By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Daily News
Colombo, June 30: In the last few days there were hectic activities on Sri Lanka’s foreign relations front. They included President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Paris and London, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s meetings with the Romanian State Minister for Foreign Affairs as well as with the envoys of two regional powers China and India. There were also simultaneous visits of warships of those two countries to the Port of Colombo.
All the above activities have proved Sri Lanka’s strict neutrality.
“We are a neutral country, but we also emphasise the fact that we cannot allow Sri Lanka to be used as a base for any threats against India,” President Wickremesinghe said, during an interview with France24, responding to a question about China’s perceived military presence in Sri Lanka.
He pointed out that the Chinese have been visiting Sri Lanka “for about 1,500 years and, so far, there has been no military base”.
“There won’t be any military agreements,” the President stressed, “We are a neutral country. “He clarified that there were no issues of military use by the Chinese of the Southern port of Hambantota, which Beijing took over on a 99-year lease as a debt swap in 2017.
He assured that even though the Hambantota Harbour has been given out to China’s Merchants, its security is controlled by the Sri Lankan Government. “The Southern Naval Command will be shifted to Hambantota, and we have got one brigade stationed in Hambantota in the nearby areas,” he added.
Political analyst Neville Ladduwahetty said Wickremesinghe’s statement on the neutral foreign policy of Sri Lanka would end negative speculations in some quarters. He clarified that since neutrality is a defined policy that has a legal basis and a history that precedes Non-Alignment, there is a need for the Neutral State to conduct its relations with other States according to recognized codified norms with reciprocity.
On the other hand, Non-Alignment was essentially a commitment to a set of principles by a group of countries that had emerged from colonial rule and wanted to protect their newly won independence and sovereignty in the context of a bipolar world.
Prime Minister Gunawardena also elaborated on the foreign policy of neutrality spelt out by President Wickremesinghe. The Premier explained this position during his recent meetings with the Romanian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and the envoys of India, China, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
He briefed the visiting Romanian Minister Traian Hristea about Sri Lanka’s position with regard to international and regional issues as well as the measures taken to solve the issues related to the current economic crisis. He stressed the need for the continuous support of the European Union.
The Romanian Minister assured that his country would support Sri Lanka’s request for the continuation of GSP Plus duty concessions for Sri Lankan exports.
The outgoing High Commissioner of the United Kingdom, Sarah Hulton met the Prime Minister on the day the UK announced the decision to include Sri Lanka as a beneficiary country under the UK GSP Scheme “Developing Countries Trading Scheme (DCTS)”. Through this scheme, duty concessions will be given for 92% of Sri Lankan exports.
Premier Gunawardena said Sri Lanka hopes that new investment projects will be initiated by the UK following the conclusion of the debt restructuring process and the unlocking of the IMF fund facility. He added that Sri Lanka encourages UK investment in sectors such as education, banking and financial services, IT/BPM, pharmaceuticals, hospitality and tourism.
Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay met the Prime Minister last week to discuss furthering bilateral cooperation. India and Sri Lanka agreed to work on a Road Map for cooperation between the two countries. Premier Gunawardena thanked India for the support to obtain a suitable IMF Program for Sri Lanka, for which financing assurances from creditors to make Sri Lanka’s debt sustainable are required as well as for the assistance during the economic crisis.
High Commissioner Baglay, referring to the increase of tourism, said India would take steps to increase flights between the two countries. He said the public sector as well as private airlines are willing to operate flights to destinations in Sri Lanka. Alliance Air wants to increase operations and extend current flights from South Indian destinations to the Jaffna to Ratmalana Airports as it has been opened for passenger flights.
The Prime Minister urged for more Indian investments in the sectors such as digitalization, alternative energy and agriculture.
Two days later Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong met the Prime Minister at Temple Trees in Colombo to discuss bilateral relations. The Prime Minister said Sri Lanka looks forward to direct investments from China as well as investments in agriculture, renewable energy, IT, education and water supply sectors to provide long-term solutions to economic issues.
The areas covered during the discussion included issues relating to new investment projects, furthering trade with China, the Colombo Port City, the Hambantota Port, poverty alleviation, education, agriculture, cultural exchanges, high-level exchanges and assistance to the underprivileged. The Prime Minister made a special request to support to the Sri Lankan rice-growing rural population to increase production by introducing high-yielding rice varieties developed in Yunnan Province in China.
Ambassador Qi Zhenhong said he was pleased to see the resilience of Sri Lanka to overcome difficulties and assured China’s continuous support to Sri Lanka’s efforts to meet the current efforts at debt restructuring and meet economic challenges. The Prime Minister thanked him for the assistance provided by China to alleviate the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister made a special mention of the Chinese stand in support of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty at the international forums including the UNHRC.
The discussion was initiated with a reference to the historical bilateral relations between the two countries. Stressing the importance of further strengthening the longstanding cultural ties, the Chinese Ambassador said the Chinese Buddhist Associations will continue to help temples and set up internationally important Theravada Buddhist Centre in Sri Lanka. The Prime Minster agreed to set up a Coordinating Committee to expeditiously implement these proposals.
On Wednesday (June 28) New Zealand High Commissioner Michael Appleton called on Premier Gunawardena to discuss bilateral relations, economic challenges, debt restructuring, trade and investment, electoral reforms and regional issues. The Prime Minister called for an increase in bilateral economic cooperation between New Zealand and Sri Lanka and also enhanced support under the Colombo Plan.
The New Zealand envoy said that his country is also planning to provide expertise for Sri Lanka’s public sector reforms program. A team headed by the former Public Service Commissioner of New Zealand would come to Sri Lanka shortly to assist with this process.
The Prime Minister also asked the High Commissioner to share New Zealand’s experience in solving the land-holding issue of indigenous people as Sri Lanka plans to amend the outdated Lands Ordinance.
During the visit of Foreign Minister Ali Sabry to Beijing, China announced additional financial support to the Colombo Port City project. The Port City is expected to attract investments from the US, Europe, India, Saudi Arabia and many others in addition to the growing regional power of China.
These can be ensured by Sri Lanka’s strict adherence to the neutral foreign policy. Many experts pointed out that it is difficult to expect all States to respect Lanka’s neutrality as there will be attempts to influence Sri Lanka because of its unique strategic location as an important link in the international shipping route. Hence, it is essential to keep those pressures at bay by not taking sides in global or regional power games.