Sri Lanka Hones Its Balancing Act



President Ranil Wickremesinghe arrives for the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on Oct. 16, 2023. LYU SHUAI / XINHUA

Colombo has demonstrated its own brand of strategic autonomy on issues from Russia’s war in Ukraine to China’s global footprint

By Michael Kugelman

Most South Asian governments tend to have nonaligned foreign policies, balancing their relations with major powers. This maximizes their diplomatic flexibility and ability to operate independently on the world stage, also known as strategic autonomy. India and Pakistan are two prominent examples: They both balance their relations with the United States and at least one of its core rivals (Russia and China, respectively).

But it’s important not to overlook Sri Lanka: In the last two years, Colombo has quietly and successfully navigated global conflict and great-power rivalry. Like many other countries in the region, Sri Lanka has not condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine, even though resulting price shocks exacerbated its own economic crisis in 2022. Yet it has called for an end to the war and announced new measures that step up economic and energy ties with India.

This week, Sri Lanka’s government announced a $1 million donation to assist children in Gaza affected by the Israel-Hamas war, following the establishment of a national Children of Gaza Fund calling for contributions from the Sri Lankan public. The country has previously announced other aid commitments, expressed solidarity with Palestinians, and accused the European Union of “double standards” in its approach to Gaza.

But Sri Lanka is also a close friend of Israel, which supplied arms to the Sri Lankan military during its decades-long civil war. Since the Israel-Hamas war began, Sri Lanka has reached a controversial deal that enables Israel to hire Sri Lankan workers, and its diplomats in Israel have delivered assistance and donated blood. Colombo also joined the U.S.-led military campaign against Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, making it the only South Asian country to do so.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has strengthened economic ties with China and already hosts many large Chinese infrastructure projects. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also embraced Beijing’s position on key issues, including the AUKUS security alliance between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, which he has labeled a “mistake,” and the term “Indo-Pacific,” which he has called an “artificial framework.”

However, last November, Colombo inked a $553 million deal with the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. to support a port development project in Colombo that is backed by India’s Adani Group. In January, Sri Lanka imposed a one-year ban on Chinese research ships entering its ports. The move came soon after Wickremesinghe rejected Indian allegations that Chinese spy vessels have docked in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s actions may be driven by a commitment to strategic autonomy, but its motivations are as much about practicality as principle. The country is emerging from an acute economic crisis, and it needs as much financial assistance as it can get. It’s easier to achieve that goal when it works with all the major powers. It’s not coincidental that China, India, and the United States were three of Sri Lanka’s most generous donors during its crisis.

Wickremesinghe must also proceed cautiously during an election year for Sri Lanka. Colombo’s deals with Beijing, including the latter’s 99-year lease on the Hambantota International Port, have led to increased anti-China sentiment in the country in recent years. But the president will also do everything he can to distance himself from his wildly unpopular predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who remains a political ally of Wickremesinghe.

Rajapaksa, who heavily courted Chinese investments while in office from 2019 to 2022, published a book last month that lambasts Beijing for providing loans that deepened Colombo’s economic crisis. This gives Wickremesinghe some incentive to show some love for China in order to distance himself from Rajapaksa’s position.

South Asia has become a battleground for geopolitical rivalry, which puts pressure on the region’s nonaligned governments to take sides. But to this point, Sri Lanka has navigated this state of affairs successfully, demonstrating the capacity of states in the global south to reinforce multipolarity in the current world order.

On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blasted the main opposition Indian National Congress party—for a diplomatic decision made 50 years ago. In 1974, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi negotiated an end to a maritime border dispute by recognizing Sri Lanka’s claim over Katchatheevu, a small island 20 miles off the southern coast of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Modi denounced the decision as “callous” and said the Congress party has weakened India’s “unity, integrity, and interests … for 75 years and counting.” On Monday, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said Sri Lanka had detained more than 6,000 Indian fishermen in the last two decades, suggesting its possession of Katchatheevu has worsened the plight of communities in Tamil Nadu.

The comments are unlikely to cause tensions between India and Sri Lanka. They are clearly part of a tactic to appeal to long-standing grievances and secure votes in a Tamil Nadu, one of a few southern states where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has struggled to gain traction. This underscores how Modi—despite being heavily favored to win reelection in national polls that begin this month—is leaving no stone unturned on the campaign trail.

(South Asia Brief – Foreign Policy)
The writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief and the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.