June 2023

Return of old friends

Recent visits to Japan by Sri Lanka’s President Wickremesingh are significant for both historic and more immediate reasons, writes Neville de Silva 

On May 24 Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe arrived on a three-day official visit to Japan, his second to the country after he attended the state funeral of former prime minister Shinzo Abe last September.

This was also President Wickremesinghe’s second summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first having been on the sidelines of Abe’s funeral. These two visits signal the importance of Japan in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy rethinking and a move away from over-reliance on China.  

The latest tripostensibly has a two-fold significance. One is economic persuasion –trying to encourage Japanese investors to return to Sri Lanka after a few bad experiences in recent years.Under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, Colombo reneged on major projects agreed to with Japan, including a major Light Rail Transit (LRT) in Colombo, for which the basic work had already begun.Colombo dropped it without any prior notice to Japan and also went back on a tripartite agreement with Japan and India on the development of the Colombo port’s east terminal.

At his meeting with Prime Minister Kishida, Wickremesinghe expressed regret over his country’s past relations with Japan and said Colombo was ready to restart the dropped projects.

However, Wickremesinghe’s visit was aimed at more than reviving economic cooperation at a time when Sri Lanka is passing through hard times, having declared itself bankrupt in April last year. It had to turn to the IMF for a rescue package that would help pull the country out of the economic morass into which it had fallen – or been pushed – by mediocre governance and incompetent advisers, leaving the people burdened by high taxes, increasing tariffs on utilities and unbearably steep prices on domestic commodities. Small industries and businesses are closing, unable to bear operating costs such as huge electricity rates, and higher water rates to come, while professionals such as doctors, engineers, surveyors and IT and technically qualified personnel are quitting the country, having found fresh opportunities in both the developed and developing world.

Sri Lanka’s President Wickremesinghe (l) with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida
Sri Lanka’s President Wickremesinghe (l) with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida before their May 25 meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo

Pressing as these issues are, Wickremesinghe’s new relationship with Japan covers a broader canvas that surpasses bilateral relations.

Japan has been particularly helpful in advocating Sri Lanka’s case at the Paris Club on debt restructuring, as called for in the IMF programme,and has not joined hands with the West in castigating Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, as the US, UK, Canada and some European nations have done.Tokyo’s approach has been more sober and benign

Furthermore, Colombo, embroiled as it is in delicate diplomacy at a time when Indian Ocean politics is becoming more complicated and confrontational, sees Japan – along with India and the West – as a countervailing force to China’s expanding naval activity and presence in the region.

But there are two other reasons that drive President Wickremesinghe’s interest in establishing closer relations with Tokyo. One is national. The other is personal, though some might not see it that way.

Japan has not joined hands with the West in castigating Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council

The national motive is to create more distance in Sri Lanka’s relations with China which had become too close for comfort under the Rajapaksas (both presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya) for a country that could find itself caught in a gathering geopolitical storm, given its geostrategic location and China’s continuing interest in widening its footprints and influence in Sri Lanka.Xi Jinping and his ruling clan would rather see the Rajapaksas back in the seatof power than Wickremesinghe, whom they consider pro-Western in his thinking, especially pro-Washington.

Moreover, one may conclude that Wickremesinghe sees Japan as a more reliable friend, and one without superpower ambitions.

The other motive is the strong bond Japanese leaders have developed for and with Sri Lanka, dating back to the 1951 San Francisco Conference, when some 48 countries met to draft a post-war peace treaty for defeated Japan.

One wonders whether many modern-day observers realise the important role that Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called, played at that conference, largely due to the performance of Ceylon’s then Finance Minister Junius Richard Jayewardene, popularly known as ‘JR’.

Jayewardene, who earned the sobriquet ‘Yankee Dicky’ at home for his pro-US proclivities, and in 1978 was Sri Lanka’s first executive president, was Ranil Wickremesinghe’s uncle.

In an article written by former Sri Lanka Ambassador Bandu de Silva some eight years ago, he recalls the critical role Ceylon played at the time and an earlier meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers in Colombo, which for the first time proposed that Japan be declared an independent nation.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Sri Lanka’s relations with China had become too close for comfort under the Rajapaksas

Ambassador de Silva wrote that Wikipedia’s account of the conference states Minister Jayewardene’s speech was received with resounding applause. Later, the New York Times recalled that ‘the voice of free Asia, eloquent, melancholy and still strong with the tilt of an Oxford accent, dominated the Japanese peace treaty conference today’.

What is it that Minister Jayewardene said, when the very future of Japan was being debated, that has endeareda tiny Indian Ocean-island – which itself suffered from Japanese air raids on Colombo in April 1942,and the British naval base in north eastern Trincomalee, and had gained independence only three years earlier in 1948 – to Japan’s leaders and its people?

While some other nations called for curbs on Japan and demanded compensation for war-time damage, Ceylon not only urged an independent Japan, free to build its future, but also renounced its right to reparations from Japan.

‘Hatred does not cease by hatred but by love,’ Jayewardene told the conference, quoting the words of the Buddha. Interestingly, Sri Lanka and Japan are both Buddhist countries, though following two different schools.

Perhaps the foundation of the friendship between the two nations is best set out by the Japanese ambassador at the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of diplomatic relations held in Colombo in 2002.

Sri Lanka’s former Finance Minister Junius Richard Jayewardene at the 1951 San Francisco Conference
Hatred does not cease by hatred but by love’: Sri Lanka’s then Finance Minister Jayewardene speaking at the 1951 San Francisco Conference

Recalling JR Jayewardene’s speech at the San Francisco Conference, Ambassador Seiichiro Otsuka said: ‘In the grim aftermath of the war, as Japan began to rise from the ashes and rebuild its nation, it was the government and people of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, who extended their genuine hand of friendship to the Japanese people.

‘Japan and the Japanese people have been indeed grateful to Sri Lanka for the friendship and magnanimity extended to us at the time of our difficulties by the government and people of Sri Lanka. It is in this spirit that Japan has stood firmly and steadfastly side by side with Sri Lanka as a true friend and a constructive partner for Sri Lanka’s development. Indeed, 50 years of our cooperative bilateral relations has been guided, on our part, by this spirit which MrJayewardene spoke of at San Francisco on September 8,1951…friendship and trust.’

However,Minister Jayewardene’s strong and clear support for Japan’s independence might have had a setback for Ceylon elsewhere.

With the East-West Cold War beginning to get warmer, the Soviet Union proposed amendments to the Japan peace treaty that would have restricted Japan’s freedom of action.

Ceylon’s representative took it upon himself to counter Soviet Union objections. At one point Jayewardene turned sarcastic, saying the amendments with which the Soviet Union sought to ‘insure to the people of Japan the fundamental freedoms of expression, of press and publication, of religious worship, of political opinion and of public meeting’ were ‘freedoms, which the people of the Soviet Union themselves would dearly love to possess and enjoy’.

Some might well argue that Moscow took its revenge on Ceylon for Jayewardene’s public rebuke by blocking Ceylon’s admission as a member to the United Nations for some years, arguing that Ceylon was not an independent country as it had a defence treaty with the UK.

How Ceylon gained admission to the UN in 1956 is the result of a quid pro quo withMoscow. But that is another story.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London