Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in South Asia with which Pakistan has endeavored to develop a broad-based relationship covering trade, commerce, culture and defense matters. Successive governments in Pakistan, whether they were democratic or military dictatorships, have valued this relationship and made efforts to further widen and deepen it.
This is despite the fact that Sri Lanka’s interest in strengthening these relations has varied with which political party or group has been in power. It would be a fair assumption to say that in South Asia, Sri Lanka and Nepal are the two countries with which Pakistan has sustained relatively the most balanced and cooperative relationship.
Sri Lankan politics and foreign relations, like those of most developing countries, are very much influenced by personalities and family orientation. During Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s current term, Pakistan has tried to promote goodwill and expand relations despite his known leaning toward India. The Sri Lankan government supported India’s Kashmir policy and generally took a cue from what India desired. This was also apparent when Sri Lanka decided to stay away from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meeting.
Despite differences, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have maintained a mutually cooperative relationship. The recent election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Sri Lankan President is expected to give a boost to relations– the optimism based on his family history, those who ruled Sri Lanka favorably disposed towards Pakistan.
Besides, President Rajapaksa Pakistan has been a familiar country. As a young military officer, he has attended professional courses in Pakistan’s training institutions.
In 1971, during the civil war in erstwhile East Pakistan, when India imposed a ban on overflight rights to Pakistan, it was Sri Lanka that granted re-fuelling rights to Pakistan Air Lines. Nearly two hundred flights took place between the two wings through Colombo that helped in maintaining logistic supplies to former East Pakistan.
Pakistan’s association with Sri Lankan defense forces was strengthened in 2009 when it was engaged in the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Pakistan supported the Sri Lanka military by supplying them with defense equipment and intelligence support when most countries had imposed embargoes.
Pakistani pilots are also believed to have assisted in training the Sri Lankan Air Force and enhancing their capability. This created considerable goodwill and mutual confidence between the two armed forces.
Sri Lankan military officers attend courses at various Pakistan’s military training establishments including the prestigious Command and Staff College in Quetta. The two Navies also make friendly port calls, sharing professional experiences and building goodwill. Sri Lankan retired and serving military officers are participants at defense seminars and exhibitions in Pakistan.
Last year, Chief of Defence Staff of Sri Lankan Armed Forces, Admiral Chandrasiri Wijegunaratne visited Pakistan to further fortify relations between the two defense forces. In 2018, the Sri Lankan President was the Chief guest at the Pakistan Republic Day parade. In the past too, presidents and Prime Ministers from Sri Lanka have been dignitaries at the parade.
Sri Lanka’s geographic location is its greatest asset. Maintaining good relations with Pakistan and China gives Sri Lanka extra leverage by retaining reasonable autonomy in foreign policy and widening economic opportunities. China has supplied military equipment and facilitated infrastructure development in Sri Lanka, although certain aspects of it generated controversy.
In the field of sports, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have a cooperative relationship. The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009 was a major set-back for the promotion of cricket in Pakistan, but to the credit of successive Sri Lankan governments, relations remained unscathed. Reviving ties, the Sri Lankan cricket team toured Pakistan in 2019.
Sri Lanka’s strong relations with China are viewed critically by the United States and India as it reduces their space in the region. In the recent past, China has extended generous loans to Sri Lanka for infrastructure projects. Some of these were inefficiently implemented, resulting in price over-runs that came under criticism. Most of them were later rescheduled and completed.
The strategic port of Hambantota located in the southern tip of Sri Lanka has been handed over to China for 100 years and will be a critical link of the Belt and Road Initiative. These strong links with China have irked India. The deal also raises misgivings in the US– and was perceived as a part of the String of Pearls’ strategy whereby China is spreading its influence in the South China Sea.
Despite these developments, Sri Lanka highly values its relations with New Delhi and the US, and through astute handling, maintains a delicate balance in relations with major regional and global powers.
Pakistan expects that linking Gwadar, Karachi with Colombo and Hambantota ports will result in enhanced regional economic activity. To give practical shape to it would, however, require close cooperation spread over years.
The relationship between Pakistan and Sri Lanka is based on well-recognized principles of international diplomacy. Both countries value this broad-based relationship due to its mutual benefit and hopefully, it will continue to strengthen in the coming years.
Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General from Pakistan Army and an eminent scholar on national security and political issues.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Colombo Gazette’s point-of-view