In the weeks that followed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s big election win, Sri Lanka witnessed some rapid international outreach — both from and to Colombo — reflecting the strategic and geographic prominence of the Indian Ocean island that is home to 21 million people.
India was among the earliest to reach out to the new leader, perhaps reflecting South Block’s hope of emerging Sri Lanka’s foremost partner.
Mr. Rajapaksa had barely assumed charge as President when External Affairs Minister Jaishankar landed in Colombo, to hand over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to New Delhi. In about a fortnight after his election, the newly-elected Sri Lankan President flew to New Delhi, promising to renew strong ties after a period of “misunderstanding” between India and the Rajapaksas. In an interestingly-timed interview to Indian website Bharat Shakti ahead of his departure, President Rajapaksa said his government will not do anything that would threaten India’s security, and even spoke of possibly renegotiating the deal on the Chinese-built port in the southern Hambantota district where New Delhi’s past concerns are known.
Both sides hailed the visit as successful, with India pledging a $450-million line of credit to Sri Lanka, in addition to telling media that New Delhi conveyed to President Rajapaksa its “expectation” that he will take post-war reconciliation forward. Mr. Rajapaksa tweeted about inviting Mr. Modi to be the first foreign dignitary to visit Sri Lanka in his presidency.
The regional outreach would continue the following week, with the visit of Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. During his talks, Mr. Rajapaksa sought Islamabad’s help in tackling the drug menace and extremism. Mr. Qureshi handed over an invitation from Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to his counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa, who accepted it.
Next to visit was Wu Jianghao, a special envoy from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who called on the Rajapaksa brothers helming the country’s two most powerful offices. Colombo’s leaders, across party lines, have traditionally held a close relationship with China — one of its biggest donors — as well as with Pakistan.
‘No debt trap’
Recently, dismissing criticism of high-interest Chinese loans, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency that Sri Lanka’s engagement with the China-initiated Belt and Road Initiative did not amount to a “debt-trap” as portrayed by some “western media”. “If Sri Lanka and China have any problems, we can easily discuss and resolve them as friends,” he said. However, not all matters on foreign relations have been pleasant. The U.K.’s Conservative Party may not have realised that omitting an Oxford comma in its manifesto would spark a diplomatic incident.
“We will continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world, and in current or former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, where we maintain our support for a two-state solution,” it read, leading some in Sri Lanka to interpret it as an endorsement of a two-state solution in Sri Lanka as well. Following criticism in Sri Lanka, the party clarified that the “two-state” reference only pertained to the Israel-Palestine situation in West Asia.
But another issue, regarding the alleged abduction and sexual harassment of a local staffer of the Colombo-based Swiss Embassy, has only escalated in the past few weeks, with Colombo and Bern putting out conflicting accounts of the incident.
Late November, the Embassy said its local staff member had been “detained” and “threatened” by a group of men in a “serious security incident”. The Sri Lankan national, attached to the visa section, was reportedly forced to divulge sensitive information, soon after a senior police investigator probing cases involving members of the Rajapaksa family, sought asylum in Switzerland.
After a Colombo court imposed travel restrictions on the staffer and ordered a medical examination, the staffer has been testifying before the Criminal Investigation Department for hours together. Meanwhile the Secretary to the Defence Ministry has called the reported incident "a big drama".
Clearly, Colombo’s foreign relations have seen both — proactive outreach and active confrontation — in the first month under the new administration. For foreign policy watchers here, 2020 might be a telling year for Sri Lanka and the world.
Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent