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The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike - THE COLOMBO POWERS AND THE SINO-INDIAN WAR OF 1962

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The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike
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One of the first challenges to Mrs. Bandaranaike’s foreign policy was the outbreak of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. She was deeply distressed, since both Asian giants were friends of Sri Lanka with close historical and cultural ties, and their hostile relationship could only be dysfunctional in terms of Asian solidarity and the emerging importance of the Global South. Officials like Glannie Peiris, familiar with the Colombo Powers Conference of 1954, which led to the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung in 1955, were on hand to assist Mrs. Bandaranaike in her mediation. The war had broken out in October 1962; on November 21, Zhou En-Lai declared a unilateral ceasefire providing space for diplomatic efforts.

The non-aligned nations remained non-aligned, on the basis that if they were to mediate they could not take sides in the dispute. Six of the non-aligned nations — Egypt, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Indonesia, selected on the basis that they were all acceptable to India and China - met in Colombo on 10 December 1962. The proposals that emerged from the Colombo Conference stipulated a Chinese withdrawal of 20 km from the ceasefire line observed by China without any reciprocal withdrawal on India’s behalf. Although the mediation effort was encouraged, the failure of these six nations unequivocally to condemn China is said to have deeply disappointed India. Mrs. Bandaranaike was requested by both sides to visit both countries with the proposals. India accepted the proposals in toto while China accepted them in principle as the basis to start negotiations. In the event the initiative withered on the vine.

The mediation effort, bold and unique as it was, failed to bring the warring Asian giants to the negotiating table at the time. More than four decades later the boundary issue between India and China remains unresolved, but that circumstance has not prevented the two countries from forging a flourishing bilateral relationship with a strong economic component.

Mrs. Banadaranaike regarded the mediation effort as "the highest of Ceylon’s efforts in seeking to achieve its foreign policy aims". Addressing the Senate in her country on January 23, 1964, she stated:

I recall that, soon after the Colombo proposals were first formulated, the criticism was made that the proposals favoured China. So much so that the Indian press as well as the local press spared no efforts in decrying the efforts of the Colombo powers. Later on, after the Indian Government had decided to accept the Colombo Conference proposals, the press reactions were that the Colombo Conference Powers had given inconsistent interpretations in Peking and in New Delhi.

The Chinese Government expressed the view that the Colombo Conference countries had gone beyond the positions of mediators and would be functioning as arbitrators or judges if the Chinese Government were called upon to accept the proposals in toto as a pre-condition for direct negotiations between India and China.


Mrs. Bandaranaike did much to place relations with China on a steady course. Her husband’s actions in opening diplomatic relations with China in 1957 provided the foundation of her own policy towards China while continuing the trade relationship that had been forged in 1952, and her objective conduct of the Colombo Powers mediation effort in the Sino-Indian war impressed Zhou En-Lai, with whom she formed a close friendship. Her visits to China in 1964 and 1972 helped to consolidate bilateral relations, as well as the personal connections she developed with Chinese leaders at a time when China was relatively isolated, not regaining its seat in the UN until 1971. Drawing upon the historical and cultural links between the two countries, she encouraged exchanges. At Mrs. Bandaranaike’s request, relics of the Buddha were brought to Sri Lanka for exposition.

Chinese aid to Sri Lanka began during Mrs. Bandaranaike’s term of office. Very different from the aid received from other countries, aid from China was distinguished by its soft terms and its relevance to the development needs of the country. The first high-profile project was the construction of the BMICH, in which she was personally involved; the donation of this international conference hall fulfilled her long-felt desire to host a Nonaligned Summit in Sri Lanka. Mrs. Bandaranaike personally supervised the construction plans and its execution, ensuring that groups of Sri Lankans – from foreign ministry officials to students, workers and farmers – voluntarily assisted the Chinese workers in the ‘shramadana’ campaign. She eagerly awaited the opening ceremony of the BMICH in May 1973, hoping that Zhou En Lai would visit Sri Lanka for this purpose. Unknown to her, Zhou Enlai had unfortunately been diagnosed with the cancer to which, in 1976, he finally succumbed. In his stead China sent one of its famous ten marshalls who had led the Chinese Revolution, Hsu Hsiang-chien. This gesture, intended as a tribute to Sino-Sri Lankan relations, was well received. Since the BMICH project, successive Sri Lanka governments have had the assistance of China in building the Supreme Court Complex and, now, a Cultural Complex, apart from the Hambantota port and Norocholai coal plant, in a burgeoning aid relationship initiated by Mrs. Bandaranaike.

One initiative that threatened to compromise cordial relations with India was the Sino-Sri Lanka maritime agreement. Signed on 25 July 1963, this purely commercial agreement was intended to promote Sri Lankan and Chinese vessels operating from their respective ports to engage in foreign trade, cargo and passenger services, but, in a strange spin, some sections of the Indian media alleged that it involved handing over the strategic natural harbour of Trincomalee to China! The opposition UNP joined in the controversy during the election campaign of 1965 but, after being elected to power, did nothing to abrogate or amend the agreement. The perception of a threat to Sri Lanka-Indian relations also disappeared. Altogether, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s foreign policy success continues to benefit Sri Lanka at a time when China has emerged as a major economic power in the world.