Synchronising a new Foreign Policy

By Dr Srimal Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 18 2021
Columns Synchronising a new Foreign Policy

By Dr Srimal Fernando

It may be said that a country’s identity is defined by its foreign policy. As early as the post-independence periods, the nature of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy strategy has gone through various changes that have defined the Nation’s identity. In the current dynamics of international relations, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has mainly been characterised by the synchronisation of its policies with the multipolar system and balancing the Foreign policy manifestation with outreach to different regions and regional groupings. Given the increased convergence of the strategic interests of Sri Lanka and its allies, Sri Lanka has also opted to adopt a non-aligned strategy to attract more regional investment inflows and reap from its engagement with multiple players.

 Being a small island state, having well-crafted bilateral or regional agreements with their bigger counterparts can contribute towards these nations achieving higher GDP growth rates and assistance to uplift social welfare. The ever-changing strategic dynamics of the Indian Ocean region necessitate the need for a new line of thinking on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy manifestation that seeks to find new instruments and avenues to influence these diverse countries in other regional groupings that Sri Lanka engages with. 

Diplomacy focus on neighbours

For Sri Lanka to reap the economic benefits of its diplomacy, priority should be given to promoting relations and improving cooperation with neighbouring nations. 

Sri Lanka should strive to continue to engage constructively with its neighbours, particularly India. In recent years India and Sri Lanka have shared robust and consistent economic interdependence from the sovereignty bound and trust-building relations to the present-day pragmatic Neighbourhood First Policy.

 Sri Lanka’s economic diplomacy with India has further been boosted with the regional trade agreements namely the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and bilateral agreements such as the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) which gives Sri Lanka access to India’s 1.3 billion consumer market. Equally, the strategic relations between Sri Lanka and other neighbouring nations such as Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan have been steadily getting stronger. 

These nations have overtime proven to be important bilateral partners for Sri Lanka owing to the vast economic opportunities that they present to Sri Lanka. Therefore, Colombo must pursue policy interventions that maximise the effectiveness of the neighbourly as this will help the nation to overcome the economic disadvantages of being a small island nation. 

Littoral Islands in the IOR 

FollIowing the polarisation of the international system, an initiative for increased engagements with Littoral Island states of the Indian Ocean and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) could bring significant opportunities to Sri Lanka in terms of improved economic and strategic cooperation.

The reasons for engagement with these small islands are manifold, nations such as Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, and the Maldives due to their .geographical setting serve as a crucial maritime gateway connecting the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka with East Africa. Also, platforms such as the IORA, whereby Sri Lanka has recently been endorsed as the vice-chair, has the potential to accelerate ocean-driven economic growth for Sri Lanka. 

Newfound Optimism in the Sri Lanka-ASEAN Interdependence

For Sri Lanka, its engagement with Association of Southeast Asian Nations  (ASEAN ) across many fronts are established on common strategic interests. Sri Lanka continues to maintain strong bilateral and economic ties with ASEAN member states with trade between Sri Lanka and ASEAN having grown by 108% over a ten year period   from 2009 to 2019 according to data from the international monetary fund (IMF). More recent studies indicate that there are significant trade gains in the Pacific region. It is in the best interest of Sri Lanka to strengthen its partnership with ASEAN and protect the common interests of the island nation with its eastern neighbour. 

By focusing its diplomacy on ASEAN, Sri Lanka stands to reap from the massive opportunities in terms of an increased export base for Sri Lankan products in the vast ASEN markets. Moreover, ASEAN has entered into several trade agreements with regional powerhouses such as Australia, New Zealand, China, Korea, Japan, and India. With an effective foreign policy strategy towards ASEAN, Sri Lanka stands to benefit from these agreements through the reduction of trade barriers to the markets of these economies.

Engagements with Europe and the US

Despite the normative bias associated with non-alignment, it is arguably the ideal foreign policy strategy that can help Sri Lanka to survive the pressure exerting capabilities of the powerful European nations and the US. So far Sri Lanka’s foreign policy strategy with the western world has managed to transform Sri Lanka’s economic growth and development. That nation has also had greatly benefited through its duty-free access to the EU market privileges under the provisions of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). Sri Lanka-western relations are expected to get stronger with time. 

It is estimated that Sri Lanka exports over US$ 5 billion worth of textiles and garments to the US and EU annually. This new Sri Lankan diplomacy has been shaped by political elites from Sri Lanka and the western world, the paradigm shift in the global order after the cold war, and the evolving interests of both parties. Given that Sri Lanka and several European powerhouses such as Russia, United Kingdom (UK), France, Italy, Germany continue to share common strategic and geopolitical interests, Sri Lanka must adopt a balancing act in its engagement with these powerhouses in the future years to ensure some stability in the island’s economy.

Africa and the Middle East.

Sri Lanka maintains good relations with several African nations and regional groupings such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Brazil Russia India China and South Africa (BRICS), and the East African Community (EAC). Under the framework of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Sri Lanka has managed to forge closer links with a majority of these African nations and regional groupings. Equally, Sri Lanka has also adopted a similar foreign policy strategy in its dealings with Middle eastern and Gulf nations.

Championing a New Foreign Policy Model: What’s Next?

Overall, this analysis views Sri Lanka’s foreign policy manifestation under the new regionalism paradigm as a two-fold phenomenon i.e. it is both supra-national and sub-national. This implies that while framing its foreign policy strategy, the main aim should be to promote Sri Lanka’s national interest in synchrony with bigger and middle powers without compromising its relations with other major nations. Thus a proposal that Sri Lanka continues to adhere to its non-alignment strategies is made. 

The non-alignment strategies of Sri Lanka in its diplomacy have seen improved engagements between Sri Lanka and its allies in recent years and yet, there still exists a greater potential for engagement in the economic, political, and security dynamics of the nation’s diplomacy. Economic resilience in post COVID era for Sri Lanka’s is of utmost importance. 

From a small island state perspective the synchrony with multipolar system and balancing the foreign policy manifestation with outreach to different regions and regional groupings   must be closely intertwined with its foreign policy objectives. Importantly, One of Sri Lanka’s greatest priorities in its diplomacy is to secure the socio-economic and cultural interest of the 3 million diaspora community in its diplomacy. To this end, forging realistic and pragmatic positions on the Sri Lanka diaspora is of profound importance to its foreign policy strategy. 

About the Author

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O. P Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union’


By Dr Srimal Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 18 2021

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