By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
As Asia basks in the glow of the emergence of China and India and benefits from it (economists have even coined a term, ‘CHINDIA’, for this win-win strategic perspective), opinion makers and the media in Sri Lanka are engaged in an unhealthy and needless game of polarisation. Some are apparently pro-India and anti-China, while others are anti-India and pro-China, which means that neither camp is authentically pro-Sri Lanka, still less pro-Asia.
The authentically Asian attitude which is easily glimpsed from the economic and intellectual hub that is Singapore, my vantage point this year, is one of admiration for the achievements of both Asian powers, the fostering of greater connectivity with and between both, a refusal to fuel a new cold war in Asia (which would be to the detriment of the whole continent), and the attempt to position oneself at the confluence of the growth of both powers. The architect of the Singaporean miracle, and a ‘thought leader’ in Asia, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, best put it when he said that those countries are best positioned that find a spot in the shade provided by the intertwining of the extending branches of the two giant trees, China and India.
Astute Asian policy intellectuals hook up the Chindia perspective to two larger ones, so that concentric circles form. These are the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and now the BRIICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China, and South Africa). Discerning analysts have added another state to the list of designated ‘Pivotal Powers’: Turkey.
The ‘Chindia’ perspective is something that Sri Lanka’s professional economists and corporate sector certainly seem to comprehend, going by the recent symposium organised by the Ceylon Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), the excellent presentation there by the Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Dr Anura Ekanayake (my senior and foe in ‘far left’ student politics, when he led a Trotskyite faction at Peradeniya) and the proceedings of the forum of young South Asian Economists recently held in Colombo.
Sadly, Sri Lanka’s chattering classes, or should I say, speculating strata, are not of this view. At one extreme are the majoritarian ultranationalists who strive to use the state as a ‘human shield’ for their visceral anti-Indianism, which is linked to their antipathy towards devolution and secularism. The irony is that in their ideology, values, social support profile, networking and tactics, these elements most closely resemble an Indian ‘model’ of the most negative sort: the RSS, Shiv Sena and the ‘sangh parivar’.
That this xenophobia is not the perspective of the Sri Lankan state itself is best evidenced in the Joint Indo-Lankan Commission statement piloted by Prof GL Peiris on the GoSL side of the equation, and articulated even more explicitly by Dr Sarath Amunugama to The Nation’s Rohan Abeywardena last Sunday:
"Day by day most of our people are seeing the advantage of utilising the Indian market.
Today it is one of the biggest markets. All top businessmen are rushing to India. Why are leaders like Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel and all the heads of industrialised countries coming to India? Is it because they love India? No. It is because they see India as one of the powerhouses of growth. They have 500 million people with buying power beyond subsistence. Here we have an advantage of being so close to India and we must make full use of it...We cannot build a protective wall around Sri Lanka. Then they will build a protective wall against our goods." (‘Amunugama Upbeat About Future’, The Nation, Nov 28, 2010)
In the other corner of the Lankan debate are the (anti-Mahinda, mostly UNP or pro-UNP) ideologues who are anti-China and seemingly pro-India. This is reflected in remarks made in the ongoing budget debate and in newspaper columns. The ultranationalists believe that China can be leveraged to ward off devolution and India, while the UNP and the Tamil Diaspora believe that India and the US can be used to roll back China’s support which they believe props up President Rajapakse’s power.
Both these factions have it wrong. On the one hand, big powers tend to concede to each other, a preponderance of influence on their respective rims or perimeters and are never drawn into excessive competition which threatens the other’s geostrategic sphere of influence. Those are the mutually beneficial rules of the game that big boys play (and India is today, more powerful than she has ever been since the days of the Asokan Empire). On the other hand big powers know the importance of good relations with smaller neighbours on their periphery and the need to avoid rekindling ancient atavisms among ethno-religious or ethno-lingual majorities along that periphery. This is not to encourage sly, silly references to the IPKF experience as a deterrent to Delhi. It is the Tigers, i.e. elements of the Tamil community and not the Sinhalese, who fought the Indians—and aren’t around to or won’t repeat their folly.
It is those who refuse to unfurl the protective umbrella of state, nationhood and citizenship equally over all the peoples of a country and prefer instead to protect the soil rather than the inhabitants under that umbrella; those who worship territorial security to the exclusion of human security; who render it likely that some citizens will seek shelter under a neighbour’s umbrella instead,or that a neighbour will seek to unfurl such an umbrella over ethnic kin of a segment of its own citizens.
For Sri Lankans there is much to respect, acclaim, welcome, benefit and learn from, in the emergence (or "re-emergence" as Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Dr George Yeo puts it) of both China and India.