The visit of Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna to Sri Lanka closely followed by Pakistan President Asif Zardari may be seen by some as the success of the Rajapaksa government’s foreign policy, particularly in the South Asian region but a different view is held by others who see Sri Lanka becoming a backyard for play by the regional powers.
The main purpose of the Indian Minister’s visit is to declare open two Indian Consular offices in Jaffna and Hambantota. However, the reasons given for the establishment of the offices are vague such as: reinforce consular cooperation and friendly links despite there not being a significant number of Indian nationals resident in and around Jaffna and barely a dozen Indians resident in the Hambantota District. The objective of the establishment of these offices are considered to mark the ‘presence of India’ in these regions particularly in Hambantota where China has made a foray, bringing in a large number of Chinese workers for the construction of the Hambantota harbour and other development projects built with Chinese funding.
The interests of Sri Lanka are not served by shadows of the two Asian giants falling across our land.
Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari should be welcomed with open arms because no country has served Sri Lanka better in the terrorist war that was raging for a near three decades than Pakistan. In the eighties when the Gandhis — mother and son — gave active and positive contributions to develop idealistic rag-tag bands of Tamil youths into effective fighting machines, Sri Lanka’s constant ally in the war against terrorism was Pakistan.
When Western powers inspired by India called for an arms embargo against Sri Lanka, commencing from the days of Gen Zia-ul-Haq to present times under Zardari, Pakistan was one country (with Israel at times participating) that kept the flow of arms coming in and saved the unitary state of Sri Lanka. China too came to the assistance in later years. It will be recalled that during the last stages of the war against terrorism New Delhi made noises that Sri Lanka should desist making arms purchases from China and Pakistan!
Some Sri Lankans have nostalgic memories of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike’s non aligned foreign policies during the time of a bi-polar world. Sri Lanka gained some recognition for its diplomacy at that time but many turned a blind eye to the fact that Lanka more often than not unabashedly played for India and Indira Gandhi such as in the promotion of the Indian Ocean Peace Zone proposal whose long term objective was to make the Indian Ocean, India’s Ocean.
Whether the non aligned policy which President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently claimed Lanka was following, has the same relevance as it had in the times of the bi-polar world, is doubtful. China even in the 1970s was basically a peasant state and had no great power ambitions other than to protect its own interests. Today China is economically the second most powerful country having overtaken Japan this year. Militarily and economically it is a world power and is catching up with America. It would be bewildering for a small country to follow non alignment in a multi polar world.
China’s desire to project its power across oceans to protect its trade routes is the reason for its interest in the Hambantota harbour. It is this objective that has led to many such harbours being built with China’s assistance in the Indian Ocean — the String of Pearls — as Western commentators have described it. Whether India can match this effort in the near future is doubtful.
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa on coming to power, envisaged building a city state around his rustic village in the deep South, he first offered what was a fishing harbour to India knowing well the Indian hypersensitivity to any foreign power being involved in building a Sri Lankan harbour. But India declined the offer. New Delhi would not have wanted to invest in a harbour in uppity and temperamental Sri Lanka. Besides it was only a few hundred miles or even less from the Indian coast. It could have developed one of its own southern harbours that could have served as a hub for transshipment for the sub-continent as what Sri Lanka is attempting to do.
The Chinese were smart and rich enough to take up the offer of Hambantota and build the harbour in a remarkably short time for Sri Lanka — on a loan whose interest rates are still not disclosed. Nonetheless, India still has the famed Trincomalee harbour after twisting Lanka’s arm and getting the oil tank farm located there. It is probable that the two Asian powers are likely to exchange fire — not physically but by other means over the ports of Lanka.
Concern over Chinese in Lanka
The Deccan Herald of Friday (26) commenting on the Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit says that ‘there seems to be benign competition to have strategic and commercial space in the island’ and that ‘China’s inroads to Sri Lanka has accelerated India’s engagement more proactively and imaginatively’. ‘China’s rising profile’ had been raised by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he met visiting Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa ( who was the chief guest at the Commonwealth Games) and he was assured by Rajapaksa that ‘Chinese workers would quit the island once the projects were over’, the Deccan Herald has said.
However ‘benign’ the Indo Chinese competition could be, the concern about the presence of nationals of another country in a neighbouring country smacks of over lordship of a Big Brother that does not go along with the claim of being the biggest democracy in the world.