Is­land’s Dilemma

Big power ri­valry could make or break Sri Lanka. It all de­pends on how deftly the coun­try plays its cards.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. W. Perozani

It is like be­ing cought be­tween the devil and the

deep sea.

The is­land state of Sri Lanka’s geostrate­gic po­si­tion has at­tracted all kinds of diplo­matic court­ing from a host of re­gional play­ers such as China, In­dia and Ja­pan. Un­der the ten­ure of for­mer Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa, Colombo paid a great deal of at­ten­tion to China and ac­cepted Bei­jing’s de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance. These friendly re­la­tions changed since the Sri Lankan elec­tions in Jan­uary this year that brought Maithri­pala Sirisena to of­fice.

The Sirisena gov­ern­ment has

shown no hes­i­ta­tion in chang­ing the coun­try’s pro-China stance to re­pair what it claims was the dam­age done to Sri Lanka’s re­la­tions with In­dia, the United States and the Euro­pean Union. In ad­di­tion, other ma­jor megapro­jects be­ing funded by Bei­jing also came to a stand­still and the ten­ders can­celled. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment was quick to re­al­ize the reper­cus­sions of such moves and, as a con­se­quence, China’s As­sis­tant Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs made an of­fi­cial visit to Sri Lanka in Fe­bru­ary this year. De­spite this, re­la­tions be­tween Colombo and Bei­jing were dealt another set­back af­ter the Sirisena ad­min­is­tra­tion re­cently de­clined to grant per­mis­sion for Chi­nese ves­sels to dock in Sri Lanka.

How­ever, ties be­tween China and Sri Lanka may be on the mend in the wake of the China-South Asia Tech­nol­ogy Trans­fer and Col­lab­o­ra­tive In­no­va­tion Fo­rum in Kun­ming, China. Among the var­i­ous dig­ni­taries who at­tended the fo­rum, Dr Sarath Amunugama, the Sri Lankan Min­is­ter for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and Re­search, was also a par­tic­i­pant. Ac­cord­ing to Amunugama, Sri Lanka and China have reached an agree­ment to pro­vide as­sis­tance to China’s science and tech­nol­ogy sec­tor. Two univer­si­ties, namely Mo­ratuwa and Jaffna, along­side the Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute, will be pro­vided as­sis­tance by China. In­ter­est­ingly enough, the min­is­ter also im­plied that Sri Lanka’s new ally may also help them re­al­ize their de­sire of de­vel­op­ing nu­clear tech­nol­ogy in the coun­try since he be­lieves Sri Lanka is fully equipped with the right petroleum re­sources.

It is worth men­tion­ing that China has worked hard to de­velop and strengthen ties with Sri Lanka, es­pe­cially dur­ing the nine years of Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa’s rule. The lat­ter’s visit to China in 2007 to com­mem­o­rate the 50th an­niver­sary of diplo­matic ties with Sri Lanka was an im­por­tant turn. Sri Lanka was part of Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s South Asian tour in Septem­ber 2014, which fur­ther high­lighted its im­por­tance. Colombo re­al­ized Bei­jing’s sig­nif­i­cance be­yond bi­lat­eral for­mal­i­ties dur­ing its cru­cial bat­tle with the sep­a­ratists be­long­ing to the Lib­er­a­tion of Tigers Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE). Bei­jing pro­vided valu­able mil­i­tary, eco­nomic and diplo­matic sup­port to Colombo in the fi­nal bat­tle with the LTTE. Ac­cord­ing to media re­ports, China ful­filled the re­quest for al­most all the weapons on the wish list of the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment, which proved cru­cial in de­feat­ing the in­sur­gency in 2009. China’s sup­port con­tin­ued in the post-war pe­riod as well. A sec­tion of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity re­acted to the ex­ces­sive use of force and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions by the Sri Lankan mil­i­tary dur­ing the civil war but it was China that de­terred any mea­sures against Colombo.

Fur­ther­more, China be­came the coun­try’s lead­ing in­vestor. In the wake of the civil war that hit the Sri Lankan econ­omy badly, Bei­jing ex­tended var­i­ous loans and ini­ti­ated mega projects. Ma­jor projects with Chi­nese help in­cluded a $ 361 mil­lion in­vest­ment in Ham­ban­tota port, $ 1.4 bil­lion for port city Colombo, a $ 500 mil­lion China-owned con­tainer ter­mi­nal at Colombo port, a $ 455 mil­lion coal power plant, highways, ex­press­ways and a theater. It was in this con­text that the for­mer Sri Lankan pres­i­dent re­shaped the coun­try’s for­eign pol­icy and be­gan to de­velop closer ties with China. Dur­ing his term, two Chi­nese sub­marines and war­ships vis­ited Sri Lankan ports though In­dia raised its con­cerns over these de­vel­op­ments.

Bei­jing ar­gues that it won projects through open in­ter­na­tional bid­ding. In­dia lost out to China in those deals due to lack of in­ter­est and fi­nance. It was only af­ter Bei­jing started the con­struc­tion work that New Delhi be­gan to raise con­cerns. More­over, as a sov­er­eign state, Sri Lanka could de­velop ties with any other coun­try and in­vite naval ships to visit its ports. In­dian war ships call on ports of var­i­ous coun­tries on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. The In­dian re­ac­tion was an at­tempt to bully a smaller neigh­bour to dic­tate its for­eign pol­icy. New Delhi has al­ready taken con­trol of for­eign and de­fence poli­cies of another smaller neigh­bour, Bhutan.

Against this back­drop, it is to be seen what the fu­ture di­rec­tion of Sri Lankan pol­icy would be. Whether it con­tin­ues with the cur­rent pol­icy of a tilt to­wards the In­dia-US bloc, changes its in­cli­na­tion to­wards China or fol­lows a rel­a­tively neu­tral path, will be clear af­ter the tech­nol­ogy trans­fer and as­sis­tance com­ing from China. A lot will also de­pend on whether China helps Sri Lanka de­velop its nu­clear as­sets, a move that is not likely to sit well with In­dia and the United States. China, In­dia and the US are un­doubt­edly en­gaged in a strate­gic game to con­trol Asia. In this back­drop, the strate­gic po­si­tion of the smaller state such as Sri Lanka be­comes cru­cial in es­tab­lish­ing an ef­fec­tive strate­gic and eco­nomic strat­egy that works for all.

A lot will also de­pend on whether China helps Sri Lanka de­velop its nu­clear as­sets.

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