The visit of Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, to Sri Lanka brings into focus complex issues that stretch beyond the limits of Indo-Lanka relations. It brings into relief the importance, like it or not, of Sri Lanka in the geo-politics of the region. It is vital for Sri Lanka to understand some of the [...]


Modi’s visit, Chinese projects, the baby and the bathwater


The visit of Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, to Sri Lanka brings into focus complex issues that stretch beyond the limits of Indo-Lanka relations. It brings into relief the importance, like it or not, of Sri Lanka in the geo-politics of the region. It is vital for Sri Lanka to understand some of the current developments in their wider international context so as to protect its national interest.

PM Modi in his address to Parliament stressed the interconnectedness of histories of the two countries and said Sri Lanka’s success is of great importance to India. He spoke of India’s commitment to advancing peace and prosperity in the region ‘including our common maritime neighbourhood.’

Against a background of unease that had developed over Sri Lanka’s perceived pro-China tilt, and more recently the docking of a Chinese submarine in Colombo, it is significant that he said regional security was a ‘shared responsibility.’ “The security of our two countries is indivisible. Equally our shared responsibility for our maritime neighbourhood is clear.” He said the Indian Ocean is critical to the security and prosperity of the two countries.

Media reports
Modi’s visit comes barely two months after a new government assumed office in Sri Lanka, and in the shadow of media reports alleging involvement of India’s spy agency RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) in effecting the regime change. On Friday the Hindu newspaper quoted former president Mahinda Rajapaksa himself making this claim in an interview. But he did not accuse Modi, saying “… he only came in less than a year ago. It was a long term plan.” Rajapaksa told the Hindu “They misunderstood me over the Chinese question. And that is why they planned this.”

The Chinese, separately, have expressed shock at the suggestion that the docking of their submarine was motivated by strategic or military considerations. In fact they are deeply distressed by the misunderstandings this idea has caused. At a meeting with a select group of journalists this week the new Chinese Ambassador Yi Xianliang was emphatic that the submarine’s mission was entirely ‘technical and logistical’ in nature.

India a friend
“I was shocked by the controversy and misleading comments on the Chinese submarine’s docking
at Colombo Port for logistical replenishment last year” the ambassador said. “Actually the Chinese submarine came to the Colombo Port on its way to and back from the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast to carry out escort missions for the merchant vessels, from both Chinese and other countries.The dockings were regular port calls for replenishment of supplies and is a common practice of navies of all countries.” The ambassador said the activity was transparent and received prior approval by the Sri Lanka government. “China has no intention to use Sri Lanka to threaten any other country’s security” he added.

It’s relevant to mention that Ambassador Yi was the Chinese Governor to the Asian piracy-combating agreement body ‘ReCAPP’ before he came to Sri Lanka. Noting that China followed the rules he explained that when a submarine enters the territorial waters of another state it travels above the water and displays its national flag. “I need to have a frank dialogue. India is also our friend” he said. Trilateral cooperation among China, Sri Lanka and India was most welcome, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had told his Sri Lankan counterpart Mangala Samaraweera in Beijing.

Port City project
On the troubled topic of the Port City project and its suspension by the new government, the Chinese view is that a ‘small problem relating to a project’ should not have a significant impact on long term bilateral relations. Officials were hopeful that the issue would be resolved before President Sirisena’s state visit to China.

The Chinese have said on previous occasions too, that their company had complied with the relevant laws when launching this project. On questions relating to Environmental Impact Assessment reports they have asserted that these are the responsibility of the Sri Lankan government. These arguments are hard to refute. The claim that they have complied with the rules can easily be checked. Regarding controversial aspects of the deal such as the outright sale of 20 hectares of strategically located land, here again wasn’t the onus on Sri Lanka, as a sovereign state, to reject any clauses that went against its national interest?

Different values
The Chinese seem genuinely puzzled over the objections being raised. The ambassador said however that China’s cooperation with Sri Lanka is “geared to its entire people, regardless of who or which party rules this state.” President Sirisena now faces an extremely delicate diplomatic challenge. In order to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater, he needs to address the corruption charges levelled against the Rajapaksa government with regard to the deal and reverse or renegotiate its negative aspects, without offending China.

It’s relevant to note the concern shown by China over the possible negative fallout of the project’s cancellation on Sri Lanka. It was observed that the controversy over the $1.4 billion project sends a signal to the outside world that could create doubts about the attitude of the new government towards investment. Sri Lanka needed FDI for infrastructure and industry. As a mainly agricultural country it needed communications, and steel, to put infrastructure in place. This was the rationale behind Chinese infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.

The ambassador’s media interaction on Tuesday was one among some 40 meetings with politicians, journalists, representatives of think tanks and others, held during his first two weeks in office in an effort to better understand issues. China’s approach to bilateral relations with Sri Lanka draws on important moments in history that such as the Rubber-Rice Pact. The element of gratitude makes it similar to that of Japan, a democracy. Compare this attitude with that of the UK, reflected in Prime Minister David Cameron’s pompous little homily published as an Op-Ed piece in the Daily Mirror to coincide with President Sirisena’s visit to London. Clearly there’s a difference in the values at play here. It’s a difference that should help Sri Lanka recognize who its friends are.

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