No other country in Sri Lanka’s post-war history has wielded the influence, had the reach or commanded the servility that China today does. The bilateral relationship between the two nations has grown so rapidly that few have had the time, or the required information, to analyse the direction it is taking. Sri Lanka and China [...]


Enter the Dragon


No other country in Sri Lanka’s post-war history has wielded the influence, had the reach or commanded the servility that China today does. The bilateral relationship between the two nations has grown so rapidly that few have had the time, or the required information, to analyse the direction it is taking.
Sri Lanka and China have a long history. They were trading partners in ancient times and after Sri Lanka gained Independence, the Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 helped in the growth of relations. More recently, China contributed in no small measure towards Sri Lanka’s war effort. Every military parade held since the conflict’s end has showcased long lines of sophisticated Chinese hardware without which victory would have been impossible.

Contemporary bilateral ties between the two countries, however, are neither straightforward nor transparent and key elements of the relationship have caused serious worry across the Palk Strait. New Delhi has always been wary of China’s geostrategic interests in South Asia. But nothing has raised its hackles more in recent times than China’s aggressive expansion into Sri Lanka and Colombo’s unquestioning acceptance of it.

Matters came to a head recently, when Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa met Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in New Delhi. According to Indian media, he was told that the docking of a Chinese naval submarine at the Colombo Port in September was of “serious concern to India’s national security”.

This week, Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera, Chief of Naval Staff, was forced to rule out any Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka. “India’s security is our security,” he was quoted as saying in New Delhi. Be that as it may, India is no longer convinced and nor are many others.
The submarine that docked at the Chinese-built, Chinese-run Colombo International Container Terminal was the first of its kind to have used a Sri Lankan port. Not only is it coming again on its return voyage, a Chinese naval fleet will be in Colombo this month, says China Military Online, which calls itself the “only authoritative media of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army”.

The submersible was preceded by two other Chinese naval vessels that left as quietly as they came. This pattern of silently slipping in and out is in stark contrast to what happens when military ships of other countries drop by. In most instances, the Sri Lankan Government issues media statements to announce their arrival.

From 2011 to 2014, statements were made regarding visits by vessels from Pakistan, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Thailan, Brunei, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the United States, among others. In January this year, the arrival of two Chinese warships at the Port of Trincomalee was announced. But there was silence about the submarine and other Chinese vessels. And such muteness engenders unease.

There was further prevarication about the date on which the submarine came. The official version was that it docked in Colombo on September 15, the day before Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived. But China Military Online states that the submarine and its support ship visited Colombo from September 7-14. This means they would have come the day before Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe — and not Mr Xi — arrived. That would be of serious concern to Japan, China’s arch-rival.

As far as underlying messages go, therefore, Sri Lanka was showing two longstanding international allies (one of them being an immediate neighbour and regional power) where its new loyalties lie. It was flinging its mantra of non-alignment to the wind and planting itself firmly on the side of its fastest growing creditor. This elicited a predictable response from New Delhi, which has repeatedly told Colombo at the highest levels that it was unhappy with the trajectory of the Sino-Lanka relationship.

Sri Lanka is now at a crossroads in its foreign and economic policy. The Government has stretched its not-so-subtle strategy of playing international powers against each other to untenable limits. This is no longer a “balancing act”. The scale is firmly tilted. Sri Lanka is exercising its pro-China policy in a manner that distances the country from numerous others. The Government will have to decide whether this lopsided approach will accrue any meaningful benefits in the short, medium or long-term.

This newspaper has consistently supported a policy of non-alignment for Sri Lanka. We have repeatedly cautioned against earning the wrath of New Delhi by persisting with zero-sum games, the likes of which the Government is playing now. It just does not serve any purpose and must be avoided.

In our editorial of September 2, 2012, headlined “Why Lanka should remain non-aligned”, we cautioned that a new cold-war like scenario is emerging. It pits China and Russia (on the one side) against the US and its allies (on the other). If that were to happen, we said, the Non-Aligned Movement may once again come in handy. And Sri Lanka will need to keep its options open – not closed. But that window is fast closing.

The domestic picture is also disquieting. The most alarming aspect of the Sino-Lanka alliance is that citizens are kept deliberately ignorant of what is really going on. This might work for China which operates on the principle that what its people do not know will not hurt them. But it is not what Sri Lanka, once an open and vibrant democracy, needs.

A clear example of how this Government withholds vital information from the public is the case of the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota. Once its second phase is done, four berths will be managed by the Chinese. In exchange, the Chinese lenders (the port is being built with hefty Sino credit) have agreed to “adjust” loan conditions to make them more favourable to Sri Lanka.

It was only after the agreement was signed in September that we learnt such plans were afoot for Hambantota. Sri Lanka Ports Authority Chairman Priyath B. Wickrama then claimed it had always been the Government’s intention to hand over these berths to the Chinese. He said it had been a part of the original loan agreement signed several years ago by the Treasury. But these agreements are shrouded in secrecy.

The Ministry of Finance is accountable to no one but those that float the deals. It is yet another case of, “Naduth hamudurwangey, baduth hamuduruwange.” Why are the loans being adjusted now? Were they unfavourable to begin with? If it was part of the original agreement for the Chinese to have these berths, why not just say so?

It is time, really, to make these hush-hush deals more public. The Government is clearly not interested in a Right to Information Law that all other South Asian countries have, bar Sri Lanka, and the reason for that is painfully obvious. But is the Government being fair by the people who have reposed their implicit trust in it? That surely is a responsibility the powers-that-be should take heed of. Abraham Lincoln’s words come to mind: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”.

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