Neutrality over World Power Struggle | Daily News
Defusing Foreign Interferences and Influences

Neutrality over World Power Struggle

Two men were walking in the midst of a jungle when they came upon a rhinoceros. The rhinoceros stood belligerently across the path and stared at them intensely, as if looking for a reason to pick a fight.

One man whispered to the other, “remember the handbook said to stay absolutely still and the rhinoceros would just go away.”

The other man whispered back, “you have read the handbook; I have read the handbook… has the rhinoceros read the handbook?”

This is the same question we need to ask ourselves as we strive to stick the neutrality sticker on us as a way of protection from geopolitical friction. Explaining our neutrality stance, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena noted as he addressed the Convocation of Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) on October 28, 2022, “It is merely a detached neutrality in regional or international power games.”

Obviously we wish to stay out of the developing power struggle for dominance between world powers. We fear the brutality of the West to side with China and we simply cannot afford to lose China. Hence, our strategy is to stay out of the fight altogether.

As President Ranil Wickremesinghe observed whilst commenting on the conflict between Russian and West supported Ukraine, when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. Clearly we do not want to be the grass and are adapting the neutrality stance to keep the war (if it comes to that) and any other form of conflict out of our turf.

Neutrality not to be Confused with Ostrich Policy

This is fine as long as we know why we have adapted this strategy. This neutrality stance was adopted by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and continued by the present Administration. Most unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry during the Gotabaya Government failed utterly to understand the objective of the neutrality stance. Not only they failed to appreciate it but the then Foreign Ministry equated the neutrality policy to ostrich policy.

This was highlighted by the events that took place after the then US State Secretary Mike Pompeo made an unwarranted comment on Sri Lanka’s friendship with China just days before his visit to Sri Lanka. The Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka responded rather creatively. The US embassy in Sri Lanka replied to the response scathingly. Soon Sri Lanka had on her soil an ugly verbal spat between the US and China.

The Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry chose to ignore the issue altogether. This is unacceptable for the very reason and indeed the only reason we adapted the neutrality stance was to stay out of this fight. Then, allowing the verbal spat between the two sparring nations cannot be justified.

This was one moment that Sri Lanka could have demonstrated how serious she was of her neutrality. Then Foreign Secretary (retired) Admiral Prof. Colombage should have wrapped both ambassadors’ knuckles and told them as guests of this Island nation to respect Sri Lanka’s neutrality stance. They should have been told in no uncertain terms that whatever fights the two warring factions wanted must be done outside Sri Lanka and certainly not right in the middle of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

Do We have the Chutzpah to be Neutral?

Interestingly, Dinesh Gunawardena, as Prime Minister of the Wickremesinghe Government, firmly stated during his address to the BIDTI that though Sri Lanka is neutral, “we will not allow anybody to use our soil against a third country. In such attempts, we zealously safeguard our sovereignty.”

If the objective of neutrality is to be achieved, then pledges to ‘zealously safeguard our sovereignty’ cannot be confined to mere political slogans. Here lies the problem.

It is very easy to take a verbal stance with a local audience. However, we need a certain brazen assertiveness if we are to put this policy into action.

To enact this policy and stand by it is a tough call while we are in the midst of an economic crisis. At this juncture, we cannot overlook the fact that we are in need of everyone’s goodwill to support us in our dire need as well as not to take us to task for defaulting on foreign debt.

Hambantota Port

Even before this crisis, we have exercised our foreign relations with meekness. For years we allowed foreign entities to belittle our Security Forces and denounce our capabilities as they pronounced that we are unequal to LTTE’s superiority. It took us less than two and half years to prove this assertion to be baloney.

Instead of being apologetic or embarrassed, these forces have simply flipped the game and are now accusing our military leaders of war crimes. We have neither asked for allegations to be substantiated nor presented facts to negate the accusations. Instead, successive Governments since 2015 are trying to cherry pick on the demands made from us that will appease our accusers and constitutionally possible.

Our problem is the small size of our territory and our weak economy. Since childhood we are taught that the tiny spec on the Indian Ocean is Sri Lanka. We call ourselves the teardrop, pearl and host of other nicknames - all alluding to the size of our landmass.

Somehow it has missed our school syllabus that our territorial waters is seven times the land mass or the fact that we are the 25th largest island in the world with a number of archipelagos dotting around the Island. This maybe one of the reasons for not utilizing the enormous sea resources we have at hand.

Our vision from the sea is very limited. For us, a factory to tin sardines is an achievement. Yet, there is a lot more we can harness from the sea. For instance, using wave technology we can produce electricity. Seawater hydroponics is the fascinating new technology UK and Scandinavian countries are currently exploring. Fresh produce is grown harnessing all the years of nutrients and minerals that have washed into the sea from farming activities on dry land. Likewise, our sea is a treasure trove, which at present we are studiously ignoring.

Contentiously, we are not only ignoring our own resource, but are failing to protect it as well. Almost daily the local newspapers publish our High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda’s latest meeting with an Indian notable. Yet, it is unclear if these meetings discuss the serious problem we have with Indian poachers on our waters.

It is imperative that we shake off this inferiority complex we have over the size of our territory. Simultaneously, we need to realize that the first step would be to strengthen our economy if we are to adhere to a neutral policy to stay out of a global fight.

Confusing Objective from Neutrality with Our Other Goals

Therefore, we should not allow our neutral stance from attaining our economic goals. The Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration drew a great deal of flak for obtaining Chinese funding to build the Hambantota Port. The criticism continues to this day even though facts and figures have justified the investment and partnership.

It was argued recently in Parliament by Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera that soliciting bids individually from countries is in contravention to the neutrality policy. Instead, he advocates that these project proposals should be open to all, so that any country or financier may bid openly.

This may be practically enforced for moderate sized projects. However, projects such as the Hambantota Port must be treated as special cases. This has been in the pipeline since the early 1900s. Successive Governments have tried to put it into action but failed for a number of reasons.

The primary cause was the prohibitive cost. As Rear Admiral Weerasekera noted, this project was first offered to the US and then India. The US was not interested but India was not uninterested. In fact, discussions were still ongoing with India when Sri Lanka approached China.

There has been much commentary on China’s willingness to finance this project, most of which are erroneous. (White Jumbo Myth Busted published on June 27, 2022 discusses the falsehoods exposed by COPE findings.) However, we are yet to undertake a study to understand the US’s reasons for refusing to partner or India for stalling the discussions.

There have been some insinuations that since neither US nor India have China’s deep pockets, they could not get on board. This however may not be the only reason.

India never refused to come aboard on the Hambantota Port. However, discussions dragged on for half a year without moving a step forward. Whether India was genuinely interested and looking for options on how to be a financier or had a different motive are questions we have never considered seriously. Apparently, one of the reasons for India and Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration to fall out was because of these large scale projects, which India felt Sri Lanka does not need.

China’s foreign policy strategy is to strengthen the economic assets of her partners. As such, not only Sri Lanka but many other nations such as Pakistan and African countries as well as European countries such as Germany are benefitting from China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Unfortunately, not all foreign policy strategies share China’s view. Most countries, especially the powerful ones prefer subjugation rather than liberating smaller nations from their economic constraints. Even neutral countries such as Singapore and Dubai would be concerned of the effect an infrastructure as the Hambantota Port would have on their businesses.

We must not discount our experience with Canada in 2002. Though the Canadian Government undertook to do a feasibility study for the project, the delivery was unsatisfactory. This outcome left many Sri Lankans to question Canada’s motives. Again, due to lack of proper analysis all we have is speculations.

We must thus realize with our experience with the Hambantota Port that not everyone wants to see Sri Lanka progress. Every country sees the world through the national interests of their own country. Hence, some may openly refuse to be supportive (and for very legitimate reasons as not having the financial strength to come on board as a partner). Simultaneously, others may profess an interest, but may discredit it or stall it.

Therefore, in pursuing our economic goals, we must take care not to be a slave to our neutral stance. We must never forget that the only reason we have decided on a neutral stance is to keep out of a fight and not necessarily to prove to the world that we treat everyone equally.

Prime Minister Gunawardena himself admitted to this fact when he stated that, “we take independent foreign policy decisions and we always stand up for our friends who backed us every time when there were attempts to subjugate our sovereignty.” If we can take independent decisions on matters concerning our sovereignty, then we can do so with matters concerning our economy as well. In fact, we must do so for economy is an essential safeguard of sovereignty.

Has the Rhinoceros Read the Handbook?

Adapting a neutrality stance gives us a cover of protection. However, the strength of this cover is questionable.

As Neville Ladduwahetty points out in his article, Reviewing Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy, the policy of ‘Neutrality’ is backed by the codified provisions in the “Hague Convention (V) Respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land”, entered into force on January 26, 1910.

Therefore, countries who declare neutrality are protected from attempts such as warring factions using their territory, installations of hardware to support war efforts, conscription and etcetera.

However, the question we must seriously ask is whose army would ensure that the warring factions would respect and adhere to this ‘handbook instruction’. If any member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving US, Japan, India and Australia or any of their supporters decided to violate this prescription, would China rush her army to our rescue or vice versa?

Most likely, the strong trade relations these countries have with China and vice versa will come into play. We may thus be in for another deja vu of the 1987 diplomatic debacle that left us stranded as our ‘best friend’ disappeared to protect her market interests.

We must also understand that when these provisions were codified, global conflicts were fairly straightforward. Enemies and allies were well identified and battles were fought according to an honour code.

Since World War II, open confrontations have often been replaced with subterfuge. Consequently, we witness various forms of terrorism and terrorist groups popping and evaporating, causing mayhem, which all subsequently benefit another entity altogether. Therefore, our neutrality cover can be challenged overtly or covertly.

At the BIDTI convocation, PM Gunawardena called upon the world not to take Sri Lanka’s foreign policy of neutrality in international affairs as a weakness. Yet, as a policy alone it is flimsy and offers the Island nation with as much protection as a see-through nighty.

The world will only take our neutrality stance seriously if and only if it benefits other nations to let Sri Lanka remain neutral and stay out of the geopolitical squabbles. This was the only reason for Allie’s and Nazi’s to respect Switzerland’s neutral stance.

This is not to be misread as condoning the act of benefiting from war and its atrocities. Sri Lanka does not need to sink so low. However, we need to understand the Swiss strategy and devise our own methods.

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