Editorial

Non-Alignment and issue-based Strategic Alignment

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Sri Lanka’s maiden voyage to join a US-led multinational naval force to ensure free and unimpaired navigation of the trade avenues between Europe and Asia has raised eyebrows everywhere. The Sri Lanka Navy is being deployed to perform a constabulary mission in protecting the sea routes to the island nation with a token gunship in faraway waters.

The Government’s position is that the Iranian-backed Houthi groups attacking container vessels in the Red Sea—not Israelis—forces shippers to circuitously reroute via the African continent, which is detrimental to Sri Lanka as not only are imports going to cost extra due to higher fuel and insurance, etc., but the Colombo Harbour could lose out with ships bypassing the port. The latter is disputed by those who say Colombo Port is benefiting from greater bunkering. This is apart from Sri Lanka’s stand on terrorism. On Thursday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe met Arab envoys in Colombo to explain his Government’s position. But just hours later, the entire issue took on a new dimension with the Western Alliance deciding to take on Houthi targets in Yemen, widening the conflict in the West Asian region to a more dangerous level, just as President Wickremesinghe predicted in the early days of the conflict.

The diplomatic and political fallout is, however, different from the commercial implications. However much the Government denies it, it will be seen as taking sides in the Palestine-Israel conflict as the Houthis claim they are obstructing these ships in support of the Palestinians and therefore Sri Lanka’s position in the ‘Global South’ that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the sufferings of the Palestinians in the ongoing war in Gaza becomes compromised. Already, plans to send Sri Lankan workers to Israel’s farms in occupied Palestine are seen as opportunistic rather than principled because Sri Lanka’s official position is to condemn Israel’s aggression in Gaza and support the two-state solution in the region.

All of this comes on the eve of the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to be held next week, where Sri Lanka is fielding a high-level delegation.

Unfortunately, NAM is now ‘the walking dead’ as a movement. It is not even a shadow of its time as the biggest international organisation of member states, only next to the United Nations. During the entire Gaza onslaught by Israel, now into its fourth month, leaving more than 23,000 Palestinians dead to date, NAM has been unable to issue any worthwhile statement as its incumbent chairman, Azerbaijan, was unable to reach a consensus among the group. This displays NAM’s sheer insignificance in world affairs and its implosion/disintegration, with no claim to be the voice of justice and equity for the Global South.

The President goes to Kampala next week as Uganda takes over the chair of NAM, and from there to the G-77 summit, where the ‘Global South’ will engage in yet another talkathon continuing from Havana late last year, where issues ranged from the adverse effects of climate change to the ongoing burden of external debt and a gamut of other issues facing the poorer countries of the Global South.

In the evolving multi-polar world, with new and old aspirants competing for influence and friends, Sri Lanka must surely be looking for enhanced options. Non-alignment (minus the Movement) as a foreign policy choice has come back to light in a new avatar due to the collective interests of the Global South articulated largely by the G-77, while some of this has morphed into ‘issue-based’ alignment with major powers to best serve national interests.

India appears to be adopting such a strategic alignment theory, but at the expense of its once-prestigious leadership of the NAM. It is viewed as having all but abandoned its non-aligned principles to align itself with the USA, partly for economic purposes and partly for its security needs. The latest Sri Lankan position to sign into the Red Sea operations appears to look similar by diving into the deep end of what has fuelled sectarian clashes between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran forces and has widened the fissures in West Asia with the Gaza conflict. Neither Hamas nor Hizbullah nor the Houthis—all Iran-backed—are particularly favourites of many Arab states.

President J.R. Jayewardene once broke ranks with the NAM and voted in favour of Britain during a vote on the invasion of Argentina’s Malvinas (Falklands). There, it was a case of not non-alignment but strategic alignment, as Britain was then funding the Victoria Dam project. The repercussions of that vote were felt only later, when India got Argentina to sponsor one of the earliest resolutions against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Commission.

The decision to support the US-led naval alliance in the Red Sea, therefore, raises questions whether Sri Lanka has initiated a tectonic shift, tantamount to the pursuit of the national interest devoid of the values of joint action. This joint action was what gave countries like Sri Lanka, banded together first at Bandung, Indonesia, with the formation of NAM, the moral upper hand in the conduct of world affairs and foreign policy, only to get dismantled as its leaders opted for strategic alignments for their countries, discarding joint action.

In more recent years, and especially last year, Sri Lanka’s neutrality was tested to the hilt. For some time, Colombo and its political leadership had come under the watchful eye and the competing influence of India and China. Yet, it painstakingly navigated itself to shore from the troubled waters of the Indian Ocean, under intense diplomatic pressure from the West-backed New Delhi and Beijing. It is a case of strategic alignment blending perfectly with neutrality.

With India’s Kissingerian strategic alignment policy sacrificing its status as a like-minded partner of the rest of the Global South, South Africa is emerging as the de facto leader of the Global South. It has scored points by taking Israel to the International Court of Justice this week. However, at a contest for the Presidency of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, it faced a setback, losing to Morocco. Power politics is at work in every nook and cranny.

At NAM next week, will Sri Lanka fall between two stools, like India has, for adopting an adventurist omni-balancing theory in the distant Red Sea?

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