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Adhering to Foreign Affairs Constitutional Mandate?

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by Austin Fernando

Many criticisms are directed at the Ministry of Foreign Relations (MFR) (previously Ministry of Foreign Affairs -MFA) for alleged operational failures. Incidentally, the successes of MFR are not spoken much, not for want, but that is life!

For example, currently, there are criticisms against the ‘withdrawal threat of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+)’, and the March 2021 UNHRC Resolution. Even previously we have heard criticisms against Yahapalanaya over ‘co-sponsoring the UNHRC Resolution- 2015.’ The Mahinda Rajapaksa government faced criticisms over the handling of UNHRC Resolutions (2009-2013), and the withdrawal of GSP+. While some appreciated President R Premadasa for the Gladstone Affair, others criticised him. Criticisms were directed against President JR Jayewardene over the Falklands War issue. If looked at apolitically, every government has had its share of criticisms.

Constitutional Mandate for Foreign Affairs

It is appropriate to review the MFR/MFA operations through a constitutional prism. First, let us look at the fountain of power or the mandate for ‘foreign affairs.’ The Sri Lankan Constitutions maintained a centralised nature until the 13th Amendment introduced devolution and restructured administration. It demarcated the functions of the State. Accordingly, the functions of ‘Foreign Affairs’ in the List II- Reserved List were:

“This would include-

(a) Foreign Affairs: all matters which bring the Government of Sri Lanka into relations with any foreign country;

(b) Diplomatic consular and trade representation;

(c) United Nations Organization;

(d) Participation in international conferences, associations, and other bodies and implementing of decisions made thereat;

(e) Entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing treaties, agreements, conventions with foreign countries.

In (a) above, two terms i. e. “all matters”, and “with any foreign country,” are important for MFR functioning. If the Constitutional intentions are to be satisfied, the MFR, other political and administrative hierarchies should adhere to this constitutional mandate.

The last few decades’ experiences show that adherence to these two ‘terms’ was seen sparingly. High political authorities have ignored these terms. We did not see any public outcry or even a restricted or nominal concern shown by the MFR, and its predecessors, against non-adherence, though occasional political outbursts happened. Examples for ‘outbursts’ were observed when the Indo- Lanka Accord was signed, UNHRC Resolution was co-sponsored, when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was invited, etc. These related to “international relations”, but with minute, or no stakeholder consultation before embarking. Looking at mandate (b), (d), and especially (e), obviously the role of the MFR spreads on a wide canvass.

Regarding mandate (c) the MFR holds sway. Many recent criticisms on (c) were on human rights, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, disappearances, reconciliation, returning refugees and repatriated workers suffering from COVID 19, etc. These have domestic political attachments and are complex

The list of violations of the 13A- List II stipulations is long. I recall a few experiences in my short service as a diplomat. (I have many more!)

Recent Foreign Relation Experiences

Following-up Agreements, Treaties, Conventions, diplomatic meetings are expected from the MFR. Coordinating with stakeholders inclusive of missions abroad, keeping them abreast of decisions matters. Does this happen? Yes, it happens in the breach. An example of default in information sharing by MFR was exposed when MFR requested the Delhi Mission for the proceedings and minutes of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s delegate meetings with Indian dignitaries while knowing that quite unconventionally none from the Mission accompanied the President! Really, the Mission should have requested them from MFR!

More seriously, I mention how decisions at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s discussions with Indian dignitaries were followed. During the 40 days of service after the President’s visit until I was recalled, the Delhi Mission did not receive any follow-up directives on the visit. Is it the respect to PM Modi and interest shown toward India, the outcomes of the visit, or is it only the non-adherence of the mandate? Indians are a sensitive and sensible lot!

Though PM Modi offered a 450-million-dollar Line of Credit as “India’s full assistance in taking” Sri Lanka “in the path of rapid development,” MFR did not exhibit that urgency, rapidity, reflected from lacking public knowledge about Indian projects since this pledge. These are the criteria exhibiting the direction of the path of rapid development.

Anyhow, the bi-lateral concerns were never conveyed to the Delhi Mission either by the Presidential Secretariat or MFR, and hence there was no mission follow-up. The mission could not automatically know items to follow up, being absent at presidential deliberations. Nevertheless, the citizens must know the outputs/outcomes of PM Modi’s pledges. We do not hear of new project information, or even whether Sri Lanka has formally accepted the pledges. After twenty months of the visit, it is not the best outcome for relations building for the President with the closest neighbour, friend, sometimes called the relative, especially when Indians reflect President’s relationships with China. The MFR’s mandate accommodates such review and information dissemination.

Observing fast-moving Chinese projects, the Indians wonder whether the Modi Pledges have been relegated to the backburner, and preference is elsewhere. This is of security and political connotations to Indians.

To my understanding, only the Solar Alliance’s $100 million offered for solar power projects are being processed. Concurrently, ADB-assisted solar projects in the Jaffna Islands and other projects such as road construction, the de-silting of the Tissamaharama tank commenced after Modi’s pledges; they are carried by Chinese firms. Balancing the Indian concerns as regards the Chinese power project in the Jaffna Islands could have been easy if the Solar Alliance project had been used. (Yahapalanaya was also responsible for this delay.) Indian drone surveillance of our coastlines also would have been redundant.

For comparison, I quote another Indian experience. Having provided $ 1.4 billion assistance to the Maldives, Indians again focused on the Maldives, which has a population of 530,953 (2019), financing major infrastructure development that included a $100 million grant and $400 million new line of credit. Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar announced the creation of an air bubble with the Maldives to facilitate movement and the commencement of the cargo ferry service between the two countries.

The reason for such relationship-building by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was the Chinese- Maldivian bond, which perturbed India. For India, it should have similar concerns with us as well. When similar Indian responses are not observed under even worse circumstances, it makes one wonder why. When India delays finalising the US$ 1,000 million facilitation requested by our government while Indian-Maldivian relations expand, one asks why. Have we failed to reach the promised “very high level” bilateralism, enunciated by President Rajapaksa in Delhi?

PM Modi pledged $450 million when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited India. Our former Presidents visiting India did not experience this kind of generosity. PM Modi showed similar generosity to the Maldivian President (US $ 1.4 billion), Bhutanese PM (Indian Rs. 4,500 crores), on their first visits. This may have made President Rajapaksa state that “he would strive to take his country’s bilateral relationship with India to a “very high level”. I doubt whether his effort has reached fruition.

Shouldn’t the MFR be held accountable for non-adherence to its mandate?

The Maldives succeeded while we were haggling over the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), the Trinco Tank Farm Project (TTFP), Mattala, etc. Maybe, the Maldives accommodated Indian development activities. I do not support endorsing every Indian project as demanded. It is not necessary. Yet, considering the Indian marketplace economics, it is appropriate to finding middle-ground as we did in the case of the Colombo Port City. Commencing negotiations with Indians on the Western Container Terminal is a positive response.

For comparison, Nepal received Rs. 2,802 crores from Indian Annual Neighborhood Financing – 2020 provisions (irrespective of the brewing Kalapani boundary dispute), while Sri Lanka received only Rs. 2,317 crores over a decade. A few days before President Rajapaksa visited Delhi, without any MFR direction, I brought the neighborhood financing viz. Sri Lankan receipts issue with the Indian hierarchy, and the Indians convinced of the need to assist us. Probably, the sum of $ 450 million reflected this thinking. The MFR must study the reasons and pursue action to attract Indians.

At the request of Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), the Mission negotiated with Indian authorities a $400 million Swap, and the CBSL succeeded. To save Sri Lanka from being placed on the “grey list” of the Financial Action Task Force, regarding money-laundering, the Mission intervened, and CBSL succeeded, not on MFA initiations, but the personal request of friendly Governor Coomaraswamy. Such rare interventions come under the purview of items (a) and (e) of the Mandate, but rarely used.

I would like to mention a lesson learned from PM Modi to prove how the Indians take foll-up action. In 2018, returning from the Maldives, he stopped over in Colombo, and the MoU 2017 would have been discussed. He sent a few officials, led by Dinesh Patnaik, Additional Secretary MEA to meet Colombo-based agencies. My understanding is that the MFA and my Delhi Mission had no role to play. This move or its outputs were never conveyed to the Delhi Mission. We learned it from MEA friends. This lack of cohesive adherence to items (a) and (e) of the Mandate by MFR and other stakeholders, bungles relations building.

MEA Minister S Jaishankar visited Colombo and met the representatives of the incumbent adminstration and demonstrated India’s interest and support. It was a total embarrassment to us to receive information about this visit from ‘Indian Express’ journalist Subarjit Roy, and not from MFR! True to MFA/ MFR tradition, no intimation was conveyed to the Delhi Mission Long live the ‘dead’ Mandates (a) and (e)!

Diplomatic formalities

Apart from the constitutional mandate formalities in foreign affairs are serious businesses so much so, in India, there are no shortcuts available to foreign envoys to access the higher levels of administration without approaching the MEA.

In Sri Lanka, we have observed all superior politicians and administrators meet diplomats without reference to the MFR/MFA. Indians probably do so selectively due to logistical reasons. Here, I experienced this due to personal attitudes toward the Foreign Office. The proceedings of such discussions at higher levels are not shared with the MFR. It prevents informed diplomatic decision-making. The tacit fault lies in those who permit direct access and refrain from reporting to MFR.

In India, a representative of the MEA always sits at discussions. At one-on-one meetings with the Prime Minister, for instance, such representation is absent. From the manner matters are pursued by the MEA, it is obvious that the contents of such discussions are shared with the MEA.

While MEA does not permit direct access to State Government authorities without MEA clearance, we have generally ambassadors directly dealing with our provincial authorities, which could create difficult managerial issues. During my tenure in Delhi, I remember a Governor of a Province, and previously even Chief Ministers showed keenness to deal with India and State Governments, which is ‘dangerous.’ Mandate (a) helps manage this issue.

MoU -2017- A Specific Study

I take the case regarding a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Sri Lanka and India in 2017 for economic cooperation, to prove how these Mandates default. I suspect the MFR pursued this MoU only as a reference to a Cabinet Memorandum, though it had much broader implications.

I may quote an issue from the MoU i.e., the Trincomalee Tank Farm Project (TTFP)– as a case study to prove where the silence of the MFA and general apathy and uncertainty of governments create problems even to successor governments. The TTFP had been an undecided issue before the 2017 MoU. The TTFP 2003- Agreement was followed by the government from 2011 to 2018, but dilly-dallying was observed throughout.

For the 2017 MoU Cabinet Memorandum, observations were submitted on TTFP by two Ministers, namely Ravi Karunanayaka, ‘noting’ the Memorandum, and Chandima Weerakkody on the structure of the Project. A ‘confirmed’ Cabinet decision was taken to sign the MoU with stakeholder consultation. But the signed MoU has detailed the Cabinet-approved MoU, though the Cabinet decision has drawn conditions (i.e., further “consultation”, and “separate Cabinet memoranda pertaining to the joint projects.”)

Conceptually, there are two major issues- i.e., the structure of the Project and land ownership. The latter is a crucial issue with Attorney General’s and Cabinet’s decisions showing mixed responses. On these, can someone challenge the legality of revisions in Section iv of the signed MoU? These could have been avoided through “stakeholder consultations” and “separate Cabinet Memoranda” as agreed by the Cabinet. These issues may rekindle negativity and delay finality.

I quote the Supreme Court’s LMS judgment that declared: “A pre-condition laid down in paragraph 1.3 is that an alienation or disposition of State land within a Province shall be done in terms of the applicable law only on the advice of the Provincial Council. The advice would be of the Board of Ministers communicated through the Governor, the Board of Ministers being responsible in this regard to the Provincial Council.” (Sri Lanka Law Reports [2008] 1 Sri L.R: page 172) Considering this status, I contend that the work steps applicable to Section iv of the signed MoU need review. If not, cannot Section iv be challenged on “procedural invalidity?”

Now that the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), Mattala, the Sampur Solar Power projects (in 2017 MoU) have not been carried out, Indians will naturally pursue the TTFP vehemently. Financially strong parties coerce or intrude on allied economic issues through emergent openings. I am not a lawyer, and I contend that due to the country’s financial crisis, we have provided such an opening to India through TTFP. India may have deliberately strategised indecisiveness on the $1,000 million facilitation. It could resurface if/when Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa negotiates the financial facilitation. Can he also strategize negotiating on the quoted “procedural invalidities”?

To my mind, the TTFP could also become an economically exciting allied project. Unfortunately, this is not much discussed publicly. In the MoU 2017, Section v reads as “v. A Port, Petroleum Refinery, and other industries in Trincomalee, for which GOSL and GOI will set up a JWG by end June 2017.” These openings will allure renegotiation to reach middle ground, and newly negotiated terms to evolve paths to lessen political embarrassment and summon economic prosperity.

Conclusion

There may be other Missions and personnel with experience with non-adherence to the Constitutional Mandate. Such experiences and issues must be made use of by those concerned in executing the Constitutional Mandate for Foreign Affairs.

I have mentioned India because whenever Indo-Sri Lanka relations deteriorate, Sri Lanka faces political and diplomatic embarrassment, as we have experienced in 1987 during the conflict, in 2013, and 2021 at the UNHRC. Avoiding such situation is the “job” of the main Mandate holder, the MFR.



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Antics of State Minister and Pohottu Mayor; mum on chemical fertiliser mistake; The Ganga – a link

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Reams have been written in all local newspapers; much comment has traversed social media and persons have been bold to call for justice on two absolutely unrestrained and yes, evil, SLPP VIPs who have recently been dancing the devil as the saying goes. These evil doers seem to be pathologically unable to control themselves and behave as human beings: heads outsised with hubris and apparently bodies often pickled with liquor.

Very succinct comments have been made on Lohan Ratwatte, one being: “a leopard never changes his spots” referring to the many crimes supposed to have been committed by him, and the other that he is a gem of a man who may make a jewellery heist soon enough. He has the audacity to say he did nothing wrong in barging into two prisons; in one to show off to pals the gallows and in the other, to brandish a gun and place it against the heads of two shivering Tamil prisoners. All done within the week when world attention was focused on Sri Lankan human rights violations directed by the UNHRC

Cass’ comment is that Lohan Rat was committing hara-kiri (minus even a trace of the Japanese spirit of self sacrifice) and taking the entire country on a suicidal mission through his inability to hold his drinks and destructive hubris and murderous inclination. Cass particularly favoured Don Mano’s summation in his comment on the unlawful prison intrusions in the Sunday Times of September 19. “Any semblance of a shabby cover-up to enable Lohan Ratwatte to retain his position as State Minister of Gems and Jewellery will not only endanger the economy by depriving the nation’s dollar bare coffers of a GSP benefit of nearly 2.7 billion dollars, but will risk putting 21 million Lankans from the frying pan into the fire and test their tolerance to the core.”

The visit to the Welikada prison by the State Minister of Prison Reform and … was said to be with some men and one woman. Identities were kept under wraps and confusion raised by making the dame a beauty queen or cosmetician. But who she was, was soon known along the vine of gossip. One report said the person in charge of the prison or its section with the gallows, cautioned Lohan Rat and tried to dissuade his advance with friends in tow since the lady companion was in shorts and them walking through where prisoners were, would cause a commotion. But no, the State Minister advanced to show off the gallows with his short-shorts wearing woman companion and imbibing mates.

Cass is actually more censorious of this woman than even of the State Minister himself. Is she a Sri Lankan, so vagrant in her woman-ness? Doesn’t she have even an iota of the traditional lajja baya that decent women exhibit, even to minor level nowadays? Is associating with a State Minister and his drinking pals such a prized social event? Shame on her! She, if people’s assumption of identity is correct, has boasted political clout and been elevated by it too. Such our young girls! Do hope they are very few in number, though this seems to be a baseless hope as social events unroll.

Pistol packing – correction please – toy pistol packing Eraj Fernando is aiding the ex State Minister of Prison Reform to deface, debase and deteriorate Sri Lanka in the eyes of the world. He is interested in land and not in gallows or scantily clad gals. With thugs in tow he trespassed a property in Bamba and assaulted two security guards. Repetition of an incident he was embroiled in – a land dispute in Nugegoda a couple of weeks ago. He was taken in by the police and before you could say Raj, he was granted bail. What quick work of police and courts.

As the editor of The Island opined in the lead article of September 20: “The Rajapaksas have created quite a few monsters who enjoy unbridled freedom to violate the law of the land.” A convicted murderer known for his thug ways was presidentially pardoned a short while ago.

The good thing is that people talk, write, lampoon, and draw attention to these heinous crimes and do not seem scared for their necks and families. White vans have not started their rounds. And very importantly the memories of Ordinaries are not as fickle as they were. Wait and see is their immediate response.

New fad – jogging lanes on wewa bunds!

Some monks and men gathered recently on the partly torn up bund of Parakrama Samudraya and had the foolish audacity to say the bund needed a jogging lane. Tosh and balderdash! Then news revealed that other wewas too were being ‘attacked and desecrated’ to construct jogging lanes. In such remote rural areas which even tourists do not visit? Is there illicit money-making in this activity? Otherwise, no explanation is available for this sudden interest in farmers’ and toilers’ physical well being. They get enough exercise just engaging in their agriculture, so for whom are these jogging lanes?

Sharply contrasting persons

As apposite to the former two, are superb Sri Lankans up front and active and giving of their expertise, albeit unobtrusively. Consider the medical men and women and their service to contain the pandemic; farmers who protest to ensure harvests are not damaged too severely by false prophets who won the day for the banning of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides. The latest blow and justification of what so very many agriculturists, agrochemists, have been saying all along – organic is good but to be introduced very slowly; without importing compost from overseas, is the Chinese import containing evil microorganisms. Experts have categorically stated that chemical fertilisers are sorely needed for all agriculture; more so paddy and tea; and if used prudently cause no illness to humans or injurious side effects.

The four experts who comprised the panel at the MTV I Face the Nation discussion monitored by Shameer Rasooldeen on Monday September 20, agreed totally on these two facts and went on to say that it must be admitted a hasty decision was taken to stop import of chemical fertilizers. We listened to the considered wise opinions backed by true expertise of vibrantly attractive and articulate Dr Warshi Dandeniya – soil scientist, of Prof Saman Seneweera from the University of Melbourne, Prof Buddhi Marambe – crop scientist, and Dr Roshan Rajadurai – media person of the Planters Association. Listening to them, Cass swelled with pride and told herself see what sincerely-interested-in-the-country’s welfare eminent scientists we have in this land of rowdy politicians and uneducated MPs. They labeled the sudden banning of chemical fertilisers and insecticides and pesticides as “very dangerous and causing irreversible harm. It is not too late to reverse the decision, even if admitting fault is not possible.”

Garlic

Oh dear! The stench! Never ending series of scams; executed or approved by politicians and all for illicit gains. Even the tragedy of the pandemic and suffering of much of the population does not seem to have curbed selfish lust for money.

Focus on the Mahaweli Ganga

Interesting and deserving of thanks. Chanaka Wickramasuriya wrote two excellent articles in the Sunday Islands of September 12 and 19 on the Mahaweli Ganga, imparting invaluable facts of the present river and its history, as for example which king built which wewa or anicut. He ended his second article by hoping the waters of the great river will feed the north of the island too: “Maybe then this island will be finally uplifted. Not just from north to south, but across class and caste, language and philosophy, and political partisanship. Hopefully driven by a newfound sanity among its denizens, yet symbolically attested to by the waters of the Mahaweli.”

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These humans are Crazy!

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Those of us who grew up reading the “Asterix” comics by Goscinny and Uderzo will no doubt remember the resonant words of Obelix, the menhir delivery man. So many times, he has observed the actions of characters ranging from Roman Emperors to Goths and made the statement “these humans are crazy” often accompanied by a few taps from his forefinger to his ample brow. These words remain a universal truth and valid even today when looking at what is going on around us.

Let’s start in Aotearoa – New Zealand with the continuing saga of the young man of Sri Lankan origin who went berserk in a supermarket and stabbed so many innocent people. Despite many assurances from the government and almost all the Kiwi friends and even acquaintances we have in this country that we Lankans are not responsible, we feel deep down inside us that we are in some way, shape or form, responsible for this person’s behaviour. Articles not only from people of my (archaic) generation but young upstanding millennials and those even younger have expressed this emotion in their own characteristic fashion. Also, we feel responsible that our network of ex citizens of the Pearl living in Aotearoa have been unable to offer any support or counselling to this person or others of his ilk.

Just as we start clawing our way out of this mire of guilt somewhat reduced by finding out just how greatly the immigration and refugee systems of New Zealand have been duped, we are now told how a currency smuggler has been granted refugee status. Now currency smuggling happens all the time, mainly due to the punitive profits taken from customers by those licenced daylight robbers the banks, but more on that later. Apparently, a currency smuggler who arrived on a forged passport, evading arrest by the authorities in the Pearl has been granted refugee status! REFUGEE seems to be the magic word as far as the NZ authorities go. Those of us who have gone through the legal immigration channels and filled reams of forms and waited years for replies are left gasping at how those worthies in the government departments of Aotearoa have one set of rules and standards for us and another completely if one puts the word REFUGEE on one’s documents.

We move on to the pearl, if I were to attempt to apologise for the “offensive actions” of members of my family (bearing my “sir” name and direct relatives) that would take up a series of tomes resembling the encyclopaedia Britannica! It may also feature my name in a few volumes as well! The current antics of a kinsman with regard to using his position and power calls for a level of responsibility, on my part. The only caveat being a request to the fourth estate to use the person’s first name. Frequent displays of a family name which some have treasured and tried to bring enhancement to, associated with behaviour of this kind, brings dismay at a level that can only be understood by those who have tried to live up to the standards set by ancestors who held high office with honour in the past. There have been many articles some ranging from biting sarcasm (unfortunately not understood by the majority) to others simply parroting what they have read on the internet. The bottom line is standby O denizens of the Pearl, this maybe just another episode in the teledrama that is Lanka under Paksa rule! There are possibilities of scripting to distract the majority and even a wider spectrum involving human rights issues in Geneva. Also, scrutinize yourselves and remember that “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” and “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”?!

In Aotearoa, we call our Prime Minister by her first name and a PM that has gained the utmost respect of the people not to mention the world! Isn’t it time the Pearl followed suit? Of course, comments by the leader of the opposition like “Opposition Leader Premadasa said he vehemently condemned the disgraceful and illegal behaviour” reiterates the comments of Obelix. Especially when allegations and witnesses exist to “disgraceful and Illegal” behaviour by the person who uttered those very words. It may have been in a different context and “only” to do with the decimation of a national park in the Pearl but the behaviour had the same connotations. Looks like social media is the mitigating factor, as in those days, too, the fourth estate had to take care of continuing to exist and survive! Being the first party to spotlight such actions usually led to the “death of the messenger”.

As promised, back to the licenced daylight robbers of today, the banks. There is a “Robin Hood” tax in effect in some of the leading economies of Europe. The most “interesting” aspect for me being taxes on the profits of banks. The billions it could raise every year could give a vital boost to tackling poverty and climate change around the world and definitely in the Pearl. We call upon the “genius” in charge of the Central Bank as he is the “acknowledged” financial maestro of the Pearl (although he is never going to take RESPONSIBILITY for our plight) to look at this aspect if he has the cohunes to do it! But then again levels of corruption and obligations to high profit-making organisations that fund election campaigns, have to be taken into account in countries such as the Pearl.

Powerful efficient and successful economies like Germany and modern Demi-Gods like Bill Gates endorse this tax. Here is an idea for the government of the Pearl. Tax the banks on their huge profits and give some of that money back to the people without burdening an already insufferably burdened people! I fear ideas expressed in this column will meet their usual end either in the oblivion chaos and mayhem or the lack of mental fortitude that exists in the Pearl and her officials.However, one can only hope that people who wish the Pearl renewed status in the Indian Ocean region if not the world, continue to survive in these circumstances, as the village of indomitable Gauls in the face of the mighty Roman empire. We need an “Asterix” brave and quick-thinking warrior, armed with some magic portion from “Getafix” the druid. Instead, we seem to have plenty of pseudo “Getafix’s” concocting “dammika Pani” and such portions and far too many “Vitalstastix’s”- muddle-headed incompetent chiefs!

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Policy quandaries set to rise for South in the wake of AUKUS

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From the viewpoint of the global South, the recent coming into being of the tripartite security pact among the US, the UK and Australia or AUKUS, renders important the concept of VUCA; volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. VUCA has its origins in the disciplines of Marketing and Business Studies, but it could best describe the current state of international politics from particularly the perspective of the middle income, lower middle income and poor countries of the world or the South.

With the implementation of the pact, Australia will be qualifying to join the select band of nuclear submarine-powered states, comprising the US, China, Russia, the UK, France and India. Essentially, the pact envisages the lending of their expertise and material assistance by the US and the UK to Australia for the development by the latter of nuclear-powered submarines.

While, officially, the pact has as one of its main aims the promotion of a ‘rules- based Indo-Pacific region’, it is no secret that the main thrust of the accord is to blunt and defuse the military presence and strength of China in the region concerned. In other words, the pact would be paving the way for an intensification of military tensions in the Asia-Pacific between the West and China.

The world ought to have prepared for a stepping-up of US efforts to bolster its presence in the Asia-Pacific when a couple of weeks ago US Vice President Kamala Harris made a wide-ranging tour of US allies in the ASEAN region. Coming in the wake of the complete US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the tour was essentially aimed at assuring US allies in the region of the US’s continued support for them, militarily and otherwise. Such assurances were necessitated by the general perception that following the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, China would be stepping in to fill the power vacuum in the country with the support of Pakistan.

From the West’s viewpoint, making Australia nuclear-capable is the thing to do against the backdrop of China being seen by a considerable number of Asia-Pacific states as being increasingly militarily assertive in the South China Sea and adjacent regions in particular. As is known, China is contending with a number of ASEAN region states over some resource rich islands in the sea area in question. These disputed territories could prove to be military flash points in the future. It only stands to reason for the West that its military strength and influence in the Asia-Pacific should be bolstered by developing a strong nuclear capability in English-speaking Australia.

As is known, Australia’s decision to enter into a pact with the US and the UK in its nuclear submarine building project has offended France in view of the fact that it amounts to a violation of an agreement entered into by Australia with France in 2016 that provides for the latter selling diesel-powered submarines manufactured by it to Australia. This decision by Australia which is seen as a ‘stab in the back’ by France has not only brought the latter’s relations with Australia to breaking point but also triggered some tensions in the EU’s ties with the US and the UK.

It should not come as a surprise if the EU opts from now on to increasingly beef-up its military presence in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with the accent on it following a completely independent security policy trajectory, with little or no reference to Western concerns in this connection.

However, it is the economically vulnerable countries of the South that could face the biggest foreign policy quandaries against the backdrop of these developments. These dilemmas are bound to be accentuated by the fact that very many countries of the South are dependent on China’s financial and material assistance. A Non-aligned policy is likely to be strongly favoured by the majority of Southern countries in this situation but to what extent this policy could be sustained in view of their considerable dependence on China emerges as a prime foreign policy issue.

On the other hand, the majority of Southern countries cannot afford to be seen by the West as being out of step with what is seen as their vital interests. This applies in particular to matters of a security nature. Sri Lanka is in the grips of a policy crunch of this kind at present. Sri Lanka’s dependence on China is high in a number of areas but it cannot afford to be seen by the West as gravitating excessively towards China.

Besides, Sri Lanka and other small states of the northern Indian Ocean need to align themselves cordially with India, considering the latter’s dominance in the South and South West Asian regions from the economic and military points of view in particular. Given this background, tilting disproportionately towards China could be most unwise. In the mentioned regions in particular small Southern states will be compelled to maintain, if they could, an equidistance between India and China.

The AUKUS pact could be expected to aggravate these foreign policy questions for the smaller states of the South. The cleavages in international politics brought about by the pact would compel smaller states to fall in line with the West or risk being seen by the latter as pro-China and this could by no means be a happy state to be in.

The economic crisis brought about by the current pandemic could only make matters worse for the South. For example, as pointed out by the UN, there could be an increase in the number of extremely poor people by around 120 million globally amid the pandemic. Besides, as pointed out by the World Bank, “South Asia in particular is more exposed to the risk of ‘hidden debt ‘from state-owned Commercial Banks (SOCBs), state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and public-private partnerships (PPPs) because of its greater reliance on them compared to other regions.” Needless to say, such economic ills could compel small, struggling states to veer away from foreign policy stances that are in line with Non-alignment.

Accordingly, it is a world characterized by VUCA that would be confronting most Southern states. It is a world beyond their control but a coming together of Southern states on the lines of increasing South-South cooperation could be of some help.

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