Build­ing New Bridges

China’s grow­ing pres­ence in Sri Lanka could be per­ceived as a threat to In­dia-Sri Lanka re­la­tions.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Kruthagna Na­dini Per­era

China is de­ter­mined to es­tab­lish a strong bond with Sri Lanka by tak­ing a strate­gic ap­proach.

Re­la­tions be­tween In­dia and Sri Lanka have al­ways been more than just cor­dial ges­tures of diplo­macy. The de­ci­sion of In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh not to at­tend the Com­mon­wealth Heads of Gov­ern­ment Meet­ing ( CHOGM) hosted by Sri Lanka in Septem­ber was con­ceiv­ably the most overt stroke so far. Many an­a­lysts termed it as harm­ful for fu­ture re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries.

Ac­cord­ing to a Chi­nese staterun think tank “in deal­ing with its re­la­tion­ship with Sri Lanka, In­dia has adopted a new ap­proach that may harm its re­la­tions with neigh­bors." The action was viewed as the set­ting of a new di­rec­tion in In­dia’s for­eign pol­icy. The Sri Lankan me­dia termed the boy­cott an at­tempt by the In­dian gov­ern­ment to pla­cate its Tamil pop­u­la­tion in the Tamil Nadu state in view of the next gen­eral elec­tions.

None­the­less, China seems to be ex­ploit­ing the sit­u­a­tion to its ad­van­tage to es­tab­lish a strong bond with Sri Lanka, by tak­ing a strate­gic ap­proach.

In Oc­to­ber last year, when the Tamil Nadu chief min­is­ter was haul­ing the cen­tral gov­ern­ment over the coals for its fail­ure to im­ple­ment a res­o­lu­tion that called for eco­nomic sanc­tions

against Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment was mak­ing ar­range­ments for a tie-up with China in the form of the Free Trade Agree­ment (FTA) - the ‘big­gest de­vel­op­ment’ in Sino-Lanka co­op­er­a­tion since the 1952 Rub­ber-Rice Pact.

The Deputy In­ter­na­tional Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Com­merce Min­istry of China, Yu Jian­hua, who re­cently vis­ited Sri Lanka, was hope­ful for a fast com­ple­tion of the first phase of the FTA. He made it quite clear that Sri Lanka was a pri­or­ity coun­try for China. “The FTA will up­grade trade lev­els be­tween Sri Lanka and China. It will also en­hance trade skills of both coun­tries. We will work dili­gently in our joint ef­forts,” Jian­hua said. He also hinted that the FTA would go beyond trade. “The FTA is not meant for trade only. It will in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize our strate­gic co­op­er­a­tion part­ner­ship as man­dated by the lead­ers of both coun­tries. We en­cour­age Chi­nese firms to be­come in­volved in Sri Lanka’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.”

Sri Lanka has had a Free Trade Agree­ment with In­dia since 1996 that has ben­e­fit­ted Sri Lankan trade, which has in­creased from $600 mil­lion in 2000 to $5 bil­lion in 2012. How­ever, trade with China, even de­void of a FTA, has grown from $658.4 mil­lion in 2005 to $2676.13 mil­lion by 2012. Strength­ened by a FTA, trade re­la­tions be­tween Sri Lanka and China are likely to flour­ish fur­ther, af­fect­ing the growth and vol­ume of In­dia’s trade with Sri Lanka.

Host­ing the CHOGM, along with its five con­cur­rent in­ter­na­tional events, was in­deed an out­stand­ing ac­com­plish­ment for Sri Lanka. How­ever, the same event was also used to send a mes­sage to In­dia that it needs to be care­ful in its deal­ing with Sri Lanka.

Sub­se­quently, the pres­ence of China in a trade ex­hi­bi­tion held par­al­lel to the CHOGM was quite over­rid­ing. Of the 83 for­eign com­pa­nies that par­tic­i­pated in the event, 42 were Chi­nese. Con­versely, only 21 com­pa­nies rep­re­sented In­dia at the ex­hi­bi­tion, although it still is Sri Lanka’s largest trad­ing part­ner. The Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment has been en­cour­ag­ing the Chi­nese to in­vest in the coun­try, of­fer­ing lu­cra­tive in­cen­tives.

The un­set­tled bor­der claim be­tween China and In­dia along with the lat­ter’s grow­ing strate­gic ties with the U.S. and Ja­pan, has added to China’s wor­ries. It views In­dia’s rise as a re­gional eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power with much con­cern although both coun­tries have avoided a full­frontal con­fronta­tion ever since the 1962 Sino-In­dia war.

China re­al­izes that Sri Lanka has the po­ten­tial to make a ma­jor im­pact on In­dia’s strate­gic se­cu­rity. This is the rea­son why Chi­nese pres­ence seems to be ever in­creas­ing in this is­land na­tion. Projects such as the Colombo Con­tainer Ter­mi­nal, Ham­ban­tota Port and Mat­tala air­port along with heavy Chi­nese in­vest­ment in the satel­lite and tele­com sec­tors pro­nounce dire im­pli­ca­tions for In­dia’s na­tional and mar­itime se­cu­rity.

Apart from Chi­nese en­try into the real es­tate and man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tors of Sri Lanka, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­tural pro­grams are also in the pipe­line. This is seen as a pos­si­ble ef­fort to counter the long-es­tab­lished cul­tural links be­tween In­dia and Sri Lanka.

The Tamil prob­lem has al­ready caused se­vere dam­age to the In­di­aSri Lanka re­la­tion­ship. An in­creas­ing Chi­nese pres­ence in the re­gion could fur­ther am­plify the ten­sion, es­pe­cially with the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment vis­i­bly fa­vor­ing China prob­a­bly with the aim to de­crease its de­pen­dence on In­dia.

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