Small nations typically do not have much by way of bargaining power vis-à-vis powerful nations; ‘small’ meaning economically and militarily weak rather than land size. Weak, however, does not mean helpless. Indeed there are very few if any relationships between the powerful and the weak that are not characterized by contestation and continuous negotiation of the terms of control. The same goes for relations between countries, despite power differentials. Sri Lanka, right now, appears to be an exception.
Needless to say, diplomacy is a sphere of activity where words are almost always used to varnish unpalatable truths. In fact there’s nothing bad about anything bilateral or multilateral if we went strictly by the statements uttered by the stewards of foreign relations. And yet if one were to factor in track records of the particular protagonists, statements uttered in different contexts and examine the small print of agreements, diplospeak immediately looks an infantile language which has barely evolved out the grunts.
Let’s consider Sri Lanka’s case. First and foremost, the country’s economic situation has been the main determinant of foreign policy formulation. The economic logic of the particular regime has informed the picking of friends by and large. The striking exemption was the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime at the height of the offensive against the LTTE when defeating the LTTE counted more than ‘economic sense’ in the weight given to friendships with foreign nations. As a result, after the end of the war, that regime had to rush to China for help, support that did not come free.
There were other prices to pay of course and pounds of flesh were duly extracted in Geneva first and eventually in Sri Lanka when those nations which felt peeved by Rajapaksa put their weight behind his detractors. This is not to say, of course, that he would have prevailed if there was no such support, but that’s another story.
Post-Mahinda, as expected, the new Government placed their bets on the anti-Rajapaksa bloc, especially India, the USA and the EU. And lost. The Government was forced to pick the Rajapaksa Option. China.
And yet, it appears that the Government is not yet done with pandering to the demands of the USA and India. Of course, governments inherit debts owed by previous regimes and one can argue that a responsible regime cannot pout and refuse to pay. However, we also know that this Government is politically on the same page with the USA as far as what is good for Sri Lanka is concerned. It has essentially decided to inhabit the US version of Sri Lanka’s reality and design a future Sri Lanka that delivers the interests of that country.
It’s legitimate. If you are in agreement then you go along. Going along is one thing, but allowing someone like the US Ambassador to be presumptuous enough to state that he will help Sri Lanka write a new constitution is something else. Even diplospeak cannot varnish incompetence or worse, impotence.
Then we have the Indian High Commissioner virtually saying ETCA is a done deal. If indeed the deal is done despite objections from quarters other than the oppose-anything Joint Opposition then once again it means that this Government is either on the same page as India about the benefits for Sri Lanka (again, all-is-good diplospeak) or worse is incompetent or clueless. Reminiscent one might say of J.R. Jayewardene’s capitulation to Rajiv Gandhi in July 1987. Shows a worrisome (that’s a generous term) lack of confidence. To make it even worse, it appears that the Government wants India to develop the Oil Tank Farm in Trincomalee. Why India, is the question that needs to be asked in a context where India is not going to (and cannot) bail out Sri Lanka economically. That’s China’s job and that’s official whether we like it or not.
Put all of this on the same page (of a newspaper, say) and the picture is pretty clear: this Government has a foreign policy that can be written in a sentence – ‘say “aye” to whatever India or the USA proposes to further their strategic, economic and other interests and submit to China’s economic diktat’.
There’s a small chance that the statements issued by the US Ambassador and the Indian High Commissioner are nothing more than a couple of diplomats putting a brave front in the face of an impending China take-over. It’s hard to say, however, given the Government’s apparent policy of treating such moves as being in the ‘goes without saying’ category, the subtext of which (need we say?) is essentially ‘comes without saying’.
Small nations typically do not have much by way of bargaining power vis-à-vis powerful nations. But few nations are absolutely powerless. Given certain comparative advantages (strategic location, for one), Sri Lanka can bargain. And must. At least, it can play one power against the other and try to optimize. The kind of capitulation we are seeing, however, indicates that this Government believes that its political future is in the hands of India and the USA. There have been others who came before who believed the same and looked in disbelief when outcomes that were preferred and considered assured did not materialize.
All that for the future. Sooner or later, this Government will realize the worth of that pithy Sinhala saying ‘katin bathala sitaveema’ (planting sweet potato with the mouth). The US Ambassador will understand the US version of this: ‘put your money where your mouth is’. Right now, both India and the USA are backing on throwing a few paisas and pennies (respectively) and raking in big bucks in economic and strategic terms. There’ll probably be a limit to what the big buck provider, China, will tolerate on the strategic front.
It is better to wake up, even slowly, rather than be woken up rudely. Chances are that this Government, if woken up rudely, will break into giggles and say ‘that’s so sweet of you’. Indeed it’s a throwback to J.R. Jayewardene’s famous line when ushering in the open economy: ‘Let the robber barons come!’ Only, on a larger scale and by a Government that appears incapable of taking stock of changed global realities. This is not 1977 or 1987. This is 2016. Back then, China was not even mentioned. Today, China dominates the script. Only, this Government doesn’t seem to have read it.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column to the Daily Mirror titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: malindasene.