The first-ever visit by a French President to Sri Lanka on July 28 signals France’s determination to play a role in the Indo-Pacific region independent of the Anglo-Saxon powers.
History will be made on Friday July 28, when for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka and the French Presidency, a French President will be visiting the island nation.
Emmanuel Macron will be in Colombo for a quick tête-à-tête with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Ranil Wickremesinghe. But the short time-span of the visit does not detract from its geopolitical importance.
It marks a paradigm shift in France’s relations with Sri Lanka. And the context for this is the emerging geo-political scenario in the Indo-Pacific region.
With Macron’s visit, France will be breaking away from a historical lack of interest in Sri Lanka. In contrast to its policy on India, colonial-era France had no stakes in Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was called at that time. At the close of the 18 th.Century, when Napoleon was at the height of his power in Europe, the British in India feared that France was eyeing the port of Trincomalee. Napoleon’s had famously said: “He who controls Trincomalee controls the Indian Ocean.”
The French had actually captured Trincomalee after a savage naval battle in September 1782. But they eventually withdrew, never to try their luck in Ceylon again.
France’s ties with independent Sri Lanka was weak till 2009. But since 2009, France has been taking a deep interest in the issue of war crimes. It has been playing a major role as part of the “Core Group on Sri Lanka” at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, drafting tough resolutions against Colombo’s human rights record. During the war, France had opened its doors to thousands of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka.
But its trade ties with Sri Lanka have been weak. France sells only US$ 133.9 million worth of goods to Sri Lanka and buys only US$ 272.3 million from the island nation.
However, France has now realized that Sri Lanka has enormous geopolitical importance in the context of the rising threat from China to the established US-dominated security architecture in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s aggressive moves in East Asia and the forays of its navy in the Indian Ocean have caused unease in India, the US and Japan.
And France could not be oblivious to that. France has a big stake in the Indo-Pacific as 93% of its Exclusive Economic Zone is in the Pacific Ocean due to its sovereignty over New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Futuna in the Pacific and over Réunion in the Indian Ocean.
Prior to coming to Sri Lanka, Macron would have visited New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. That visit is also described as “historic” as no other French President had visited them before.
In the geopolitical competition with China, New Delhi and Washington are engaged in pulling Sri Lanka to their side. Japan too is in the fray.
While India is seeing success in its efforts to make its relations with Sri Lanka “transformational” the US has stepped up its diplomacy in the island, showing a heightened interest in promoting human rights and democracy. It is said that it is trying to get Sri Lanka to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Department of Defence to counter China in the region.
Not to be outdone, China sent Yuan Jiajun, a member of the Communist Party Central Committee’s Political Bureau, to meet President Wickremesinghe on July 22, though it is not clear if Beijing would soften its stand on debt restructuring and take a haircut like other lenders.
Significantly, the Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshima will be in Colombo on July 28 and 29 as the head of a 21-member delegation comprising Senior Foreign Policy Coordinator Murakami Manabu; Director General South East and South West Affairs, Arima Yutaka; and Director General International Cooperation, Endo Kazuya among others.
Japan’s thrust is economic though it has a strong geopolitical interest too given its sharp contradiction with China. Japan is keen to resume its traditional role as a top development partner and prevent Sri Lanka from falling prey to the lure of Beijing’s loan offers.
France also wants to extend its sway over Sri Lanka. This is a part of Macron’s efforts to carve out an independent role for France in the Indo-Pacific region. Macron is keen that France should not just be a camp follower of the Anglo-Saxon powers headed by the US.
Although in agreement with the US-led alliance in the latter’s fight against Russian aggression in Ukraine and China’s muscle flexing in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, Macron wants France and Europe to have an independent policy that would be both “balancing” and “mediatory” rather than “confrontationist”.
He visited Beijing on his own initiative and spoke against any Western adventurist action over Taiwan.
A proponent of a “stable multipolar order”, Macron said in Sydney in May 2018, that France’s goal is to act as an “inclusive and a stabilizing mediating power.” In other words, France will be involved in settling disputes.
Macron had fallen out with the US and the UK, after the latter two, formed the AUKUS and entered into a deal with Australia on submarines sabotaging an existing Franco-Australian submarine deal.
The pushy French leader is undeterred by barbs from the Anglo-Saxon countries that regard him a “divider”.
As a part of this plan, Macron envisages a role for regional organizations as he is keen on a “multilateral” approach, in contrast to the domination model promoted by the US and China.
Significantly, Macron’s approach is motived by geo-economics rather than geopolitics. He is committed to promoting common goods like climate change, the environment and biodiversity, healthcare, education, digital technology, and high-quality infrastructure), in a region undergoing rapid demographic, social and urban transition.
In this he is seeking the cooperation of the European Union, which is similarly oriented.
One of his goals is to reduce Europe’s dependence on the US so that it is not dragged into a confrontation between China and the US over Taiwan.
China has enthusiastically endorsed Macron’s concept of strategic autonomy. It is said that Chinese officials constantly refer to it in their dealings with European officials.
Macron also argued that Europe should lessen its dependency on the US for weapons and energy and focus on boosting European defence industries. He has also suggested Europe should reduce its dependence on the “extraterritoriality of the US dollar,” an objective of both China and Russia.
As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, it would welcome France’s independent foreign policy because that could take away some of the sting from the tough Anglo-US stand on human rights, allege war crimes and ties with China.
Sri Lanka needs China’s financial resources for its recovery program and its help at the UNHRC. And France might not be averse to Sri Lanka’s seeking China’s help in economic matters, as Macron is also for economic cooperation with China.