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Sri Lanka- Playing Chinese Checkers

If reports that 101 members of Sri Lanka’s Western Provincial Council are going to China for education and training are true, it should mark a new beginning in bilateral relations. None should resent it, but instead welcome it in principle. It is another matter that the Chinese hosts had footed the bill for visits of the kind in the past but this time, it’s the Provincial Council that is meeting the expenses.

The reservations are not without reason – and it has nothing to do with China being the destination. President Mahinda Rajapaksa in particular has been concerned about profligacy on the part of the Provincial Councils if more powers devolved on them. The Opposition UNP, starting with party Leader Ranil Wickemesinghe, has been blaming mindless spending of the kind by the Rajapaksa Government for much of the economic ills facing the nation.

Going by reports, UNP members of the Provincial Council are as much eager as any other to visit China – or, maybe Timbuktoo, if that were the choice. Though JVP has sent official teams to China in the past, the three-man group in the Provincial Council has opted out this time. They have found fault with the Council paying for the trip.

JVP Councillor Waruna Rajapakse has also pointed out, how China should have been the most unlikely choice as a destination for an education tour on institution-building. As he has recalled, “previous training trips were to institutes in India because of the similarity of the political systems. China is nowhere in the frame”.

Almost simultaneously, and independent of it obviously, the visiting Sri Lankan Treasury Secretary has signed in Beijing, a US $350-million package for the Hambantotta port-bunkering facility and also for the completion of the Colombo-Kattanayake Highway. Both pertain to infrastructure, particularly pertaining to improving the transportation and storage facilities.

No one would grudge any nation wanting to improve the infrastructure in these days of globalised economy, based on cross-country and cross-continental conveyance of goods and services. It is particularly so in the case of Sri Lanka, where the achievements of the pre-war economy and the aspirations of the post-war generation coincide. Neighbouring India learnt about, and has benefited from such opportunities with the advent of economic reforms.

Electoral democracy is all about addressing the whipped-up expectations of individual constituencies and the constituencies of individuals. None would thus begrudge a political leader in President Rajapaksa wanting to develop his backward Hambantotta district as a symbol of development under his ‘new generation’ governance. All development should begin at home – and if there is no development nearer home, what kind of development can any leader in his place be expected to usher in elsewhere in the country? Or, so would go the argument.

Sri Lanka is free – and should be free – to obtain funds from wherever they can come from, for meeting the expectations and aspirations of a nation, whose developmental clock, militancy and terrorism had set backward, time and again. President Rajapaksa asserted in a recent interview – incidentally to an Indian TV channel – how Sri Lanka would go to China, Pakistan or wherever from developmental funds would come. Having gone West-ward with the advent of economic reforms,

India, for instance, should be able to appreciate the Sri Lankan needs, demands – and options. Despite a West-ward tilt in economic terms, New Delhi has not fully forsaken its Moscow connections, though in between the break-up of the Soviet Union and a weakened economy threw up questions, for which answers are yet being found. India’s demands and needs could not wait for New Moscow to recoup itself – and that was it.

According to reports, Sri Lanka is also to receive the second 3-D radar from China. But that comes long after air-threats of the LTTE kind have receded for good. In comparison, Indian radars and other non-weapons military aid for the SLAF came at a time when both Colombo and New Delhi felt threatened by the emerging LTTE air-power apart from the then existing power of the ‘Sea Tigers’. Not any more, if one went by Sri Lankan claims.

It is now acknowledged that the intelligence agencies of India and Sri Lanka worked closely in the SLN’s elimination of the LTTE naval and maritime strength. India also looked the other way when Sri Lankan zeroed in on China and Pakistan for sourcing weapons to fight the LTTE – for reasons of proximity, reliability and price, not necessarily in that order.

President Rajapaksa has never ever missed an opportunity to reassure the Indian neighbours that the two share a ‘unique relationship’ in strategic matters. Yet, there is an eternally resurfacing Indian concern, which is based as much on the historicity of geopolitics as on the relatively recent history of India-China relations, dating back to the Sixties.

It is thus that Admiral Sureesh Mehta, outgoing chief of the Indian Navy, revived talks about the ‘String of Pearls’ theory. The western strategic concept refers to China establishing a maritime/naval presence in countries such as Myanmar and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, if only to ‘encircle’ India. It goes without saying that substantial funding for these projects and also the technology and technicians have all come from China.

This time round, Sri Lanka’s Ports Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda, lost no time in seeking to allay the Indian apprehensions. “They are here to build the Hambantotta Port and it is a development project and has nothing to do with military purposes,” Minister Rajapaksa said about the presence of Chinese technicians in Hambantotta.

On the face of it, India should have no problem acknowledging the Sri Lankan position on the strategic front involving China. Along the north-western border, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there is strong US military presence. Pakistan also enjoys a continuing clout with China, as if Islamabad is riding on two horses at a time.

Whatever the logic, the arrival of the US across the north-western borders – and the circumstances in which it landed in Afghanistan has silenced Indian critics of China-Pakistan relations. Terrorism-related developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan have taken care of that – at least for now. In the past, Islamabad had also mastered the art of mixing American weapons supplies with Chinese diplomatic support to fight India, militarily.

For the host nation, the US involvement in Afghanistan since the late Seventies has ultimately proved to be a disaster of unprecedented proportions – worse than Vietnam. Iraq is a separate case. China is as much an extra-territorial power in the Sri Lankan context as the US is to Afghanistan or Iraq. It flows from their understanding, or lack of understanding of the host nation in its entity. Their concern for the interests of the host nation could at best be surrealistic and superfluous. The less said about the reverse process, the better.

Proximity alone is no guarantor for a better understanding of men and their methods in the evolution of bilateral relations. Moscow learnt it the hard way in Afghanistan. So did India, in the case of Sri Lanka. Both are wiser by their experiences. If anything, it is this experience that seems to be moulding the ‘New Millennium’ Indian approach to Sri Lanka – and possibly the rest of South Asia. Sri Lanka has benefited.

It is not the content that makes ‘China card’ relevant in the post-war Sri Lanka. It is the accompanying political theory, often parroted in private that may have caused eyebrows to rise. There is nothing to suggest that this theory is also the emerging official position — and is thus applicable.

According to the proponents of this theory, if Colombo has to choose between China and India for a long-term ally, it should pick up the former. The theory is based on the archaic, ‘Cold War’ perceptions of ‘exclusivity’. Flowing from such a construct is also the position, “If you are not my friend, you are my enemy.”

The argument has its origins in the ‘Tamil issue’ and the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’. In the case of China, goes the logic, Sri Lanka does not have to worry about anything like the influence of Tamil Nadu society and polity on the bilateral decisions of New Delhi. That is to say, there are no strings attached to Chinese aid and assistance, including political support!

China has tons of money at the moment – and also a veto vote in the UN Security Council. New Delhi cannot match Beijing on both scores for at least some more time to come. Yet, ways have been found for India providing market for Sri Lankan products and services – and also for mutual investments. The FTA has proved more than a point. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which continues to be under active consideration, can take it forward, unlike aid and assistance that come with an unmentioned political price-tag.

In the perception of some Sri Lankan economists and veteran economic administrators, the country could become the “Hong Kong of India”. The latter, in their reckoning, has the need for one. This need will only increase in the coming years and decades. In turn, this would put the Sri Lankan economy first back on the rails and later on the top of the list of South Asian economic performers as fast as the country achieved the honour in the Seventies.

At the height of the ‘Eelam War IV’, India showed that it did not need veto power to bring around – or, check — emerging and more powerful adversaries of Sri Lanka on the global scene. Nor did China stop the West from a reference being made to the Sri Lankan situation in the UN Security Council, after a point. If China has the veto vote, so has Russia. In trade-offs of the kind as was witnessed in the Security Council during the closing weeks of the ethnic war, nations like Sri Lanka would continue to be treated as pawns by the ‘Big Five’ – and nothing more.

India and Sri Lanka cannot shed the geographical and geological realities governing their two nations and their peoples. Nor can they wish away the geo-strategic realities on which neither has any great control after a point. Given the attendant realities, it is truer of Sri Lanka than of India – and would remain so for all times to come.

By the same token, neither can Sri Lanka – nor India, for that matter – wish away the realities of Tamil Nadu politics and society in matters pertaining to the ‘ethnic issue’ in the island-nation. Electoral politics is a game which President Rajapaksa is as well-versed in as anyone else – and understands the compulsions of the same, as any other.

The ‘Tamil Nadu factor’ will remain relevant to bilateral relations only until Sri Lanka finds a peaceful solution to the ‘ethnic issue’. That can happen tomorrow, that can take weeks and months, if not years and decades. The other issue pertains to fishing in the Palk Bay. No Chinese presence can wish away the issue, for which peaceful solutions are already on the anvil. Negative impulses on these counts can only upset the bilateral apple-cart, where is no need or reason.

Introducing external elements or alternative sources/resources into bilateral discourses cannot alter the situation. It can complicate the relations, if at all. Given his vast political experience and the exposure that the conduct of the ‘Eelam War IV’ entailed, President Rajapaksa would understand this as well – than those who are not as much privy to the pressures of public office as he is.

Throughout ‘Eelam War IV’ and also post-LTTE, Tamil elements in Sri Lanka are known to refer to the ‘China angle’ in bilateral relations with India. New Delhi has not bought their argument that the Tamil community and polity have been bulwarks of ‘Indian interests’ in Sri Lanka, against the ‘expansionist tendencies’ of China. It did not do so in the past, and there is no reason to believe that it would have cause to do so in the future.

Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad’s Independence Day message this year needs to be contextualised, thus. It may have had nothing to do with the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’, something to do with the ‘ethnic issue’, and has everything to do with improved bilateral relations and human concerns. Almost simultaneously, the Tamil Nadu Government warned local elements against speaking in support of ‘banned organisations’ (read: LTTE). The State police have whitened the face of slain LTTE leader Prabhakaran in public places.

Alok Prasad took the opportunity to reiterate the well-defined Indian respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. By the same token, he repeated the Indian call for a ‘political settlement’ to the ethnic issue, over which the global concerns are for real. Just because China is maintaining stoic silence over the issue, it does not mean Beijing is unconcerned about the same – or, would react the way hard-liners in Colombo may want it to react.

Nor does it mean that India too should look the other way, likewise. Independent of ethnicity and ‘umbilical cord links’, India would have reacted the same way, if the victims of the ‘Sri Lankan war’ had belonged to another community. As the immediate neighbour, New Delhi could not have turned away the affected people – knocking at its door, whatever the reason and whatever their needs and demands. The Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka has traditionally laid as much claim to an umbilical cord relationship with India as the Tamils – if not more.

Post-Cold War, India seems to acknowledge that Sri Lanka is the first line of strategic defence for the country in the southern seas than ever before – and that the strategic defence of Sri Lanka forms a key element to the strategic defence of India. There is more that they can do together in terms of maritime counter-terrorism and may be continued to be called upon to do so.

The existing traffic in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood, the expanding EEZ with overlapping interests and potential and interdependent economies are factors that cannot be brushed away. A bridge across the Palk Strait would link Sri Lanka to the whole of Eurasia landmass, and that is an opening that the nation’s economy and people deserve.

Independent of the inspirational expansion that the Sri Lankan Navy in particular may be launching even after the conclusion of the ‘ethnic war’, the strategic concerns and security requirements of the two nations will remain inter-twined for all times to come. Introducing newer elements and external factors would only add to the composite security concerns, not only of India but also of Sri Lanka, particularly over the medium and the long terms. It cannot jump-start the short-term, either.

It does not make sense for Sri Lanka to become the battle-ground for a war between two regional – or, global powers – for a war that would not be fought. The tensions and trials go with it all are not only avoidable. They can be as bad as the issues and problems facing any country fighting a war.

Nations do not fight other nation’s battles for the love of it – not any more. To borrow an American phrase, they do so in ‘supreme national self-interest’. It is as true of China and India as any other. It cannot be otherwise. In the case of India, as is known, the nation’s strategic security is inter-linked to that of its neighbours, no questions asked. That cannot be said of extra-territorial powers, in this case or any other.

China’s stoic silence not to interfere in the ‘Bangladesh War’ of 1971, despite being plodded by new-found American friend of the time should be a case in point. More importantly, it was the Pakistani ally of China that was at the receiving end at the time, yet Beijing had its role (or, non-role), well defined. So was it during the ‘Kargil War’ nearly three decades down the line.

In theoretical terms, a tempting alternative for Sri Lanka could be to broaden the strategic spectrum, and try and replace India with the US, to usher in an element of global importance, competition and adversity to play. Countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia have paid the price in the past.

Nearer home, late President J R Jayewardene found the West unwilling to get involved when he wanted them the most – and had done their bidding, precisely with such a hope, or promise, in mind. The West was nowhere to be seen when India launched ‘Operation Poomalai’ to reach food and medicines to the besieged Tamils in the Eighties.

It is one thing for wars to lead to development – and another, for development to lay the basis for a war. As Sri Lanka knows from experience, there are no free lunches in geo-strategic diplomacy, and developmental funding is only a post-dated cheque that extra-territorial powers would want to cash on in an unmentioned, unpredictable future.

The current prosperity of China owes to demand from the West, which is going to take decades to revive its recession-struck economy. When that happens, China may find itself in a different world altogether – on the trade and economic front, whatever be its strategic strength and calculations.

India’s limited prosperity is calibrated, and the growth, assured. However, Sri Lanka’s current needs on the economic front are real, and so is the urgency. That cannot be said about its strategic exigencies, however.

Reciprocity, as different from cooperation, is the name of the game. Each flows from the other, and are not always inter-changeable. In the South Asian context, both India and Sri Lanka have benefited from it. Both have lost in the absence of the same. It will remain so in the future, too.

Permanent substitutes are in their best when playing solo. They need not be the best of team-players. That requires a different attitude and approach, training and temperament, dependence and dedication. At best, they can alter the course of the game for the moment. Whether that would automatically translate into real victory at the final whistle is anybody’s guess!

(Courtesy – Daily Mirror, Colombo, 22,24 and 25 August 2009.The writer, Mr N.Sathiya Moorthy, is an experienced analyst of Sri Lankan affairs, based in Chennai. He is also Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, Chennai,India.Views expressed are his own).

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