foreign policy and he seems to understand the changing nature of global politics and geo-economic strategies well enough to put Sri Lanka on a trajectory, which utilizes the island nation’s geostrategic location, human resource base, and natural endowments to its benefit.

In the process, I think he would work cordially with Beijing and Washington for the progress of the Sri Lankan people and their peaceful co-existence with South Asian neighbors.

What are the likely implications of Sri Lanka-China relations on Sri Lanka-India relationship?

The Indo-Lanka link is complicated with having interrelations with China and the United States. These connections are led not only by a gamut of competitive and cooperative spirits in international relations. History and political philosophy would naturally have a contextual role in all of this. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that enlightened leaders in Beijing, Colombo, and New Delhi would be able to maintain win-win relationships for the benefit of their people. Otherwise, the shared vision of peace and harmonious society advocated by their wisdom traditions – whether Confucian, Buddhist, or Hindu – would be forsaken.

At the end of the day, the Sri Lanka-centric New Silk Road seems to bring both China and India together through trade and commerce. Where the politics of religion, ethnicity, and linguistic differences have historically attempted to separate these countries, the notion of the commerce-driven Silk Road has traditionally brought people together with the ideals of a cosmopolitan society.

In the end, I think that “global connectivity” through infrastructure development, commercial intercourse, and technological proliferation will have a better future than ever before.

What is the impact of the Sri Lanka-America relationship on the region?

Sri Lanka has long been a practicing parliamentary democracy with the highest literacy rate and life expectancy in the developing world. In fact, these two human development indicators are more or less similar to those of the United States. More importantly, however, the enduring ideals of democracy and freedom continue to bind these two nations together. As long as the United States truly maintains its founding vision as “the shining city upon a hill,” Sri Lanka, by extension, could also be “a shining beacon in the Bengal.”

How do you expect Sri Lanka-America ties to develop in the coming years?

American foreign policy has often been driven by geopolitics as opposed to China’s geo-economic driven foreign and trade policy. Sri Lanka – as an island-nation – can benefit from both strategies of the great powers in creating a commercial civilization.

In the American experience from the time of the Founding Fathers, Hamiltonian economic policies had given a way for Jeffersonian political aspirations to flourish. Similarly, while working with China, I think Sri Lanka will continue to deepen its close-ties with Washington because the United States is a philosophic empire of liberty, where immigrants from every corner of the world find hope, livelihood, and a better future. It is the story of the United States of America – the “shining city upon a hill” for everyone.

For the splendid island of Sri Lanka, I hope that Buddha’s Middle Path approach to foreign policy will be the “shining beacon in the Bengal” and beyond.