The India-China balancing act
Two events this week brought into focus a delicate diplomatic balancing act that has been assuming increasing importance in recent times. The first function, held at the BMICH, was to commemorate two important mileposts in the history of Sri Lanka-China relations – the 55th anniversary of the establishing of diplomatic relations between the two states, and the 60th anniversary of the rubber-rice pact between China and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).
Both those moves represented bold initiative on the part of Ceylon’s leadership at the time. The US and its western allies were shocked at the temerity of Dudley Senanayake and his government that signed the deal with the communist state on behalf of Ceylon, a member of the Commonwealth and a democracy. Rubber was considered a strategic material at the time on account of the ongoing Korean war. But Ceylon urgently needed to import rice to feed its people, and China was ready to sell at an affordable price – whereas the US was not. Thus the national interest over rode other considerations and a historic barter agreement came into effect in 1952.
The US did not take kindly either, to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China five years later, by the government of prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Yet this relationship has stood the test of time and China has shown itself to be a friend to Sri Lanka in times of trouble. The point was stressed in the messages delivered by Chinese ambassador Wu Jianghao as well as Sri Lanka’s government representatives on the occasion of the commemoration.
The second event during the week was a visit by India’s Minister of Rural Development and Drinking Water and Sanitation, Jairam Ramesh. The affable minister delivered the keynote address at a seminar on poverty alleviation at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) on Thursday. He was introduced to the audience by minister G.L Pieris as “the quintessential professional in Indian politics.” For his part, Ramesh described himself as a ‘pilgrim’ rather than a tourist or diplomat, saying that his attraction to Sri Lanka was mainly on account of his interest in Buddhism. Later the same day he gave a public talk and the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) on ‘The changing role of India in South Asia.’
These events, graced by senior government ministers, in different ways emphasised the cordial relations Sri Lanka has with both China and India, in spite of the two Asian giants themselves being rivals. The architecture of Sri Lanka’s external relations in the future may well be defined by the skill with which it is able to balance the competing demands of its two powerful Asian friends. A corollary to this emerging situation may be the need for Sri Lanka to reduce its trade dependency on the West – or at least counterbalance this dependency with stronger relationships with other trading partners. At present there is heavy dependence on the US and EU as export destinations.
Ramesh in his BCIS talk said India’s changing role in South Asia was not an accident. It was the result of a series of conscious policy choices. The most visible of these was what he described as the belief that there is a role for ‘unilateralism’ and not just reciprocity. India would unilaterally take initiatives to create a better environment for trade etc. Arguing in favour of the India-Sri Lanka free trade agreement, he hinted that the fear that ‘India will swamp others’ is similar to India’s fear of China.
Whilst emphasising the importance of intra-regional trade and investment, he also referred to the need for states to respect each other’s security interests. “One can’t wish away India’s legitimate security concerns.” He noted that Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, all have their security concerns, and if these are not addressed in an appropriate manner the benefits of trade won’t be felt. It is natural for large countries to behave like large countries, and for small countries to feel like small countries, he said. The challenge for India is not to let its size and economic muscle affect its relationship with the rest of South Asia. “Unless it is at peace with its neighbours, India cannot claim a larger role in the world” he concluded.
The only other mention of China during this talk was to say that “an India that has redefined its relationship with China would be far more comfortable in its role in South Asia. The determination of both countries not to let contentious issues affect bilateral relations has had a salutary effect on the relationship.”
While there was no specific reference to New Delhi’s concerns over Sri Lanka’s steadily growing relationship with China, there is no doubt that this is a source of worry to India. Sri Lanka needs to be sensitive to this. Another source of tension in the India-Sri Lanka relationship in recent times has been Colombo’s slow pace with regard to a political solution to Tamil grievances.
It was not so long ago that India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon made a flying visit to Colombo during which, according to media speculation, this concern was raised.
It is common knowledge too, that political parties in Tamil Nadu have become increasingly strident over Sri Lankan issues and this is presenting difficulties for the UPA coalition government. These tensions in the Indo-Lanka relationship however are cushioned by the bona fides that were established earlier as a result of India’s vital support in defeating the separatist agenda of the LTTE. The broader picture is one where India is making a concerted effort to keep the relationship on an even keel.
The manner in which Sri Lanka manages its relationships with India and China will define the environment in which Sri Lanka’s broader policy realignments will take place in the future. Both India and China relate to Sri Lanka as a friend, but they are pitted against each other as economic and military rivals in the region. So for Colombo this is a crucial balancing act that will require wisdom and foresight. For its own stability as well as that of the region, Sri Lanka cannot afford to alienate either of its longstanding and now increasingly powerful Asian friends.comments powered by Disqus