Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is an International Security and Geopolitics Analyst and Strategic Advisor from Sri Lanka. He was Founding Director-General of the Institute of National Security Studies and Executive Director at Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies.
He is the author of ‘Sri Lanka at Crossroads’, ‘Towards A Better World Order’ (2015). He is a keen commentator on Geopolitics, and ‘Conundrum of an Island’. He has also served as Visiting Professor at Geopolitics and Global Leadership and Colombo University.
He is an Alumnus of the US State Department IVLP, National Defense University (NESA, NDU), APCSS (Hawaii) and Young Global Leader World Economic Forum (Geneva). In 2021 Asanga was appointed to the Global Advisory Council at Apolitical Academy Global along with former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Dr. Pramod Jaiswal, Strategic Affairs Editor at Khabarhub, spoke to Asanga Abeya-goona-Sekera on different aspects of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy.
First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your new book “Conundrum of an Island Sri Lanka’s Geopolitical Challenges”. How would you like to locate your book in the entire Sri-Lankan foreign policy approach and her challenges to deal with the outer world?
My book “Conundrum of an Island” published this year highlights Sri Lanka’s foreign policy conundrum where Sri Lanka basically has drifted towards China and has formulated a bandwagoning foreign policy towards China.
The balance of the foreign policy is the missing ingredient here. From the 1960s, Sri Lanka had a non-aligned foreign policy, a balanced policy, but unfortunately due to the Chinese economic assistance and the infrastructure diplomacy carried out in the island, the present regime has been opening up many doors to China and the Chinese have found strategic in-roads in Sri Lanka.
I have called it a ‘strategic trap’ in my book. So, what do you have in Sri Lanka with its geostrategic position engaging with China’s BRI as well as the Indo Pacific at the same time. So, I capture all these areas in my book bringing in a security perspective and foreign policy perspective.
Sri-Lanka is at the crossroad for global and regional power, the two broad trends, one, Chinese growing influences through BRI and mainly, Indian and the US increasing cooperation though Indo-Pacific approaches, how have you analyzed Sri-Lankan position in two broad trends? What should be Sri Lankan approaches to deal with these trends?
During the cold war, Sri Lanka managed to have a non-aligned policy, starting from Sirimavo Bandaranaike, one of its founding members of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM).
Sri Lanka was one of the founding members of the NAM with Prime Minister Nehru. So you could say that back in the 60’s Sri Lanka did follow non-aligned foreign policy, not getting into NATO or Warsaw pact and also not inviting any big power rivalry into the island or towards the region.
So, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy posture back in the ’60s was to work towards international norms such as international law.
Diplomats such as Shirley Amerasinghe played an enormous role in the law of the sea (UNCLOS) as well as in creating the Indian Ocean zone for peace.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Sri Lanka was projected as one of the balanced as well as a country that follows norms and values. But unfortunately, if you observe the Rajapaksa regime 1.0 which is the Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa which is 2.0, you can see a gradual drift towards China starting from Hambantota.
Many media outlets came up saying that it was a debt trap at the beginning. Even Sri Lankan scholars such as Ganeshan Vignaraja, who writes in Chatham House cautioned that we could get into a ‘debt trap’ if we go on like this.
But looking at the data points, the interviews that I have collected for my book as well as my analysis is that Sri Lanka is in a ‘debt trap’.
It’s because of the strategic assets that China has taken in Sri Lanka. One of the reasons that China was interested in the port city in Colombo or the southern Harbor (the Hambantota) was because China was interested in Sri Lanka’s geography not in the longer term.
They wanted some sort of footprint in the Indian Ocean and they were looking at Sri Lanka as one of the most strategic areas.
Apart from the Chinese establishment in Djibouti, Gwadar and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Sri Lanka being closed to the sea lanes of communications is a perfect strategic place.
So, Hambantota was taken for 99 years which is a serious loss for the country. Such a strategic port has been taken over due to the reason that we could not pay China.
So, debt was turned into equity. It was a debt-equity swap and so the Sri Lankan government had difficulty in paying. The previous government handed over the port for 99 years, but the same thing was done by the current government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The port city was again given a special economic zone and handed to China with the extra jurisdiction of powers. When you compare such zones with the other zones, like what China has built in Djibouti, such as the Touchroad as well as many other special economic zones.
It is an initial step for China to engage economically, to bring in Chinese goods to the country and as well as to have its strategic relationship strengthen. The hybrid nature of China and the duality is the question right around the world.
So, you cannot ignore that factor in Sri Lanka. So, this is the reason that I call it more of a bandwagoning foreign policy practiced by the government although rhetorically they say it is balanced.
The new Integrated Country Strategy report (ICS report) was produced by a Sri Lankan high commissioner in New Delhi for India, the new high commissioner.
I congratulate the report but when you compare what is written on the report to the actual practice, you don’t see the actual practice of what’s written.
The report mentions balanced foreign policy, rules-based order, following the norms, and all that but I see a China tilt.
One of the reasons I was saying this from the last year was because I see a pattern of almost all the project going towards China while the Western projects such as the MCC of the US has been rejected and the Japanese LRT, the east container terminal in Colombo.
So, you see all of them have been rejected while the Chinese projects have been accepted. Now, this was again clearly identified by the Foreign Minister Dr. S Jaishankar when he was in Colombo.
He directly mentioned that a Chinese hand or an external hand is pushing these projects away. Obviously, the US MCC was a huge loss a
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