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Russian FM Lavrov’s visit and the paradigm shift in SL foreign relations

(courtesy of The Island)

Amidst the flurry of diplomatic activity that characterized the past week, the visit of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov from 13th-14th January had significance for its resonance both locally and regionally. From Colombo Minister Lavrov went on to New Delhi where he was the star attraction, along with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, among speakers at the Raisina Dialogue – an annual strategic affairs conference hosted by the Indian government and the Observer Research Foundation.

The convergence of visits to Sri Lanka by diplomats from Russia, China and the US may not be entirely coincidental, against the backdrop of shifting power relations. While a rising China may be at the root of concerns that bring India closer to the US, these worries are not shared by Russia, which has a cooperative relationship with China. Russia also enjoys longstanding strategic ties with India.

So it was that Lavrov in Delhi was able to launch a frontal assault on US maneuvering in the Indian Ocean region, criticizing the US’s new concept of ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ as one that is designed to contain China. Addressing a high-powered gathering – that included the Commander of the US-Indo Pacific Command and the Joint Chief of Staff of the Japan Self-Defence Forces – Lavrov asked “Why do you need to call Asia-Pacific as Indo-Pacific? The answer is evident – to exclude China. Terminology should be unifying, not divisive.” The Indo-Pacific concept being pushed by the United States, Japan and others was to reconfigure the existing structure, Lavrov is reported to have said.

It required a seasoned diplomat of Lavrov’s international stature to make such a forthright critique of US policy at a major regional forum on geopolitics. The Raisina Dialogue itself comes across as a venue for the shoring up of forces feeling threatened by China. At last year’s conference, the concerns expressed by India’s Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba about China’s expanding naval presence were echoed by speakers from the US, France, Japan and Australia.

Lavrov’s remarks in Delhi complemented views he expressed earlier in Colombo. “Unfortunately, we have recently been witnessing persistent attempts of extra-regional powers to reshape the established order to serve their narrow interests,” he said, in an email interview with the state-run Daily News. “The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” promoted by the United States has not a unifying but a destructive potential. Its true objective is to divide the regional states into “interest groups,” weakening the newly-established regional system of inter-state relations to assert dominance.”

Calling for the establishment of a ‘common area of cooperation’ Lavrov said the regional architecture should be built on principles of indivisible security, rule of international law, non interference in internal affairs, peaceful settlement of disputes and non use of force or the threat of force.

Lavrov has outlined a system far more acceptable to small states such as Sri Lanka than that sought to be imposed by the US, motivated by its hegemonic ambitions. He describes a world order that does not pressure the less powerful to ‘take sides.’

Economic development

It is evident that the Russian minister’s interactions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena have been warm, and their discussions fruitful. It is worth noting that the President, in his meetings with all the visiting foreign dignitaries laid emphasis on economic development, in line with his election manifesto. “The economic independence will ensure political independence,” he told China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Minister Wang agreed to make arrangements for meetings with necessary parties to help Sri Lanka in the areas of technology, tourism and infrastructure, when the President visits China next month.

In his interactions with the diplomats Foreign Minister Gunewardena too focused largely on trade, investment, tourism, education (including technical education) and agriculture, as well as security and defence. With Russia, Sri Lanka hopes to expand bilateral trade to meet the target volume of $US 700 million that was set in 2017 during President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to Moscow. At the joint press briefing on Tuesday (14) Gunewardena described defence cooperation between the two countries as ‘active and robust.’ Responding to a journalist’s question on security and anti-terror cooperation Lavrov said “We have supplied, and continue to supply arms and equipment the Sri Lanka Army needs to effectively fight its enemies and to improve its defence capability.”

Lavrov remarked on Sri Lankan and Russian delegations ‘successfully coordinating’ their positions in international bodies such as the UNHRC, UNESCO and OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). He mentioned BRICS (group of emerging economic powers Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), over which Russia holds the presidency this year, and suggested greater participation in SCO by Sri Lanka – currently a dialogue partner. “We will strengthen our cooperation through the Non Aligned Movement, where Russia is an observer and Sri Lanka is one of the founding fathers” he said.

More rational

The Russian foreign minister’s remarks considered along with Minister Gunewardena’s statement reflect an alignment of Sri Lanka with interests of the global South. This is more rational and more likely to be productive than the previous government’s pro-US approach, with its somewhat craven Western bias.

The need for market access for Sri Lankan products, tourism and foreign investment were again emphasised during Gunewardena’s meeting with US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells. Reports indicated the issues brought up by the American diplomat related to a familiar list that included US’s ‘Indo-Pacific strategy,’ maritime and military to military ties, human rights, transitional justice etc.

The more formidable member in the US delegation however, was probably Lisa Curtis – though the alphabet soup of their job titles gives no clue as to which of the two is more senior. Curtis who is Deputy Assistant to the President and a Senior Director at the National Security Council, handed over a letter from President Trump to President Gotabaya. She is a former CIA analyst who worked as a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation – a right-wing think tank, and served as a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The contents of the letter remain something of a mystery.

Policy shift

Last week’s multiple diplomatic engagements highlighted several shifts in the Rajapaksa government’s approach to foreign relations, compared to that of the previous regime. Under President Gotabaya the Sri Lankan side has kept the discussion on its own chosen turf, stating Sri Lanka’s priorities, while also respectfully listening to what the visitors had to say. This skilful diplomacy is in contrast to yahapalana’s approach of simply capitulating to Western interests in the hope of attracting Western investment and economic support. In hindsight it may be seen this policy of appeasement achieved little more than photo-opportunities in the world’s capitals with smiles and handshakes with Western leaders.

Another notable difference in the present administration’s diplomatic thrust is the coordination between the president and the foreign minister in the articulation of priorities. Clearly seen in the recent interactions with diplomats, this consonance of views is in stark contrast to the disconnect that prevailed between President Sirisena and the foreign ministers of his cabinet, who made contradictory statements on weighty issues. President Gotabaya and Foreign Minister Gunewardena also differ from their predecessors in the way they expressed sincere gratitude to those who supported Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in multilateral fora. Taken in their entirety the string of diplomatic visits and the government’s handling of them point to a welcome paradigm shift in Sri Lanka’s approach to its relations with the rest of the world.

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

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