Unconfirmed reports seem to have suggested that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was to have travelled overseas in June, anyhow. Plans were afoot to organise an official visit to Cuba, but then they were switched and it was decided that he visit St. Petersburg in Russia, instead.
He attended the International Economic Forum, billed as Russia's answer to Davos, the economic summit of the West. What was specifically significant about the event was that it followed a state visit of the Chinese President to Moscow and as one Beijing analyst said it was in the backdrop of an "Eurocentric world order or West-oriented global power relations or US dictated, imposed and forced world order" and the demonising of anti-West nations through a "democracy, freedom and human rights chorus" by US/NATO powers.
By President Rajapaksa's presence, especially at this time when the Western countries are breathing down his neck on allegations of war crimes, he has signaled a more than willingness to hedge his bets with this new emerging alliance. In the absence of any formal announcement, whether this is a definitive shift in the country's foreign policy stance remains unclear. One can only surmise that the Sri Lankan President's presence at St. Petersburg last week was not entirely accidental or co-incidental, but a move that would have serious ramifications on the country's Non-Aligned status.
Sri Lanka has prided itself for being a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in respect of foreign policy ever since its modest beginnings in the post-World War II, post-colonial era of the 1950s and was formalized in the early 1960s. However much different governments tilted towards one superpower or the other in the cold war period -- Sirimavo Bandaranaike towards the Socialist bloc and the United National Party towards the West -- essentially Sri Lanka adopted a broadly bipartisan foreign policy and remained Non-Aligned. It went on to even lead the then 102 member-state movement from 1976-79. "Non-Alignment is the golden thread that runs through Sri Lanka's foreign Policy," said one President.
Sri Lanka benefited from this policy remaining, by and large, a friend of all and an enemy of none. President Rajapaksa also astutely followed this line, initially. He was for instance, not only able to obtain the support of Pakistan, China and India in the war against the LTTE, but also to be a onetime President of the Palestinian Friendship Society in Sri Lanka and obtain the services of Israel to fight the terrorists at home. One of the cofounder's of NAM, then Yugoslavia's Joseph Broz Tito famously said that non-alignment was to signal left and turn right. By President Rajapaksa's participation at the St. Petersburg conference, is he signaling something else? That is the question to which the Minister of External Affairs did not give an answer in an otherwise rubbishy explanation of the visit post-facto.
Never at a loss for words, however discreet the minister needs to be at times, he proudly acclaimed 'who said we don't have friends' in suggesting that Russia and China would stand-by Sri Lanka in the face of external pressures applied on the country. It would have been better had the Russians or the Chinese said that, but if diplomacy is the art of telling your enemies to go to hell that they look forward to the trip, the undiplomatic manner in which the Minister puts it one's enemies are waiting to grind you in the dust. He even said that the Sri Lankan President could visit any country of his choice seemingly having already forgotten the bitter experience of the visit to Britain just six months ago. Abraham Lincoln's "you can fool some people all the time, and all some of the time but not all the people all the time" would easily come to mind.
No doubt the sleeping giants of Russia and China have woken up. They have abandoned their outdated socialist and communist policies and keep growing to be world players in true economic sense. But they have not abandoned their centralized authoritarian policies. They look aghast at Western nations advocating human rights, media freedom, judicial independence, civil liberties in other countries as tools of interference, and therefore empathise with Sri Lanka's present dilemma with the West. They see in these Western calls double-standards, as Sri Lanka does. Thereby there is a natural attraction of like-minded nations to gang-up into a 'club' and the St Petersburgh Forum seems to have sown the seeds for this getting together. The problem is, by resisting demands for investigations into its democracy and human rights records saying it amounted to foreign interference and siding with what seems to be a new strategic alliance with China and Russia, Sri Lanka is fast eroding what is left of its own proud record as a democratic country. Make no mistake, China and Russia are not the best examples of democracies.
Has Sri Lanka put all its eggs in one basket by diverting course and jettisoning its time-tested Non-Aligned policies simply because its political leadership is under stress and duress from Western powers? On the other hand, does the West by its 'carrot and stick' policies wish to drive Sri Lanka entirely into this new emerging Sino-Russian led alliance however piqued they are by the attitude of President Rajapaksa and his administration. Purely for its geographical location, if for nothing else, Sri Lanka must have some strategic value to Western powers over and above their domestic compulsions, one of which is the pressure from the Sri Lankan Diaspora in their respective countries.
Sri Lanka cannot afford to simply abandon the West immediately without facing some consequences. It just cannot afford to do so. Take some simple statistics for example. Sri Lanka's top five exporters are the US, Britain, India, Italy and Germany. The US is the largest importer of Sri Lankan goods amounting to 21 percent of the total exports from Sri Lanka. Russia comes 8th with just 2.2. per cent and China is in the 18th place with a paltry US$ 76 million worth of imports, not even 1 per cent of total exports from Sri Lanka. On the other hand China exported to Sri Lanka US$ 1.2 billion worth of goods. Sri Lanka has announced great plans to increase tourist arrivals to the country. And who has been coming to Sri Lanka? There were 7,400 from Russia from January to May this year and about the same number from China totaling less than 15,000. The number of tourist arrivals for the same period from Europe was 145,000.
China has come in handy with loans -- up to nearly US$ 900 million from the China Development Corporation and the Export-Import Bank of China. Loans are easy to take, yet they are repayable, and they must be paid with cash earned from trade, tourism and foreign investment. Foreign remittances of Sri Lankan workers abroad are being used to pay the running of the Government machinery -- salaries, oil bills and other imports, but who funds the development work?
Take the number of students going overseas for higher studies and people for employment. How many Sri Lankans want to seek greener pastures in North America, Australia and Europe in comparison to Russia and China. This week the British Immigration Minister told a news conference, and there in no reason to doubt his claim, that at least 100 bogus applications are made from Sri Lanka to enter Britain each month. There is, therefore, a kind of umbilical chord with the West that cannot easily be erased off the slate however inconvenient, uncomfortable and unreasonable the Western pressures on this Government maybe.
One might argue that Sri Lanka is not entirely abandoning the Western world to link up with the emerging Sino-Russian alliance. Proof being Sri Lanka hosting the Commonwealth Summit next year and the bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018. The Government is spending as much as US$ 6 million on what seems a suicidal waste of money campaigning to bring these Games to Hambantota in this scenario. It is competing with Australia for the Games. Even India has so far not pledged its support to Sri Lanka to host this event.
Quo Vadis, Sri Lanka's foreign policy.