In para. 12 of his Interim Budget, presented to Parliament on Tuesday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Finance Minister, has spoken about charting out a ‘National Security-2030’ Policy, to ‘face emerging realities’. The timing could not have been better, in the context of the ‘Yuan Wang-5’ controversy involving China on one side and the Indian neighbour, the US super-power, on the other, with much of the West giving the latter, their silent support.

“As a geo-politically important country, Sri Lanka should work with everyone and design our defence policies accordingly, to face the emerging realities. Hence, I propose to have a review on our defence strategy called ‘National Security 2030’ to achieve these objectives and to develop capabilities and knowledge of our security forces that would be required in the modern and evolving world,” the Interim Budget stated.

Comprehensive, but…

Yes, this is a comprehensive statement, but again, at best, it could be described as a medium-term approach. It is as comprehensive as the Budget statement itself. What is required is an even more comprehensive, rather, complete statement of the Government’s intent in revisiting and reviewing the existing security, hence, the defence policy, of the Sri Lankan State.

In effect, a National Security 2030 plan could only be a short-term measure, given the gestation period involved in policymaking first, and its implementation in a nuanced way, using all tools of diplomacy. That raises the question, whether National Security-2030 should lead to a long-term policy or should flow from the other.

Having to decide on this crucial question, the Government would also have to decide what kind of review that it intends having? Whether it would be driven exclusively by the existing Defence Establishment, with inputs from the past, if and where needed, or if it should involve allied services of the Government, like the Finance and Home Ministries, apart from the Industry Ministry, representing critical public sector undertakings of immediate relevance to the Defence Ministry, particularly in terms of steady supplies and procurements.

Efficiently and Effectively

These are all about the preparatory work. There are larger issues that whoever works on Security 2030, should have a thorough briefing about. One, whether the Government is looking at internal and external security together or separately. Depending on this decision, it would have to decide whether to have a single entity working on the required policy papers, or two separate ones, with a third mechanism that should marry these both, efficiently and effectively.

Whatever be the government’s approach the two aspects of national security, namely, internal and external, cannot be held in silos. The past experience has shown, that the two have met and coalesced and colluded with each other, when it came to the ‘other party / parties.’ That is, their coalescing / collusions had created national security concerns for the nation.

Today, on the much-appreciated Aragalaya protest, the Government is convinced – and for good reasons – what originally was a peaceful mass movement was hijacked by those with political agendas. No one has read an international angle to it. However, the Government can be expected to study the same for lessons for the future, in terms of decision-making, and organisation.

The truth is also that the physical apparatus of national security/defence in the country have been structured in a way that the defence forces are called upon, to help or take over civilian duties in times of national crises. Thus, during the tsunami calamity in end-2004 and the Covid crisis in more recent times, the Government handed over much of the responsibilities to the Armed Forces.

In times of natural disasters, or other national crises, the Government, almost automatically has brought the Police force under the command and control of the Army – whether under notification or not. So, it makes sense for a National Security Policy to address the internal and external elements together, though there is more to it than mere mobilisation.

‘Yang Wang 5’ and after

It is needless to say that any review of the security policy would take into account the current ‘geo-political’ situation in which the nation finds itself, though it does not begin there. That is because it is a classic situation, which the leadership should have considered the involvement of China, first in the invitation to construct the Hambantota Port, overlooking the larger Indian Ocean on a debt-driven concession formula, and then handing over the same on a 99-year-lease in lieu of the debt, or supposedly so.

The nation should be able to view the Hambantota Port deals especially in their entirety, without reference to the embarrassment, if any, it could cause the government leaderships of those times, which are also very much there in place, just now. This does not mean that the study should either defend or condemn the contracts without any reference to the relevance of national security, now and later.

That should include the geo-political pressures of the kind that are unavoidable under the circumstances, independent of the nation’s ‘sovereignty and independence’, which Beijing vows to defend for Sri Lanka, in cooperation with the latter. In this context, the Government would have to decide whether to continue holding the nation’s security policy hostage to an independent foreign policy, where other issues like ‘Human Rights’ and other fora, such as the UNHRC/UN matter, and if so, how and ‘how not’.

Locating in CSC

Then, there is the question of Sri Lanka now being the permanent secretariat of the ‘Colombo Security Conclave’ (CSC), the evolving Indian Ocean Region (IOR) security arrangement, with India, the Maldives and Mauritius as members, and Bangladesh and Seychelles as observers, with expectations of their becoming full-fledged members. Any study of the national security policy now, should thus relate to Colombo’s role and perception of CSC, as it evolves possibly into a traditional security cooperation pact covering the neighbourhood, IOR.

Yes, that would raise a further question that is lingering in many, in the Sri Lankan strategic community. Where does the CSC stand vis-a-vis the US-led Quad alliance and Indo-Pacific as concepts and institutions, when some of them have signed in, into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), though not any Beijing-led security arrangement?

The larger Indian neighbour is a formal member of both, the Quad and the Indo-Pacific, and the US has since clarified that even the Quad is not a military organisation. Does Sri Lanka buy it? Do other CSC members concede it? And is there national consensus in the matter in each of these countries, unlike in India?

(The writer is a political analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])

BY N. Sathiya Moorthy