Colombo, April:28 Located in a geo-strategically important place, and for that reason, much sought after by rival foreign powers, Sri Lanka has had to maintain its sovereignty and independence through deft diplomacy. 

And the cornerstone of its diplomacy has been the Buddha’s Middle Path, which enjoins the avoidance of extremes. In practical terms the Middle Path is encapsulated in the catchword “Friends with all and enemy of none.” 

Soon after independence in 1948, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was called prior to 1972) feared India’s intervention over the issue of the citizenship of nearly a million Indian migrant labour. At that time, it was thought that Britain and the United States would be a bulwark against a resurgent post-Independence India. As a consequence, Britain was allowed to retain its World War II air and naval bases in the island. 

However, relations with the US soured when, in the early 1950s, the US did not offer a fair price for Ceylon’s rubber one of its major exports. Ceylon shed its pro-West predilections, and befriended Red China to the horror of the US. 

Ceylon entered into a Rubber-Rice barter deal with Red China which helped meet the rice shortage in Ceylon and a rubber shortage in China. The Rubber-Rice pact became the bedrock of Sino-Ceylon relations which has remained so since then.

In consonance with an Afro-Asian resurgence in the 1950s, Ceylon became non-aligned and the British were asked to vacate their naval and airbases in the island. In the 1960s and 1970s, relationships with the Soviet Bloc and China were strengthened. The Soviets helped establish industries in Ceylon to help the latter curb imports from the West. 

In the 1960s, Ceylon thought it prudent to be neutral between India and Pakistan and between India and China, when India was at war with China and Pakistan. The policy of neutrality continued when India and Pakistan were at war in 1971. 

Sri Lanka’s domestic and foreign policies changed when it adopted a Western-style economic model in 1977. Its pronounced pro-US following the reforms incurred India’s hostility. This was accentuated by Colombo’s suppression of the aspirations of the Tamil minority. 

India’s intervention led to the signing of the India-Lanka Accord in 1987. But the Accord ended up in discord which resulted in India’s alienation from both the majority Sinhala community and the minority Tamils. The crisis ended when India withdrew its peace keepers in 1990.

The killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Tamil Tiger militants in 1991, and the assassination of Sri Lankan President R.Premadasa in 1993, led to India and Sri Lanka shedding their antagonism. This eventually led to India’s helping Sri Lanka to crush the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

However, India’s commitment to securing for the Sri Lankan Tamils their legitimate political rights continued to vitiate the relationship between New Delhi and Colombo. India refused to supply arms to Sri Lanka forcing it get them from China, Pakistan, Ukraine and Israel.

But towards the end of the war against the Tamil separatists, India sided with Sri Lankan government and helped crush the Tamil Tigers. 

The West, however, continued to be hostile towards Sri Lanka on the issue of “war crimes”. The West’s hostility pushed Sri Lanka further towards China, the West’s bugbear. 

China’s entry into port and infrastructure-building in Sri Lanka after 2010 raised the hackles in New Delhi also. With India’s showing its sensitivity explicitly, Sri Lanka had to fine tune its pro-China policy. 

So far Sri Lanka has been successful in managing the Sino-Indian conflict over it with some deft diplomacy.

When the economic crisis shook Sri Lanka in 2022 and it had to default on its foreign loans, India promptly came with a US$ 4.5 billion aid package. China stayed aloof. But Sri Lanka chose not to criticise China as China had its uses as a counterpoise to India and the West.

Sri Lanka has given both India and China infrastructure projects. India’s Adani group is building a terminal in Colombo port and is to execute a renewable energy project in North Sri Lanka. 

In November 2023, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) announced a US$ 553 million investment in the Adani container terminal project in Colombo. In November 2023 the US announced US$ 19 million in additional funds to further the development of Sri Lanka. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are partnering with the Sri Lanka Ministry of Agriculture in a US$ 9.2 million project to revitalize agriculture in Sri Lanka.

In February 2023, the China Merchants Group signed an investment agreement with the Sri Lankan government, with plans to invest US$ 400 million  to build a modern logistics centre in Colombo. The new development will up CMG’s accumulated investment in Sri Lanka to reach over US$ 2 billion. 

In November 2023, China’s Sinopec was chosen to set up an oil refinery in Hambantota, where China had built a port earlier.             

Extending its cooperation with Russia, Sri Lanka is to give the management of the Mattala airport in Sri Lanka to a Russo-Indian conglomerate on a 30-year contract. The conglomerate comprises the  Shaurya Aeronautics (Pvt.) Ltd of India and the Airports of Regions Management Company of Russia. 

The Cabinet of Ministers has approved the a proposal presented by the Education Minister to enter into a number of Memorandum of Understandings and agreements between Sri Lankan universities and foreign universities or agencies for the purpose of developing higher education. 

Accordingly, an MoU between the Sabaragamuwa University and the University of Salford, United Kingdom, on disaster resilience studies and multidisciplinary research on the integrated management of natural resources was signed. A tripartite MoU between University of Jaffna, National University of Singapore and Singapore Health Services (Pvt) to establish a regional collaboration centre aiming at global health efforts was also signed.

Another MoU was signed between the University of Ruhuna and the Southern Health NHS Trust of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in relation to the Marie Project on the Mental Health Impact of Menopause on Women Globally.

Contribution to Gaza 

Despite, Sri Lanka’s dependence on the West economically, PresidentRanil Wickremesinghe has openly expressed his support for the cause of the suffering people of Gaza.

He received generous financial contributions for the‘Children of Gaza’ Fund. This is an initiative of the President toalleviate the suffering of those affected by the conflict in Gaza

The Huda Jumma Mosque in Kalmunai donated SLR 1,589,000, the All Ceylon Jamiatul Ulama-Kinniya branch donated SLR 5,300,000, the Regional Education Office in Kalmunai contributed SLR  3,128,500, and the Sports First Foundation donated SLR 300,000 to support the cause. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has already delivered US$ 1 million to the Palestinian government through an official United Nations delegation. 

Earlier in the week, President Wickremesinghe and the visiting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi witnessed the signing of five MoUs between Sri Lanka and Iran and the two leaders inaugurated the US$ 543 million Uma Oya multipurpose power and irrigation project jointly funded and executed by Sri Lanka and Iran.

Indeed, the current line in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is be “friends with all, enemy of none,” following the Buddha’s advice to follow the Middle Path, avoiding extremes. 



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