Dr David Brewster, Senior Research Fellow at the National Security College, Australian National University, says that if Sri Lanka is to have a sustainable foreign policy, it cannot be “neutral” given its geographical proximity to regional power India.

In his view, it would be prudent for Sri Lanka to factor into its economic and strategic policies, India’s sensitivities and interests while it engages with China in pursuance of its national interest.

Dr Brewster was speaking to students and staff of the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies (BSIS) here on Saturday on “Australia and Sri Lanka: Building Indo-Pacific Relations.”

Giving a current example, the Australian scholar said it was wrong on the part of Sri Lanka to have envisioned the Colombo Port City project as a financial hub to cater to the Indian market when it should have been quite obvious to it that India would never want to deal with a Chinese financial hub in a region in which it is the predominant power.

In Dr Brewster’s view, Sri Lanka’s policy of juggling China and India had led to its going in for unsustainable Chinese infrastructure projects that eventually contributed to Sri Lanka’s landing in heavy foreign debt – debt that lay at the root of the unprecedented financial crisis in 2021-22.

Brewster suggested that Sri Lanka should explore building ties with the various groupings that have appeared in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific regions. Australia, he said, has such ties with several countries in the South, South East Asia and beyond. Quad and AUKUS are among them.

The Australian scholar was not oblivious to the dilemma of small powers in the Indo-Pacific region about choosing sides in a conflict ridden-world. They are wary about the rivalries between the Big Powers playing in their midst and are afraid of becoming pawns in their game or a battleground for their fights.

But while fully acknowledging this, he maintained that no country could ignore realities and follow a perfectly “neutral” policy. The challenge for countries like Sri Lanka is pursuing a national interest in a complex rivalry-ridden regional and global arena. Brewster pointed out that countries, both big and small, are doing precisely this and advised Sri Lanka to follow the example of others.

Dr Brewster noted that Sri Lanka has advantages that it can exploit to have a role in the Indo-Pacific region. Besides its geographical importance, it has been having the vision to play a role in global affairs. It was the first to call for the recognition of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace in the 1970s.

According to Dr Brewster, the concept of an “Indian Ocean region” has yielded place to the concept of the “Indo-Pacific region” given the fact that Japan, China and Australia are looking West and India and the US are looking East and they meet in an area appropriately named the Indo-Pacific region. It was Japan which first coined the term.

A phenomenon which has appeared in recent years is the emergence of bilateral and trilateral cooperative arrangements among countries in the Indo-Pacific. According to Dr Brewster, these have come up in the absence of functioning organizations in the region barring ASEAN.  These agreements are economic and strategic. Sri Lanka too could go for such tie-ups. He specifically proposed Australia-Sri Lanka cooperation using the close relations built over the last 75 years.

He, however, cautioned that these ties could not be only economic. They have to have a security dimension because the Indo-Pacific region is a contested area among the world’s major powers.

The High Commissioner of Australia, Paul Stephens, who was the chief guest, delineated the close ties between Sri Lanka and Australia. He mentioned cooperation to root out drug and human trafficking. Australia is helping improve Sri Lankans’ capabilities in the small-scale sector and also in bringing females into the labour force to fill the yawning gap.

Stephens said that Australia is interested in seeing a stable Sri Lanka that would develop into a logistic hub and play a role in keeping the peace in the increasingly contested region.

Sumith Nakandala, Senior Director of the BCIS said that the term Indo-Pacific was coined by Rabindranath Tagore but he saw the region as a “civilizational” unit (rather than a geopolitical unit as it is now


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