Strik­ing a Bal­ance

Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa is com­mit­ted to turn­ing the fish­ing vil­lage of Ham­ban­tota into one of Asia’s lead­ing com­mer­cial cities. How­ever, award of the con­tract to a Chi­nese com­pany has sparked much con­tro­versy.

Southasia - - Contents - By Ta­hera Sa­jid

What ben­e­fits will Sri Lanka reap once the Ham­ban­tota Port is op­er­a­tional?

The Ham­ban­tota Dis­trict lo­cated in south­ern Sri Lanka has been the cen­ter of some ma­jor de­vel­op­ments since 2007. The Ham­ban­tota port, set to open in June 2013, is seen as a ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment by China, es­pe­cially due to its strate­gic lo­ca­tion on one of the world’s busiest East-West ship­ping lanes. Af­ter com­ple­tion, the fa­cil­ity will be run by the Sri Lanka Ports Au­thor­ity to gen­er­ate tens of thou­sands of jobs and bil­lions in eco­nomic ben­e­fits for the coun­try.

There is much con­cern in in­ter­na­tional cir­cles, par­tic­u­larly from In­dian an­a­lysts and govern­ment of­fi­cials, re­gard­ing China’s grow­ing in­flu­ence across the In­dian Ocean. Projects with Chi­nese in­volve­ment in­clude sea­ports like Gwadar in Pak­istan, Chit­tagong in Bangladesh, Sitwe in Myan­mar and now, Ham­ban­tota in Sri Lanka. Th­ese are in­creas­ingly viewed as a con­certed Chi­nese ef­fort di­rected to­wards con­tain­ment of In­dia’s as­pi­ra­tions in the re­gion. How­ever, Sri Lanka has on sev­eral oc­ca­sions cat­e­gor­i­cally chal­lenged any such al­le­ga­tion and praised China’s steady sup­port for Sri Lanka’s eco­nomic and de­fense needs.

In a July 2009 in­ter­view with TIME Mag­a­zine, Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa re­it­er­ated that the strate­gic gains from Ham­ban­tota port would greatly ben­e­fit Sri Lanka, and it was not a Chi­nese propo­si­tion, be­cause “I asked for it. China did not pro­pose it. It was not a Chi­nese pro­posal. The pro­posal was from us; they gave money. If In­dia said, ‘Yes, we’ll give you a port’, I will gladly ac­cept. If Amer­ica says, ‘We will give a fully equipped air­port’ - yes, why not? Un­for­tu­nately, they are not of­fer­ing to us.” On an­other oc­ca­sion, Ra­japaksa re­vealed that he had of­fered the Ham­ban­tota port pro­ject first to In­dia and Amer­ica but the terms of­fered did not match the Chi­nese pack­age. More­over, in his pres­i­den­tial elec­tion man­i­festo in 2010, Pres­i­dent Ra­japakse de­tailed the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of the pro­ject, re­mark­ing, “… it is very likely that over 10,000 ves­sels will dock at the new Port, an­nu­ally, thereby gen­er­at­ing around Rs. 50 bil­lion [US$455 mil­lion] in for­eign ex­change.”

Dr. Dayan Jay­atilleka, Per­ma­nent Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Sri Lanka to the United Na­tions, was also quoted while ap­pre­ci­at­ing China’s role in sup­port­ing Sri Lanka dur­ing the Tamil in­sur­gency, when the Western na­tions and In­dia of­fered only con­di­tional and limited sup­port. “When oth­ers im­posed cut- backs or con­di­tions on weapons sales to Sri Lanka they did not stop to think that a fel­low democ­racy would be at a grave dis­ad­van­tage against a ter­ror­ist en­emy which had no re­stric­tions on smug­gling of weapons, in­clud­ing heavy weaponry. China has en­abled in prac­tice, not just in words, the de­fense of Sri Lanka’s in­de­pen­dence, and sovereignty and restora­tion of its national unity.”

Even the Chi­nese govern­ment on many oc­ca­sions has tried to al­le­vi­ate In­dia’s con­cerns. De­fense Min­is­ter, Mr. Liang Guan­glie on his visit to Sri Lanka in Septem­ber 2012, re­port­edly as­sured that the eco­nomic and mil­i­tary ties be­tween the two coun­tries were meant for peace­ful pur­poses, “main­tain­ing re­gional se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity and not tar­geted at any ‘third party,” clearly re­fer­ring to In­dia. Con­sid­er­ing that China has not shown any ag­gres­sive ten­den­cies to­wards neigh­bor­ing na­tions and holds a good track record of em­ploy­ing peace­ful means, the comment deserves se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion from In­dian au­thor­i­ties.

The port is largely seen by both gov­ern­ments as a sign of the good­will gen­er­ated by China in Sri Lanka through its rea­son­able, con­sis­tent and gen­er­ous poli­cies over the years, es-

pe­cially dur­ing Sri Lanka’s re­gional and in­ter­nal chal­lenges. How­ever, In­dia and China are the world’s two fastest-grow­ing economies that have fought one war and have a his­tory of fric­tion even in peace-time re­la­tions. In­dia’s de­sire to be the leader and re­gional power ap­pears to be chal­lenged by China’s steady suc­cesses in eco­nomic and mil­i­tary fields, which un­der­stand­ably fuel In­dia’s in­se­cu­ri­ties. The para­noia in In­dia that China may even­tu­ally be­come a real eco­nomic and se­cu­rity threat to what In­dia con­sid­ers its nat­u­ral in­flu­ence in the re­gion is grow­ing.

To that ef­fect, Pro­fes­sor Chellaney, an aca­demic at the Cen­tre for Pol­icy Re­search, New Delhi, stressed in 2009 in The Times of In­dia that the main rea­son for Chi­nese in­fat­u­a­tion with Sri Lanka was due to its strate­gic lo­ca­tion in the In­dian Ocean, which is “…a cru­cial in­ter­na­tional pas­sage­way for trade and oil.” Ham­ban­tota is only “…the lat­est `pearl’ in China’s strat­egy to con­trol vi­tal sea lanes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the In­dian and Pa­cific Oceans by as­sem­bling a ‘string of pearls’ in the form of lis­ten­ing posts, spe­cial naval ar­range­ments and ac­cess to ports.’’

In­de­pen­dent ob­servers spec­u­late that though Chi­nese in­ter­ests in the re­gion are pri­mar­ily eco­nom­i­cally ori- ented there is no deny­ing that some of th­ese may lead to ful­fill­ing se­cu­rity con­sid­er­a­tions in the fu­ture. The Chi­nese de­vel­op­ment plan­ners and prac­ti­tion­ers, as well as de­fense strate­gists, clearly want to see China move steadily to­wards a su­per­power sta­tus and In­dia is wary be­cause that would change the power bal­ance en­tirely and make China a force to be reck­oned with, not only in South Asia but also at the global level.

While In­dia and China con­tinue to chal­lenge each other on var­i­ous fronts, Sri Lanka needs to bal­ance its own in­ter­ests while main­tain­ing am­i­ca­ble re­la­tions with both coun­tries. Sri Lanka has found China to be a tried and tested friend and ally and both will con­tinue to work to­wards com­mon in­ter­ests and gains. At the same time, good re­la­tions with In­dia are cru­cial for po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. Even though ten­sions in the re­la­tion­ship will re­main as each side con­tem­plates its po­si­tion, not alien­at­ing the other will prove a crit­i­cal for­eign pol­icy goal for both In­dia and Sri Lanka. In­dia, for its part, will also have to ree­val­u­ate its own for­eign pol­icy to­wards China for peace in the re­gion, and not pres­sur­ize Sri Lanka un­nec­es­sar­ily. Bal­anc­ing power dy­nam­ics through rea­son­able pol­icy di­rec­tives goes a long way to­wards re­gional pros­per­ity.

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