Interviews

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera on Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Challenges

The Diplomat talks with Asanga Abeyagoonasekera about the future trajectory of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy challenges.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera on Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Challenges
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though Sri Lanka’s strategic significance is far from a new development, the country has been in the headlines over the past few years amid a series of broader trends, whether it be rising domestic political contestation, China’s expanding influence in South Asia, or the growing conversation about the Indo-Pacific region.

The Diplomat’s senior editor, Prashanth Parameswaran, recently spoke to Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, the head of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) think tank, about the future trajectory of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and what that might mean for the broader Indo-Pacific region. The conversation occurred just ahead of Sri Lanka’s independence day celebrations on February 4.

Sri Lanka is sometimes portrayed as being in the crossroads of geopolitical competition amid several powers, including India, China, and the United States, even though that frame has to be viewed within the prism of other developments as well within its own domestic politics as well as the region. How has that ‘crossroads’ status affected the country’s management of its domestic and foreign policy? 

That notion of a crossroads certainly applies to Sri Lanka today. There are geopolitical trends such as the rising Chinese sphere of influence in Asia and other structural imperatives increasingly shaping the country’s foreign policy. In recent years, we have even seen the polity and the political leadership divided into Western and Chinese camps. This was clearly visible during the constitutional crisis few months ago where we had two prime ministers, one supported by China and the other by the West.

More generally, we have seen this in the evolution of the country’s domestic politics and foreign policy over the past few years. There have been some changes – some of them drastic – from the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the coalition government of Maithripala Sirisena with center-left and center-right political parties installed in 2015. Rajapaksa practiced a largely pro-Chinese foreign policy, losing the balance with India and the West. This imbalance was calibrated by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe coming into power, creating space for the West and promising to investigate Chinese projects, limiting the Chinese sphere of influence initially, which he found difficult to manage due to Sri Lanka’s economic dependence with China.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Sirisena clearly articulated his foreign policy in his election manifesto that he would continue on a “balanced Asia centric foreign policy,” balancing the triple sphere of influence from India, China, and U.S. But that has been a challenging exercise due to strong Chinese influence. Sri Lanka’s struggle has been that, even with its nonaligned past, it is evolving today into a more multialigned foreign policy that creates both opportunities and challenges. I address some of these concerns in my new book Sri Lanka at Crossroads, which looks at these issues in historical context and contemporary perspective.

Within that ‘crossroads’ status, despite discussions that are often focused on the United States and/or China, India is still a major factor in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy calculations. How would you characterize how that India factor plays into Colombo’s thinking, both on its own terms as well as relative to other major powers?

Sri Lanka’s primary geographic challenge is managing geopolitical relations with India — the regional hegemon, who is well aligned with the U.S. in the present context. India does not wish to be seen as a regional hegemon, but its geographical and population size makes it the dominant power in South Asia.

Geographically, Sri Lanka’s strategic position as an island which only can be compared to Great Britain facing Atlantic and Japan facing the Pacific. The strategic location of Sri Lanka creates an additional challenge in calculating the influences from extraregional powers, including India.

As an example, India was concerned when Chinese submarines visited a Sri Lankan port as India saw this as a threat to its national security. Despite Sri Lanka being a sovereign nation, India still wants Sri Lanka to inform it before a submarine is due to visit, and this practice of an ‘India first’ foreign policy is a difficult path to exercise.

The India-Sri Lanka relationship dates back to ancient times, and given the geographical proximity of just 32 kilometers between the two nations, one should not discount the Tamil Nadu factor as well. I call this the ‘Kaveri Delta’ affect – the rich Dravidian culture which has a serious impact on the island’s northern peninsula from the ancient times up to the present day. This Tamil Nadu factor has significant implications for the country’s domestic politics.

Within Indian foreign policy as well, the other aspect that is important to consider is that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has positioned itself more so as a challenger to Chinese power and also placed itself more on the side of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and others. In that environment, India needs closer ties with friends and partners including in its own neighborhood. It is this context which partly accounts for why Modi is investing in the India-Sri Lanka relationship as part of the ‘neighborhood first’ foreign policy.

Moving on to China, while there is a wide-ranging relationship, there has been significant focus on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its effects on Sri Lanka, with a particular case being the Hambantota Project and the notion of a debt trap. Some have questioned the utility of such a characterization, given the fact that it is too narrow of a prism and misses a lot of other aspects at play, including Sri Lanka’s own agency and its domestic political divisions. What is your sense of how this should be perceived and how things will evolve in the coming years?

There’s certainly more to this than just the China factor. Economically, for instance, Sri Lanka’s sovereign bond borrowings are much more than the Chinese commercial loans, and this is clearly explained by many economic think tanks in Sri Lanka. The problem is the conditionality for the loans, and when Sri Lankan government found it difficult to repay the loans, how it was transformed into equity in a short duration without much discussion, without inputs from public expertise. With respect to Hambantota, for instance, 99 years is three generations and a long time. The government should have made such decisions with debate and discussions at Parliament. This process was not followed.

Seen from a broader perspective, the issue is that Sri Lanka has been gradually moving from the periphery to center of global discussion because of its rising strategic significance, which is partly due to its geography. China has clearly increased its influence in Sri Lanka by assisting it and then establishing its geopolitical footprint in Hambantota and other infrastructure projects. BRI is clearly a strategic project in this respect.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Sri Lanka will no doubt be playing a significant role in the years to come in the BRI with all these massive Chinese investments. The Chinese projects may continue to be seen as financially infeasible due to the fact that they are in an early stage, but the Chinese are clearly looking at the long term. This is the reason why I emphasize and discuss the importance of balancing the external constellations of powers for Sri Lanka, especially managing the relationship between the established as well as the rising powers.

Furthermore, beyond what China does, Sri Lanka’s leaders also have to consider pragmatism, coupled with a more confident assertion of Sri Lankan interests, to continue to be the main guideposts when making foreign policy decisions. The country’s leaders have failed in this exercise in some senses over the past years, in part not only due to their own mistakes but also wider factors such as the absence of geopolitical and foreign policy discussions within the country’s domestic politics.

With respect to the United States, we have seen the Trump administration reinforce the U.S. focus on South Asia and the Indian Ocean more generally with the notion of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, even though there are still uncertainties about other aspects of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. How has the administration’s approach affected Sri Lanka’s perceptions of the United States, and how do you expect this to shape up in the coming years?

Speaking broadly, the global balance of power is clearly shifting to a new bipolar system, where U.S. hegemony and the notion of a liberal international order seem to be in decline and under threat. In some cases, the Trump administration’s inward-looking, nationalist policies have not helped because China has been seen as the advocate of globalization and openness.

That said, this is not to say that China will not create its own challenges for the world and for Sri Lanka which will then affect U.S. calculations as well. For example, while Sri Lanka is fully subscribed to the idea of a greater role for China in the Indian Ocean and the world, the question remains whether Beijing will transform this into military interest. The Sri Lankan government has clearly said that Sri Lankan soil will not be given for any military bases, but will this position change when China plays a dominant role in the global arena? The United States, along with other allies and partners like Japan and India, is legitimately concerned that if Sri Lanka will drift fully into the Chinese orbit, it will not have the financial muscle to negotiate if China makes a strong request to set up a base operation in the future.

There is also the domestic political aspect as well. The United States openly supported Wickremesinghe to bring him back to power, seeing the process taken by Sirisena to be undemocratic. India took a different position, which is not to intervene in the domestic politics, which, in my view, is the cleverer move.

While many of the key strategic developments underway in the Indian Ocean are not new, there has been greater attention on Indo-Pacific and conceptions by various powers, including not just the United States but others as well including Japan, Australia, and Indonesia. What is Sri Lanka’s own response to this concept and the developments surrounding it? What notable trends have you noticed about the evolution of the debate or conversation in Sri Lanka about the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific in the past few years, and are there aspects that are particularly interesting within the elite and broader public conversation? 

I view the Indo-Pacific as largely being a geographic expansion on the Asia-Pacific term in the sense that the ‘Indo’ bit of the term also more directly includes India. Sri Lanka is part of this wider geographical construct and more firmly so with the focus on South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

That said, I do think there are differences between the notions of the Indo-Pacific advanced by some countries and the Belt and Road construct of China – for instance, one projects the importance of maintaining the rules-based international order, while another projects a different future with its own Asian characteristics.

In Sri Lanka you will see two camps emerged around the contours of the broader discussion. Irrespective of those divisions, Sri Lanka has always subscribed to a rules-based international system and will remain so regardless of the government in power. The ingrained values of democracy and subscribing to maintain a rules-based order is a value the society possesses. The reason why Rajapaksa had to eventually step down, for instance, was the respect for democracy and judiciary by all political leaders. Sri Lanka will not go beyond this point as some other South Asian nations have done in the past.

As we focus on these terms and concepts, we should not lose sight of the fact that the biggest strategic challenge to many nations will be managing China’s rise. As China’s military strength grow, we will see China using a ‘civilian-military nexus’ as an advance to build up its capabilities and project sea power in major strategic waterways including the Indian Ocean. This will have a significant impact on nations like Sri Lanka. We will need to maintain the balance of power and keep with the rules-based order despite challenges that we face.

Sri Lanka was in the headlines a few months back again following some developments in its domestic politics, and it will also be having its next presidential elections soon. To what extent do you expect the current changes in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics to shape its foreign policy in the coming months? What are some key indicators that outside observers should look for?

While the domestic instability you noted from last year was there, it has stabilized to a certain degree at least for now. The main focus will be on the next presidential election, and how the country proceeds thereafter.

What I would say is that the next leader needs to invest in institutionalizing the foreign policy of Sri Lanka rather than persisting with the overly personalized foreign policy which exists today and has followed by many others in the past. The nation requires a more institutionalized foreign and national security policy, which is required especially in today’s geopolitical context. If Sri Lankan leaders constantly change their external policies for their own political interest rather than the national interest, we will end up failing to balance our foreign policy priorities.

More generally, the main point of understanding should be that Sri Lanka ought to be ready to work with anyone and everyone to secure Sri Lankan interests. Chief among these interests should be to take the Sri Lankan economy to greater heights from its present state. Sri Lanka has just celebrated her 71st year of independence from British colonial rule, but even after 71 years, policymakers have failed to realize promises of economic prosperity. What we have today is an underdeveloped nation with less than 4 percent growth. Top ratings agencies have downgraded Sri Lanka and raised the cost of international borrowing.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

That economic state is in some ways the root of Sri Lanka’s geopolitical challenges. It creates conditions for the country to turn to others like China and India for financial support. The link between the country’s domestic situation and its foreign policy challenges will be clear to all, even if that link is not made as clear in the upcoming elections themselves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.