Indo Lanka relations – a game of Chinese checkers?

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

There seems to be concern of late regarding the direction in which Indo-Sri Lanka relations are drifting. First there was the badly mismanaged Indian Film Awards ceremony (IIFA), which was organised ostensibly to boost tourism and foster closer relationsbetween the two countries. At the end of the day this event left Sri Lankans feeling like hosts who had been rudely asked to confine themselves to the ‘servants’ quarters’ of their own house, by the guests they had invited for the party.

Soon after this expensive fiasco ended, there was President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s state visit to India. It was the lead story on most local TV channels but barely got a mention on Indian national TV (NDTV). While there is no denying India’s pivotal role in helping Sri Lanka rid itself of its biggest scourge the LTTE, a certain brashness that has characterized India’s recent interactions with its small southern neighbour has left many scratching their heads wondering what’s going on.

A Chinese-aided deep sea port is being built with a large Chinese labour force at Hambantota

During the President’s visit a number of agreements were reached and contracts signed, relating to Northern reconstruction activities (mainly railways), and cooperation in various sectors of the economy. Concessionary credit lines were extended by India for some projects. There will be infrastructure improvements for Sri Lanka, while Indian companies will benefit from the contracts. The controversial CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) was not explicitly mentioned although there was an indirect reference to the need to build on “progress achieved” under the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement through “a more comprehensive framework of economic cooperation.”

But the more weighty benefits to India would seem to be at the strategic level. Sri Lanka has pledged to support India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and a non-permanent seat on the UNSC for 2010-2011, according to the joint declaration issued after the visit. In another clause Sri Lanka agreed to the setting up of Consulates General of India in Jaffna and Hambantota, in order “to reinforce consular cooperation and friendly links between the two countries.” These diplomatic posts will be in addition to the existing High Commission in Colombo and Deputy High Commission in Kandy.

Isn’t this rather an excessive amount of diplomatic attention for a small country like Sri Lanka? It could be argued that the post in Jaffna is needed to facilitate processing of visa applications etc. of Northern Sri Lankan Tamils travelling to India. But what is the rationale for diplomatic presence in Hambantota, where there are no significant numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils or persons of Indian origin to speak of? Hambantota as we know is where a Chinese-aided deep sea port is being built with a large Chinese labour force on the ground. Is that the ‘explanation’ for India’s sudden interest in Hambantota?

More importantly, is there a tit-for-tat game of Chinese checkers going on between the Indians and the Chinese, over Sri Lanka? India has agreed to help rehabilitate the Kankasanturai Harbour, the Palaly Airport and the railway system in the North, according to the joint declaration. And now, bingo! We have a visit by a high ranking Chinese emissary committing millions of dollars in loans, reportedly for a second international airport in the south, and to improve the country’s railway network.

Whatever it is that is brewing in the international firmament, it seems that president Rajapaksa and his External Affairs team would do well to brush up their skills in chess, rather than Chinese checkers, for the game of foreign relations appears to have changed dramatically. With the war over, it would appear that the country has suddenly been flung into the vortex of a high-stakes game of power politics between the two Asian giants, vying for a foothold on the island on account of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean.

It’s worth noting that the more accommodating stance of the United States recently in relation to Sri Lanka is also related to concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the region. These concerns were reflected in the report of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sri Lanka released in December last year, which pointed out that the U.S. also had interests in the region which included “securing energy resources from the Persian Gulf and maintaining the free flow of trade in the Indian Ocean.”

China’s closer diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka and the southern port facilities seem to fit in with what is referred to by some analysts as China’s “string of pearls strategy,” whereby China presumably seeks to secure the sea lanes that form its trade routes and energy supply lines from West Asia. China’s approach is known to be one of ‘soft diplomacy,’ and non-confrontational. Unlike aid from the west, its aid comes without strings attached.

It is interesting that against the backdrop of these developments, the Japanese Ambassador Kunio Takahashi has gone on record with an interview to an English daily newspaper in which he details the formidable volumes of Japanese ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) that have been disbursed to Sri Lanka for decades, since the 1950s. It is reported to run into more than Rs.1000 billion. The ambassador took pains to stress that Japanese aid to Sri Lanka comes with no hidden agendas.
While it is true that Japan too has an interest in securing sea lanes through the Indian Ocean for its energy supplies from the Arab states, Japan’s relationship with Sri Lanka has a unique aspect that needs to be appreciated. It goes back to the San Francisco Peace Conference of 1951 that marked the formal end of World War II, and where Japan, the humiliated imperial power, was prohibited from engaging in future military aggression and forced to pay reparations. The speech made by J.R.

Jayewardene at that conference is remembered with gratitude to this day by the Japanese, who believe it facilitated Japan’s reintegration to the world community. When JR in his speech quoted the words of the Buddha (“Hatred does not cease by hatred but by love alone”) he probably had no inkling of the profound and lasting impact they would have on the future course of Japan-Sri Lanka relations.

In 2007 at the height of the military campaign against the LTTE, when the western bloc led by Britain sought to pressurize Sri Lanka by threatening to withhold aid, Yasushi Akashi, the special envoy of Japan, a co-chair of the peace process, spoke out to reassure Sri Lanka that Japan would not withhold aid. “Even if some of the donors have doubts and hesitations, Japan is totally committed to be on your side at the time of difficulty and challenge,” Mr Akashi is quoted as saying. He specifically referred to the San Francisco episode saying that “Japan remembers very fondly the generous attitude taken by Sri Lanka at the time of San Francisco Peace Conference which brought back Japan’s independence after the Second World War.” (Daily News June 11 2007).

Japan abstained from voting on the negative resolution on Sri Lanka relating to alleged war crimes, that some western states sought to pass at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last year. Akashi also reportedly declined a request to serve on the “Advisory Panel” on Sri Lanka that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seeks to set up. It appears that Japan is a case that defies the usual dictum that “there are no permanent friends in international relations, only permanent interests.” The ‘special’ nature of the Japan-Sri Lanka relationship seems to be an under-appreciated aspect of our foreign relations.

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