Book review: Sri Lanka at the Crossroads: Geopolitical Challenges and National interests by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera


Sri Lanka at the Crossroads: Geopolitical Challenges and National interests by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Book Review by Dr.Smruti S.Pattanaik Research Fellow at the IDSA India.

Book Review was Published by Routledge Strategic Analysis Journal (September 2019 )

Sri Lanka has always featured in any discussion on Indian Ocean geopolitics. However, its geopolitical significance has increased manifold after the end of the long-drawn war that saw the defeat of the LTTE. The manner in which the war concluded brought international focus on the country, as some of the Tamil leaders sought international indulgence to ensure justice is delivered, and peace brought through war results in a meaningful political solution for the Tamils. The other geopolitical development is China’s growing economic clout and its presence in the Indian Ocean, as Beijing strives to establish its maritime presence under the ambitious BRI. As Indian Ocean became the focus of China’s maritime attention—ostensibly also to protect the sea lanes of communication and overcome its Malacca dilemma—the US-piloted Indo-Pacific strategy drew a new alignment of interests to emphasize ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea. All these have had several impacts on Sri Lanka that finds itself in the middle of a geostrategic storm. In this context, this book is not just timely but an important contribution that explains Sri Lanka’s position in the geopolitical conundrum and the challenges it faces post the war against the LTTE. The book contains six chapters that comprehensively analyse the multiple challenges, including domestic and foreign policy.

The author has analysed Sri Lanka’s geopolitical dilemma in the context of great power competition in the Indian Ocean and argues that Sri Lanka can play the role of a ‘super-connector’ by joining the BRI after due deliberation on the issue in Parliament, to build a broader political consensus. From Sri Lanka’s perspective, India-China competition and growing Indo-US relations require a careful consideration of strategic choices that Sri Lanka can make. As rightly argued, Sri Lanka’s geographical location creates many opportunities for it to emerge as a connectivity hub. While Sri Lanka may want to steer clear of the geopolitical competition and not take sides, the vast investment made by China in developing strategic assets such as ports and other infrastructure, has raised concerns in India regarding China’s strategic intent. It is known that while China had earlier ruled out the need to have military bases in foreign countries, its recent acquisition in Djibouti raises doubts. It is not clear how Sri Lanka can ‘utilise other countries’ strategic interests in the IOR’ to its own advantage (p.28), as the author points out. Many in India believe that Sri Lanka’s decision to engage China was directed against India which was pressurizing Colombo to resolve the Tamil issue after the war ended. Though the author has raised concerns about India’s naval build-up as a threat (p.37), much will depend on how the two countries synergise their foreign policy. The two countries have an annual defence dialogue where such issues can be discussed. How Sri Lanka addresses the political grievances of the Tamils in Sri Lanka would significantly determine the dynamics of bilateral relations, as India remains a stakeholder.

The author has captured the Sri Lankan political landscape brilliantly. The pull between developmental imperatives and rising external debts has put the economy in a precarious situation. The failure of the Sirisena government to address some pressing political and economic challenges has consolidated the popularity of the previous Rajapakse regime which was voted out of power in 2018. Corruption continues to paralyse the government and the differences between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the President Sirisena and the resultant ‘bipolarity’ has paralysed the functioning of the government making delivery of ‘good governance’ difficult. Their differences over the UNHRC mandate to look into war crimes, their approach to foreign policy, the economy, etc. have resulted in policy paralysis.

While India is an important neighbour and relations have improved, the issue of illegal fishing has emerged as another challenge, as the author points out. However, China would remain a major strategic challenge for India, though for Sri Lanka, the most challenging task would be to see how to navigate the complex relationship between India, China and the US while protecting its own interests within the framework of an ‘Asia-centric balanced’ foreign policy. The author has argued for the engagement of the Sri Lankan Diaspora to lobby in foreign capitals, bring in investment and be partners in development. However, it needs to build trust with the powerful Tamil Diaspora living in Western countries, over its commitment to political deliverance in the Tamil-dominated North.

The main challenge for Sri Lanka would be peace building and reconciliation. To a large extent, some of the foreign policy challenges would disappear if Sri Lanka manages political reconciliation with Tamils efficiently. Post-war reconciliation would be significant, as is the need to have a domestic mechanism as an alternative to an externally imposed one. Though the previous Rajapakse government had established the Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), many of the recommendations that are fundamental to reconciliation were not implemented. Moreover, the Tamil Diaspora is in the forefront of the campaign against the Sri Lankan government and is arguing in favour of international involvement to redress the grievances of the community. Though the author argues for a comprehensive re-engagement plan with the Diaspora, the most important step would be to build trust by demonstrating that the government is serious about resolving the political grievances. Without a political roadmap, the Diaspora is unlikely to be convinced.

While Sri Lanka takes steps to prevent future conflict, de-radicalization of youth is crucial, which would require the involvement of civil society, as the author rightly argues. Strengthening democratic institutions, depoliticization of independent commissions by ensuring their autonomy, protecting the multicultural character of society, assuring equality of citizens and addressing longstanding grievances would help Sri Lanka overcome some of the challenges. Health, sanitation, freedom of the Press and building the economy would contribute to democratization. The author has rightly critiqued the policy of providing economic largesse to members of parliament by allowing them to import tax-free luxury vehicles especially when the country approached the IMF for fund injection. As Sri Lanka traverses several challenges including terror attacks—as one witnessed during Easter this year—cyber security is a new threat that requires close international collaboration.

This book indeed depicts the crossroads that Sri Lanka is at. It is crucial that Sri Lanka chooses the right direction to cope with the multiple challenges posed by its geopolitical location and characterized by competition to dominate the theatre. For a country that has just recovered from a 30-year civil war, the path to reconciliation would be crucial. The author has worked extensively to capture the problems that Sri Lanka confronts. Since the book includes many of the previous writings of the author, in some places it appears disjointed. Sri Lanka’s relations with the US, China, Japan and India needed more attention than the author has been able to provide. Nevertheless, the book is comprehensive and details several challenges from Sri Lanka’s perspective. It is a must-read for those who are interested in Sri Lanka’s foreign relations and the domestic dimensions of its foreign policy.

Sri Lanka at Crossroads: Geopolitical Challenges and National interests book was published by World Scientific Singapore(2019)