On positioning one’s island

by Terence MacNamee

There are advantages to being a small country on the edge of larger worlds. The whole strategy of such small countries has to be to profit by their peculiar location.

Recently-elected president Sirisena of Sri Lanka has been on a visit to China. But first he went to India. Wherever he goes, he enjoys tremendous goodwill, because he represents hope for a divided Sri Lanka, hope that the island nation might somehow be able to put its divisions behind it.

He has pulled away from the dependence on China that was a feature of the previous Rajapaksa administration. That was why he made a point of going to India first. But it will still pay Sri Lanka to maintain the favour of China. China needs Sri Lanka as part of its “string of pearls” for the “new silk road“ it is building to open up the Southwest of its territory to industry. Chinese ships can call in to Colombo or a special port on their way to or from the coast of the Indian Ocean nearest to landlocked Southwest China. And Sri Lanka can benefit from Chinese investment.

A small country like Sri Lanka – with few other advantages, and just coming out of a disastrous civil war – can use its strategic position as a way to attract investment from major economies. It can act as an entrepôt and port of call for ships of all nations. That was what Colombo was in the days of the Raj.

Ireland is a country that can be compared to Sri Lanka, although they seem so different and worlds apart. These are two small island nations, each on the periphery of a continent, on the edge of an ocean, periodically bedevilled by inner demons that are a heritage from having once belonged to the British Empire.

Ireland too has courted China in recent years, more out of instinct that anything else. Xi Jinping was hosted on a visit even before he took over in Beijing, and the new Confucius Institute at University College Dublin is shortly to be upgraded to a “model” institute.

Ireland has been pursuing the same strategy with the US for many years. Ireland belongs to the European Union, of course, but at the same time it is really the 51st state of the USA. Every year on St Patrick’s Day, where does the Irish Taoiseach go to distribute shamrock and show the flag? Brussels? No. He is shmoozing at the White House, where he belongs.

Ireland is a backdoor into the European Union for American companies. It too has learned to back more than one horse in the race of world economies. It needs to do this more than ever in order to make the most of its precarious position. Sri Lanka inevitably finds itself doing the same.