By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Daily News
Colombo, September 22: “There are no spy ships in Sri Lanka. I don’t know if anyone can establish a spy ship,” Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in New York on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly.
The Lankan President added that research vessels have been visiting for the past 10 years under an agreement between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Sri Lanka’s national aquatic research agency.
“Sri Lanka is maintaining a foreign policy of strict neutrality and whenever the policy is questioned by interested parties, Colombo assures that no Sri Lankan soil will be allowed to be used for hostile acts on another country.”
“Despite these clarifications and elaborations at every international forum, some regional or global powers as well as groups with vested interests often question Sri Lanka’s neutrality and speculate that the foreign policy tilts towards one way or the other.”
President Ranil Wickremesinghe used the top global leaders’ discussion organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly to clarify the policy of neutrality.
Pointing out that the Sino-US rivalry, which originated in the Western Pacific has now spread to both the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, the President asked, “Why we are getting pulled into it? It’s difficult for us to understand.”
He said that he had seen many geopolitical blocs shifting in his decades-long political career and commented, “The next round of rivalry is going on. And that’s taking place in Asia. It’s the question of China versus the US, on how they are going to divide their region of influence in Asia.”
President Wickremesinghe also accused the West of having a scant understanding of how the Indian Ocean region operates. He criticised the AUKUS security pact between Australia, Britain and the US he labelled it as a “mistake,” thus indicating Colombo is not ready to follow pro-West policies blindly.
“Aukus is a military alliance moved against one country – China,” he said.
He rejected any concerns over China’s perceived influence on Sri Lanka and dismissed the accusation that Colombo was letting China operate a military base in Sri Lanka. He pointed out that the Hambantota was a commercial port run by Chinese state-owned China Merchants Group, and that the security of the port lay with the Sri Lanka Navy. He also countered recent claims that Beijing is sending ships to Sri Lanka to spy on India.
Last year, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena too stressed in his first interview with a foreign news service that Sri Lanka’s biggest asset is its strategic location, and the prime interest of the government is to keep the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace for free commercial navigation.
“Sri Lanka has no interest whatsoever to get involved in regional or international power games. Sri Lanka treats every nation as a friend, while zealously guarding the sovereignty and independence of the country,” Gunawardena replied when Tomomi Asano of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun asked him about the controversy over visiting Chinese research ships.
Since ancient times the ports in Sri Lanka were popular with commercial vessels of the traders and the country continued to provide facilities to vessels from all corners of the world. Even today, vessels of many countries including India, the United States, China, Britain and Australia call on Sri Lankan ports and occasionally there are Naval crafts calling on for replenishments, joint military exercises or friendly calls. During all these Sri Lanka strictly maintains the condition that such visits are not directed against the interests of a third country as Sri Lanka strictly adheres to its policy of neutrality.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has declared that the territory of a neutral State is inviolable. It is prohibited to commit any act of hostility whatsoever on such territory. Neutrality describes the formal position taken by a State which is not participating in an armed conflict, or which does not want to become involved. This status entails specific rights and duties. On the one hand, the neutral State has the right to stand apart from and not be adversely affected by the conflict. On the other hand, it has a duty of non-participation and impartiality.
Neutral space comprises the national territory of the neutral State, its territorial waters and its national air space. Neutral persons are nationals of neutral States. However, they lose their neutral status if they commit hostile acts against another state.
Keeping strictly to the policy of neutrality, Sri Lanka is reluctant to take sides in regional power rivalry.
President Wickremesinghe clarified that the island nations in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific are reluctant to become embroiled in the rivalry between major world powers. These nations are focused on their own priorities, including social, economic, and ecological development and seek to maintain their sovereignty and independence.
The President asserted that Sri Lanka’s Government does not align itself with either India or China and firmly stands for Sri Lanka’s interests above all else. This commitment to sovereignty extends to other island nations in the region.
Island nations in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific have distinct priorities, unrelated to the QUAD (comprising the US, India, Japan, and Australia) or China’s objectives, he said. He added that Sri Lanka is open to collaboration with any partners willing to respect its autonomy.
The countries faced with debt crisis and economic need support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies to serve another country’s agenda.
Further elaborating on the foreign policy of Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Gunawardena stated, “We must also keep in mind, the challenges that have arisen nationally and internationally against the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of this country. We are determined to make Sri Lanka a prosperous country, maintaining friendly relations with the nations of the world.” He also emphasized, “Countries must respect each other’s sovereignty.”
President Wickremesinghe, in his speech in New York, acknowledged the need for security dialogues.
“The island nations find security dialogues acceptable but emphasise non-interference in their internal affairs.” He pointed out that many island nations, including Sri Lanka, have not engaged in high-level discussions regarding the Indo-Pacific.
The power balance in the Indian Ocean is evolving, influenced by ASEAN, the Russian-Ukraine war, and the emergence of BRICS+.
This changing landscape favours the independence of island nations and calls for strengthened cooperation between IORA, ASEAN, and BRICS+.
He also emphasized the need for IORA to accommodate the Indo-Pacific concept, recognising the interconnectedness of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and enabling cooperation among small island states in both regions.
The island nations of the Indian Ocean and South Pacific are resolute in their pursuit of independence, non-interference and the protection of their unique priorities amidst the evolving dynamics of great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region, the President stated.