Secretary of State John Kerry was in Sri Lanka this weekend, making the first state visit to the country since Secretary Colin Powell visited in 2005 after a tsunami ravaged the island nation. The visit comes on the heels of a move by the Sri Lankan parliament this week to endorse President Maithripala Sirisena’s initiative to curb his own office’s powers, which had been greatly expanded by his predecessor.
The government received Secretary Kerry with much fanfare:
Sri Lanka’s government is determined to end years of international isolation linked to its long war with Tamil separatists, so it really rolled out the red carpet for Kerry. He entered the Foreign Ministry under a welcome sign bearing his image and was greeted by musicians playing horns and drums and dancers in silver breastplates as he proceeded down a long crimson rug.
“We intend to broaden and deepen our partnership with you,” Kerry said.
He said the countries would start an annual partnership dialogue and that U.S. officials would provide technical assistance to Colombo on a range of matters, including anti-corruption efforts and returning stolen assets.
Samaraweera said that Kerry’s visit “signifies our little island nation’s return to the center stage of international affairs.” The minister said Sri Lanka would become a “full-fledged parliamentary democracy” and an “investor’s paradise.”
Sri Lanka is a strategically vital island nation lying off southern coast of India, and its recent shifts away from China under President Sirisena, who won a surprise victory on campaign promises to balance away from China, could be a big blow against China’s “string of pearls” strategy. True, Sirisena relented on one of his promises and allowed a massive Chinese port project in Colombo to proceed, but his warm embrace of the United States is sending a clear signal to Beijing.
It won’t all be smooth sailing. The country’s brutal civil war—which ended in 2010 in large part thanks to China providing diplomatic cover for the Sinhalese majority to wage a scorched-earth campaign against a Tamil insurgency—left the country isolated internationally.
It has also left a residue of bitterness, and has enraged much of India. The Hindu Tamil ethnic minority fought for independence against a Buddhist Sinhalese and lost; most Tamils live in southern India, and the suffering of on-island Tamils has become a major issue in Indian politics.
Making some kind of reckoning with the past is needed before India-Sri Lankan relations can become truly comfortable—but both sides have much to gain if Sri Lanka makes the shift. Sri Lanka, after years of ugly warfare and the tsunami, saw much of its infrastructure destroyed and its economy disrupted. The country needs massive investment to rebuild. Sri Lanka also has a chance to develop as an industrial powerhouse and trading state but needs foreign investment to get there.
The new government seems to have decided that good relations with China alone aren’t sufficient to get the job done, and is turning to the coalition of countries including the U.S., Japan, India, Indonesia and Australia to boost its trade and development. There’s an important opportunity here—if the key actors have the wherewithal to seize it.