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Studied support

Print edition : May 23, 1998 T+T-

COMING out of what seemed to be an interminable phase of silence and circumspection, Sri Lanka finally became the first country to support India fully on its nuclear explosions. It was obvious to observers that much political agonising and some diplomatic free thinking had fashioned Colombo's approach. In one sense, it was courageous of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar to have stuck their diplomatic necks out in a manner that will not be appreciated by the West in general.

Kadirgamar took care to avoid stepping on American toes by noting that the relevant law of the United States "not only permits but requires sanctions to be imposed in a situation of this kind (as now applicable to India)." The U.S. action "is something more than a mere diplomatic response," he emphasised, trying to stay on the right side of the U.S. although Sri Lanka is not yet a strategic country in South Asia in the Clinton administration's view.

The crux of Sri Lanka's stand is on the following lines: "How can one say that we are opposed to India emerging as a nuclear power? There is no such thing at all... It is of course unrealistic to expect that to happen for a long, long time. .. We are certainly not opposed to India becoming a nuclear power. (About Pakistan, too), we are not opposed to anybody becoming a nuclear power... The best solution is (that) there should be no (nuclear) club at all...

But Sri Lanka cannot afford to be more forthright than this, given its need to assess the real intentions of the A.B. Vajpayee Government and also its diplomatic tradition of befriending India's sensitive neighbours. Understandably, Kadirgamar expressed his country's unhappiness over the current friction between India and China in the context of New Delhi's nuclear sabre-rattling. He could not ignore Pakistan's position entirely; Sri Lanka has a track record of keeping its relations with India in a state of good repair despite allowing Pakistan to use its air space at the height of the civil war in East Pakistan in 1971. Yet, Sri Lanka's approval of the recent nuclear tests does not display the extraordinary solidarity that was evident when New Delhi conducted its "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974.