International Relations play a key role in a country’s developmental framework. As a major ally and an investment partner, China has entered this picture in the Sri Lankan context and is marching its way forward in the global context. But as one of the few Sri Lankans who study China and South Asia, Dr. Chulanee Attanayake believes that China’s foray into Sri Lanka is a relatively new development in the 21st Century, despite the historical ties between the two nations. Hailing from the hill country, Dr. Attanayake is a product of Swarnamali Girls High School, Kandy. Having chosen the Arts stream of their Advanced Levels examination, she has obtained a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Peradeniya and a Master’s from the University of Colombo. But her childhood interest in working in foreign policy and an international affairs career bore fruition when she completed a Postgraduate Diploma in International Relations from Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) and started researching on China to fulfil a prerequisite to complete the course. Every new finding brought her closer to achieving the next big step - a scholarship for a Ph.D. at Huazhong Normal University in Wuhan. Currently, she’s a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS-NUS) of the National University of Singapore and she aspires to become a top, internationally renowned Sri Lankan scholar in international politics and security.
Speaking to Women at Work, Dr. Attanayake spoke about her inspirations to step into this career, why a country’s foreign policy is important, COVID and geopolitical relationships, and pursuing careers in social sciences and humanities. Excerpts :
Q What inspired you to focus your research on geopolitics?
Getting into researching on geopolitics and China is partly fate and partly accident.
As a child, I wanted to get into a foreign policy and international affairs career. I started learning French at an early age, thinking it would be helpful in this career path. I enrolled on the Certificate course in International Relations at the BCIS soon after my A/Ls. But once I started university, I had to abandon it as it was difficult to travel between Colombo and Kandy during weekdays for classes. Also, after learning sociology at the university and after starting a job at the Human Rights Commission (HRC) my interest changed into issues on society, human development, and human rights. I worked in the human rights and development sector for about five years.
Even though I have changed my interest for a brief time, my fate had other plans. My boss at the HRC literally forced me to do the Postgraduate Diploma in International Relations at BCIS. And there, I met my mentor, Dr Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda and some amazing teachers. Dr Delgoda inspired me, guided me, and invoked the researcher. The course at the BCIS refreshed my interest in International Affairs. And this changed my career.
I started researching China to fulfil a pre-requisite for completing the course at BCIS. I was working at the Law and Society Trust at the time, and we were doing a project on mega development projects and socio-economic development. So China came up several times in our conversations. There were several articles in the newspapers on China and its increasing foray into Sri Lanka. So I chose China -Sri Lanka relations as my research topic, thinking it would be easy.
When I started researching, I realised there was a huge gap in the subject. There were no contemporary data and information on bilateral relationships. It was challenging for a beginner and for someone trying to finish a thesis while doing a full-time job. But this scant in resources evoked curiosity in me. Every time I dug deeper and deeper into the subject and found something new and interesting, it became a fun exercise. I became more and more interested in China and its policies. I must say, it was one of the most challenging yet satisfying research experiences in my career. My thesis became the first comprehensive analysis of contemporary relations between China and Sri Lanka. It was awarded the Best Thesis of the Year and was published as a monograph in 2013. Because of it, I received a scholarship to read for my Ph.D. in China.
Now I have become one of the few Sri Lankans who study on China and South Asia. Apart from this, my current research also focuses on Geopolitics and Security in the Indo-Pacific. Of course, these two areas are interrelated and complement each other. I recently published an edited volume titled Maritime Sri Lanka: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. This volume explores Sri Lanka as a maritime state.
Q China’s presence has been greatly felt in Sri Lanka. Apart from China, India and the United States too are big players in this game. Is Sri Lanka bracing itself to pay the ultimate price for this power struggle in the Indian Ocean?
Even though China and Sri Lanka have shared historical ties, the Chinese foray into Sri Lanka is relatively a new development in the 21st century. I think several factors complemented this development. Firstly, since the early 2000s, China saw a double-digit development in its economy and began its “going out” strategy to invest its surplus in other parts of the world. During the same time, China’s dependency on oil and raw material from Africa and the Middle East grew exponentially, leading to its dependency on the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Dilemma. For the first time in history, China entered the Indian Ocean as a major player.
Simultaneously, Sri Lanka went for a military offensive to end its three-decade-long terrorist war. This decision was criticised by the West and its allies and led to Sri Lanka being unofficially alienated in the diplomatic arena. As a result, Sri Lanka did not have many partners who are willing to provide the required finances for post-war development. This opened an opportunity for China to have its foothold in Sri Lanka. Today China is the second-largest trading partner and the main development partner.
China’s foray into Sri Lanka has been a catalyst in India and the US to change its policies towards Sri Lanka. The more China’s engagement with Sri Lanka has increased, the more India and the US have increased their affairs in Sri Lanka – be it in the economic and development sector, or maritime affairs. On one hand, this is an opportunity for Sri Lanka. When the great powers are competing they tend to keep strategically important countries closer. As Sri Lanka is a strategically important island state in the Indian Ocean region, all three players want to keep Sri Lanka closer.
However, there is also a challenge. As the competition intensifies, our backyard and the immediate environment is getting militarised. This is a major security threat and a challenge for Sri Lanka. As a result, there is a possibility of influence and intervention for Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs. We see this happening at various levels even now. And this can get even more intensified. As these players are getting teamed up into two different ideological camps, there is also the challenge of polarisation. If we do not play our cards right, we can get into the bad side of one player or another, and we may be pushed to make a choice. This is something we should avoid at all costs. And this is why we need a strong foreign policy, that emphasises our neutrality.
Q Could you elaborate on why having a strong foreign policy is important for any country?
Foreign policy is a country’s self-interest strategies chosen to safeguard its national interests. These strategies are chosen and implemented to achieve their own goals through relations and interactions with other countries. Having a strong policy magnifies a country’s attractive qualities by showing what benefits it will gain, and what benefits others will gain.
Since independence Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has stressed the principle of friendship towards all, enmity towards none. Since the 1950s we have followed a non-aligned foreign policy that does not take sides with major powers in principle. However, a closer look at our foreign policy shows that at times it has changed according to the interests of ruling elites. This has made our foreign policy less consistent and less strong than it should have been.
Lack of a strong foreign policy allows other players to make unnecessary influences and interventions. It makes you vulnerable to exogenous events and the whims and wishes of other countries. The more your foreign policy becomes less consistent the less bargaining power you will have.
Q What’s the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on geopolitical relationships?
COVID-19 and vaccine diplomacy showed that the pandemic is not simply a health tragedy or an economic problem. Politics has been at the forefront in the pandemic response and management. It called for coordinated efforts from countries, including sharing resources and expertise and providing support in fulfilling needed health infrastructure. However, it also showed how regional and global powers are using health diplomacy to calibrate and recalibrate the power balance. The US, India, China, and Russia made efforts to extend their sphere of influence using this opportunity to establish their position as public good providers for small and developing countries. It also gave an opportunity for these players to show their power and capabilities in terms of their research and development capacities. The small and less powerful countries are dependent on their alliances and partnerships with major players. The strength of their alliance showed how fast they are getting access to vaccination.
Q As one of the few Sri Lankans who are researching this area, what challenges have you faced?
Getting the Sri Lankan perspective out into the international discourse is one of the biggest challenges I have faced. By the time the Sri Lankans began discussing geopolitics and security in our neighbourhood, the international community have already discussed, analysed, and interpreted it their way, on our behalf. They have already built theories and opinions on what is happening, what and why Sri Lanka is doing something. Sometimes, when you have an alternative perspective contrary to what has already been established, it gets undermined. Like any other small country, it is easy for the Sri Lankan opinion to get overshadowed by the big power discourse.
At the initial years obtaining data was a challenge, especially in China. Yes, there were newspaper articles and op-eds, but not enough information and data were available in the public domain. As there was not much researching on China in Sri Lanka at the time, there was no one who could tell me where to find that information. Now of course it is different. More and more Sri Lankans are into the subject. There is a plethora of publicly available data.
On the other hand, getting original information from Chinese sources is a challenge. This is partly because of the language constraint. Even though China issues information in English, more detailed information is always in Chinese. So, if you don’t know to read Chinese, you will not get the full picture. You will have to rely on the limited English resources, or the interpretation and opinion of someone who has read the original. I am learning to read Chinese in order to overcome this challenge. It is not an easy language.
Q What is the most satisfying part of your career?
The greatest satisfaction is to know that my research provides knowledge and insight that will facilitate policies affecting day to day life of people. International relations and international politics are not only restricted to high politics or disconnected from domestic affairs anymore. Domestic politics and international relations are interrelated. The knowledge we generate is important in a country’s policymaking. I believe if I do my job right and generate knowledge and information if I manage to provide insights that are as accurate as possible, it will help to make strong and effective policies that help a country’s economic and social development.
I also enjoy engaging with and mentoring the younger generation. It gives me great satisfaction to know that I have contributed to developing their skills and capacities in one way or another. They also teach me a great deal.
Q There’s less interest in pursuing careers in social sciences and humanities when compared to careers in the STEM sector. Your comments?
Due to the current trend, there is a strong emphasis on STEM education, and parents often encourage children to study in this field thinking that it will ensure them a job in the future. I think this is not completely accurate. Yes, there are more opportunities in the STEM sector. But Social Sciences and Humanities are equally important. They provide a broad understanding of the world we live in, how people can participate as active and informed citizens with high-level skills. These subjects develop the ability to question, think critically, solve problems, communicate effectively and make decisions. Even multinational corporations and businesses today require an understanding of the key historical, geographical, political, economic, and societal factors involved, and how these different factors interrelate in order to effectively engage and respond to global issues.