Ordinarily, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa’s statement to the Filipino press that Sri Lanka wishes to join the Association of South East Asian Nations should not have upset anybody – although there may have been some frowns and raising of eyebrows in New Delhi.
by Mervyn De Silva
Following article written by late-Mervyn De Silva was first published in 1981 in India Today, an Indian publication. We are republishing the same more than three decades later as the points raised by the author are useful to understand the current geopolitical situation. – Edts
Ordinarily, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa’s statement to the Filipino press that Sri Lanka wishes to join the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) should not have upset anybody – although there may have been some frowns and raising of eyebrows in New Delhi. Sri Lanka suffers from a basic disqualification. It is not in South-east Asia and cannot possibly be accommodated within the geographic contours of Asean unless its charter is altered.
But a few days before Premadasa, who last fortnight was on a tour of Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, addressed the press in Manila, there were agency reports of Asean’s intention to expand its membership to include Brunei, when it becomes independent in 1983, and perhaps Papua New Guinea and Burma, which quit the Havana summit. It was also reported that Asean may decide to have two categories of participants, full members and observers.
While all this gave the Manila announcement a greater credence it was noted that the Sri Lankan premier had merely expressed a wish and said nothing about a formal application. In fact, no such application has been made.
Yet, Sri Lanka’s interest in Asean, evident as early as 1967, has grown rapidly in the past few years. President J.R. Jayawardene has spoken admiringly of the organisation on many occasions. He has visited Singapore and now enjoys a warm personal relationship with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has visited Sri Lanka twice in three years. Indonesia’s President Suharto was perhaps the most important visitor to Sri Lanka recently.
Agreed Meeting: Nevertheless, the Manila report caused confusion and no little consternation in Colombo’s increasingly lively diplomatic community, which is finding the island a convenient and comfortable listening post in the now troubled Indian Ocean area. The prime minister’s statement came less than a week after Colombo had hosted the first meeting of foreign secretaries from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
The idea of a ‘South Asian Forum’, a Bangladesh initiative, was backed to the hilt by Sri Lanka. In fact, Jayawardene was one of the first leaders in the region to whom Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman communicated his plans for convening a meeting of this nature. Welcoming the move, Jayawardene, who has advocated “regional economic cooperation” throughout his long political career, promptly offered Colombo as a venue. Just before the Delhi meeting of nonaligned foreign ministers, the senior officials of these seven countries agreed to meet in Colombo.
Supported by Bangladesh and some others, Sri Lanka was extremely keen to hold a foreign ministers’ meeting later this year to prepare the ground for a South Asian Summit in Dacca in 1982. This time-table was wrecked when India and Pakistan, in a rare identity of views, argued strongly against “forcing the pace of progress” and against any attempt at establishing an ‘institutional framework’.
Bangladesh had circulated a working paper which had not only identified 11 areas of cooperation but proposed a council of foreign ministers, an annual conference of heads of state, and a full-fledged secretariat.
While India’s R.D. Sathe argued that the exercise would be useful only if it is ‘in the nature of a positive sum game’, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Riaz Piracha, reluctant to obscure the issue with the mysteries of game theory, hammered home the same point with the heavy hand of commonplace metaphor. Summits, he said, must be scaled after going through the valleys. There should not be too much sail on a very small hull, and it was better to build the structure of cooperation brick by brick.
The brick-laying business was so brisk that the exercise was over in three days instead of the scheduled four. “Foreign secretaries” are neither politicians who can talk freely and at length nor experts who can discuss a technical problem in depth or great detail” was the matter-of-fact comment of a western diplomat who like some of his colleagues did follow the meeting quite keenly at the start in the vague expectation that it might be “another Asean” in the making.
Study Groups: India reduced the proposed 11 areas of cooperation to four. These were culture, science and technology, infrastructure and cooperation on negotiations with developed countries in international forums. With the customary give and take, the four finally became five subjects with a back-up decision to appoint study groups of experts drawn from the region.
Five countries were selected to act as coordinator in each field. India would be responsible for meteorology, Bangladesh for agriculture, Sri Lanka for rural development, Pakistan for telecommunications and Nepal for health and population activities. Within six months the foreign secretaries will meet again in Kathmandu. They will then decide whether a foreign ministers’ get together is necessary, and if so, when.
In spite of the ritual back-slapping and self-congratulatory noises on the last day, this decision left Bangladesh a visibly disappointed sponsor. President Ziaur Rahman probably feeling cut out of the action now going on, wants to project an image of himself abroad by carving out for his country a regional role. This is the most widely shared view of analysts here. Geopolitics, India s traditional pre-eminence in the nonaligned movement and Mrs Gandhi’s own personality are sufficient to sustain Indian influence.
However unpopular at home and controversial among his neighbours President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan is in the thick of the regional conflict and the big power struggle. He is also the chairman of the Islamic Conference. For different reasons, the same analysts argue, India and Pakistan were lukewarm about the Bangladesh initiative.
Hesitant at first, India agreed to participate on the strict understanding that “bilateral and contentious issues” would be excluded from the talks. India is happy to deal with each country separately and probably suspects any move which smacks of a ganging-up by the rest. Pakistan’s hardcore foreign policy interests do not really lie in a South Asian forum. Those interests were being reshaped and consolidated ‘ in Washington as the foreign secretaries were meeting in Colombo and plainly lie in the oil-rich Gulf, Washington, the Islamic world and probably Beijing.
This leaves Sri Lanka paddling its little canoe in what is threatening to become the stormiest of oceans. Was it disappointment too which drove it towards Asean? While this is one explanation, the most popular view is that the prime minister’s statement was a trial balloon. Premadasa rarely makes foreign policy pronouncements and before his departure his officials even dissuaded journalists from labelling his trip “an Asean tour”. But the director general of foreign affairs was included in the entourage.
It is therefore possible that this was really Jayawardene’s move. He may be anxious to study reactions from all sides, notably India and the Soviet bloc, before making any irrevocable commitment.
Ideological Link: If its geographical location had not constituted a formal disability, Sri Lanka should have joined Asean soon after the present United National Party (UNP) Government assumed office. Ideologically, the UNP is anti-communist, and its foreign policy stance has always been pro-West.
The impulses of political outlook were strongly fortified by the imperatives of the new economic strategy adopted by this government which made a radical break with the island’s “social welfarist”, inward-looking, state-supervised economic past.
The open door to foreign capital, the dismantling of exchange and import controls, a market economy, a revitalised private sector and a free trade zone were all described somewhat extravagantly as a drive to become a second Singapore.
Trade with Singapore incidentally has increased ten-fold in two years, while most of the firms investing in Sri Lanka or doing business here are Singapore or Hong Kong based. Even state corporations and private companies are now raising commercial loans in these two places.
Despite the thrust of this new economic strategy, there were certain constraints on the island’s foreign policy-makers. The first was that Jayawardene inherited the chairmanship of the nonaligned movement from former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and had to pursue a policy closer to the “consensus” of the whole group.
This is no longer an inhibition. The second is Sri Lanka’s own firmly settled view that Indian friendship was central to a successful foreign policy by its small island neighbour. Jayawardene’s first foreign trip – part official and part pilgrimage – to India was symbolic.
The flexibility of a non-alignment which accommodates so many national variants allowed in practice a gradual reconciliation of these divergent interests. Sri Lankan academics identify the post-Havana period as ‘the Aseanisation’ of the island’s foreign policy. At the Delhi foreign ministers’ meeting Sri Lanka’s positions on such issues as Afghanistan and Kampuchea was remarkably close to the Asean stand.
Support: Though it is the sponsor of the Indian Ocean peace zone area and chairman of the UN ad hoc committee, Sri Lanka even supported the “moderates” in urging the deletion of “Diego Garcia” from the draft declaration circulated by India by an interesting coincidence. Lee Kuan Yew was on a three-day visit to Sri Lanka when the curtain went up in Delhi.
Recently Sri Lanka withdrew its candidate, Ambassador Christopher Pinto, for the post of chairman of the Law of the Sea Conference to pave the way for Singapore’s Ambassador Tommy Koh. Pinto had been the able aide of the first conference chairman, the distinguished Shirley Amerasinghe, Sri Lanka’s UN representative.
The Reagan Administration which has made an about-turn on the Law of the Sea Treaty which was awaiting signature in September will doubtless appreciate the Sri Lankan gesture. The US which is also opposed to the idea of holding a Colombo conference this year on the Indian Ocean will be happy to note that Sri Lanka is not lobbying too hard for it. The Opposition, predictably, sees these developments and the recent reversal of policy on Trincomalee as ominous portents.
In 1971, the year of the youth insurrection in Sri Lanka and the Bangladesh war, Trincomalee, a harbour, celebrated in the annals of naval history, was closed to all war-ships. Earlier this year two frigates were allowed to enter its waters, ships from an unimpeachably nonaligned nation, Bangladesh. But last month the Australians moved in.
Although visits by the US navy (an aircraft carrier, destroyers, amphibious vessels) have markedly increased, such visits have so far been confined to Colombo. But it seems a matter of time before they are permitted to enter Trincomalee.
The Government owned Daily News recently reported that the “coastal corporation of the US” will help the Sri Lanka Petroleum Corporation to repair 97 storage tanks built by the British admiralty before the war.
Divided Opposition: Rifts in the Opposition were so obvious on May Day that Jayawardene kept his own audience hugely amused as he poked fun at his opponents. The opposition parties are grievously divided on domestic issues, on ideology, on tactics and even on questions of leadership. But they were firmly united in attacking the Government on the new directions in foreign policy.
Socialist Party leader and former minister Dr Colvin R. De Silva accused the UNP of preparing a “total sell-out of Trincomalee to the Americans”. He was addressing a huge rally called by a five-party opposition bloc which includes the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and Mrs Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Rohana Wijeweera, leader of the People’s Liberation Front (PLF) which launched the 1971 insurrection, accused the UNP of changing Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to suit “the Indian Ocean strategy” of the US. Peter Keunamen of the Communist Party argued that it did not really matter whether Sri Lanka joined Asean or not because the UNP was already “toeing the Singapore line”
Meanwhile in Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam has told a group of seven Sri Lankan editors, that Sri Lanka cannot be a full member on account of its location in South Asia. If Sri Lanka was granted membership, other countries like Pakistan may want to join, he has said.
Sri Lanka, Rajaratnam added, could have “observer” or “dialogue status”. When acting foreign minister Tyronne Fernando told Parliament on May 5 that Sri Lanka’s membership in Asean would not affect its non-alignment, opposition leader A. Amirthalingam (TULF) asked for an early debate on this question.