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Neutral foreign policy A tight rope walk
Published Date: 01/12/2017 (Friday)

By Sugeeswara P Senadhira in Seoul

President Maithripala Sirisena keeps foreign policy analysts guessing all the time. It was only last month that many analysts came up with their textbook prediction that he had antagonized the United States and its Middle East friends like Saudi Arabia, when he paid a State visit to Qatar. Before the dust of criticism settled down, President Sirisena undertakes another State visit - this time to South Korea and the so-called foreign policy experts are totally baffled as they are not sure whether the visit should be described as a pro-US gesture or not.

The two salient features of foreign policy of the current Government are, firstly, it is an Asia-centric middle path; secondly its friendship with all. As foreign policy of any country puts the country's interest first, Sri Lanka too cannot be rigid in its policy towards the international community.

After the first decade of independence, during which the policy was pro-West and we allowed British bases to remain on our soil, we have adapted a neutral policy and kept away from two blocs of military treaties and that policy lasted from 1956 to 1977, despite changes in the seat of power.

Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was one of the founding pillars of the Non- Aligned Movement. But she did not hesitate to close down the North Korean Embassy in Colombo in 1971when the intelligence sources revealed that the Mission was guilty of funding the militant group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was then better known by the sobriquet 'Che Guvera Movement' which carried out an armed rebellion to overthrow the Government.

President J R Jayewardene moved away from the middle path and moved towards the right. He disregarded Indian sensitivities rooted in Cold War geopolitics and sought closer ties with the West. But the failure of this policy was proven when he was coerced into signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in July 1987.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who came to power in 2005 too disregarded Indian and American security concerns by cosying up to China. This policy resulted in creating many powerful enemies that ultimately signalled his downfall.

As promised during the Presidential Election campaign, President Sirisena took action to rebuild relations with not only India but also the United States and the West. At the same time the Government cultivated good relations with all States.

Sri Lanka as a country that is strongly dependent on both India and China for its stance on the world stage has to maintain a perfect balance. In such a background Sri Lanka will have to brush up its foreign engagement with other stakeholders of the international community. The Sirisena Government succeeded in establishing excellent relations with the US, Russia, Western Europe and Japan in addition to maintaining the balance between India and China.

At the same time the country need not be subservient to any outside power. Hence certain deviations from the absolute neutrality are required at times and such steps will make Sri Lanka's sovereignty stronger.

That explains as to why the invitation extended by the Emir of Qatar was accepted by President Sirisena who paid a successful State visit, two months ago. Although the visit took place at a time when Qatar's relations with Saudi Arabia and some other West Asian countries were strained, Sri Lanka maintains excellent relations with all those countries. President Sirisena studiously avoided any reference to a third country during his public statements as Sri Lanka does not wish to get involved in their bilateral issues.

Sri Lanka is committed to peace in the region. Hence, the North Korean nuclear weapon developments and the tension in that region is a major concern to us.

Sri Lanka has highly beneficial economic and investment ties with South Korea. Furthermore, there are about 30,000 Sri Lankan workers employed in that rich industrial nation.

President Sirisena accepted the invitation of President Moon Jae-in and will be paying a State visit to South Korea this week. The visit takes place in conjunction with the 40th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and the Republic of Korea. The two leaders will discuss matters of mutual interest to strengthen cooperation between the two countries.

Agreements on economic cooperation, economic development cooperation fund (EDCF) and cultural cooperation, as well as MoUs on investment cooperation and the Employment Permit System (EPS) are to be signed between the two Governments during the visit.

As Sri Lanka seeks increased investments from Korean entrepreneurs, President Sirisena is also scheduled to attend a business forum and discuss with four major Korean Business associations.

More employment opportunities for Sri Lankan workers in Korea are important areas beneficial to Sri Lanka. President of the South Korean Human Resources Development Service of Korea, Prof. Park Young-bum, who visited Sri Lanka in June this year called on President Sirisena in Colombo. He said his country would explore the possibility of increasing the employment quota for Sri Lankan workers. The current annual quota for Sri Lanka is 6,000 and among the 16 countries providing workers to Korea, Sri Lanka has now risen to the 5th position.

Prof. Park said that the Korean employers are quite satisfied about job performances and efficiency of Sri Lankan workers. He said that Sri Lankan workers have become famous in Korea after the recent incident of a devastating fire, in which a Sri Lankan worker, risking his life, saved a woman entrapped in a burning building.

President Sirisena's visit to Korea is expected to get substantial results in bilateral cooperation, investment, trade and commerce and employment. Although some section may interpret the visit as a deviation from the middle path foreign policy, one should view it from the angle of the country's interests as Sri Lanka will derive many benefits from the visit.

Furthermore, one should not forget that this is not the first visit to South Korea by a Sri Lankan President. Presidents J R Jayewardene (1984), Chandrika Kumaratunga (1996) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (2012) visited Korea during their tenures in office.

Source: Ceylon Today

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