Engage; not confront

These two pages - our Political Commentary for the week, and the Foreign Minister's interview -- detail the country's unofficial and official stance on foreign relations today. It is not a rosy picture that we see.

An island-nation such as Sri Lanka cannot be self-sustained in this modern world. Our economy is largely dependent on foreign relations, including foreign markets, our import bill and export earnings; and how much money we get from abroad to pay for our imports.

As much as 37 % of our entire Budget is funded by foreign borrowings, by grants and loans. And our foreign debt from January to May this year alone has been Rs. 13 billion -- money that the next generation will have to fork out -- just to keep ourselves afloat today.

We have seen over the past year or so, a clear drift, if not shift, in foreign policy towards one that is overtly antagonistic towards Western nations. Increasingly, we are displaying an isolationist policy, suspicious of most foreigners from the West.

Compounding the issue is the overt stretching of the hand of friendship towards nations that have shown their own hostility towards the West as if we want ourselves lumped with them in a show of strength and solidarity. Unfortunately, there is little tangible benefit we derive from such strengthening of ties with these countries, except a vote at the UN.

While one does not have to hold a brief for the West, like some opposition political parties tend to do, nor be beholden to them, one cannot want to do business with them and keep insulting and provoking them regularly. Such double standards are hardly becoming.

The Foreign Minister often quotes the words of the US President Barack Obama whose underlining foreign policy credo vis-à-vis America's foes is to "engage - not confront". But his difficulty is to practise what he quotes. Sri Lanka is on a confrontation course with the West, rather than one of engagement.

Clearly, relations with the West have plummeted to a new low. In the days of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike's tenure, her strong commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), when that Movement was a key player in world affairs, understandably threw the country into a confrontation course with what she called the 'rapacious West' and the 'tyranny by the minority' -- famously at the UN. Her Marxist Finance Minister was meanwhile visiting the World Bank and IMF seeking loans on the sidelines.

But while she was elected the chairperson of the 101-nation NAM by virtue of holding a summit in Colombo in 1976, she was booted out of office by the people of her own country.

The animosity she had created with the West was such that without the financial backing from the anti-West countries, who could hardly manage their own shaky economies, economic strangulation led to economic suffocation at home.

Undoubtedly, the West was thoroughly unfair in its approach to the Sri Lankan separatist insurgency, and it was crystal clear that its agenda was to keep the terrorism pot boiling here so that it could have a grip on the country's internal affairs. The West wanted a 'little bit of the fighting' to go on knowing the usefulness of the West would wither away without it.

To this Government goes the credit for resisting this undue pressure, And yet, the 'war' is all but over now. A new chapter must be turned.

We asked the Foreign Minister whether this Government is still in the anti-West mode and unable to shift gear. What he said was, "We have been interacting with the Western bloc" and went on to cite meetings between the President and Western leaders.

However, the writing is on the wall, and that is not what we see happening. Our links - exports, imports, tourists, travel, aid, loans, students, employment etc -- are largely with the countries we are in confrontation with.

Take the example of the GSP+ duty free concessions from the European Union which our exporters enjoyed. From the beginning this was mishandled. Ministers - Peiris, Moragoda, Bogollagama, Samarasinghe -- told the President they could deliver the goods. It was an excuse to globe-trot and issue optimistic press releases glorifying their own persona. Eventually it was a nil report from them all. Then, they decided to clamp down on the TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation) in the EU and put all their resources towards that objective.

The standard 'give and take' in diplomacy was non-existent. At the same time EU Ministers were not given visas to visit Sri Lanka, and EU efforts to look into the status of various provisions of the GSP+ Agreement between Sri Lanka and the EU of 2004-05 were blocked by Colombo. Eventually, we got neither the TRO banned, and from all likelihood, the GSP+ concessions. Then, they blamed the opposition for torpedoing the exercise.

Our ex-ambassador to Geneva, who had a ringside seat writes in our Business section and asks whether there was no alternative approach to the whole GSP+ issue. The cold hard fact is that Sri Lanka needs the GSP+ more than EU wants to give it to us, he says.

In the rest of Europe, there is total disengagement with the political and business establishment, and instead, a focus on playing to the Sri Lankan gallery. It would have been one thing if Sri Lankans overseas also had a vote, but as it stands, we have missed the wood for the trees.

It is time for the Government to reassess its foreign policy stance towards the West and move from one of confrontation to that of engagement.

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