Playing off India against China and vice versa
‘The Great Game’ was the name given to a diplomatic and military tussle between the British and Russian empires during the time of the British Raj in India for influence over what constitutes today’s central Asian states.
Commonly known as the ‘Stan states,’ they were located along the critical trade route of that era – the Silk Road, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, etc.
The British feared that Russia’s Czar intended to encroach upon the Crown Jewel of the British Empire, India, by infiltrating influence over the great natural barriers of the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountains through the various central Asian states, ruled by Islamic leaders known as ‘Khans’.
The battle was to influence the Khan rulers and inveigle them to support the British or the Russian empire, in machinations against the other. Military agents and political officers were deployed in an endless mostly secret battle over decades to influence and win over the Khan rulers and their tribes.
Occasionally there were military forays, like ones into Afghanistan, where the British got their noses thoroughly bloodied. Rudyard Kipling built the core of his landmark story ‘Kim’ around this ‘Great Game’.
Sri Lanka’s Great Game
Currently Sri Lanka is involved in a similar Great Game of sorts, balancing the influence of the emerging Asian powers India and China on this island located at a geopolitically critical point in the Indian Ocean. This requires a great balancing act. Roads, harbours, coal power stations, national theatres, airports, and international conference halls are all pawns in the game.
During the civil conflict, the People’s Republic of China was a strong supporter of the Government of Sri Lanka, ranging from diplomatic support to arms procurement on very favourable terms, while India was under pressure from the vested interests in the State of Tamil Nadu to express concern for the rights of the minority Tamil community, living in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka.
The plantation labour of recent India origin has also been an area of Indian interest in Sri Lanka. It is ironic that records in the British Colonial Office show that there had been a debate whether indentured labour should be sourced from China instead of India, when there were shortages of labour to open up the coffee plantations! If Chinese labour had been sourced, instead of from India, there would have been a whole new dimension to today’s Great Game!
Readers will remember that famous televisions series from Britain ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister,’ which were a parody on how the members of the professional British civil service generally ran circles around the elected politicians. The programs showed how when the civil servants say ‘yes’ to ministers or the prime minister, in practical terms of implementation it simply means ‘no’!
This satirical British sitcom written by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn was first transmitted by BBC Television between 1980-1982 and 1984. The sequel ‘Yes, Prime Minister,’ ran from 1986 to 1988. In all there were 38 episodes, set principally in the private office of a British Government Cabinet Minister in Whitehall, and the sequel in the Prime Minister’s offices.
In reality, in today’s Europe, just a few months ago when Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron refused to follow the path for European economic integration laid out by France’s Sarkozy and Germany’s Merkel, and in practical terms widened the English Channel, the gap between Europe and Britain and pushed France and Germany closer together, giving them a dominant role in Europe without any counterbalance to temper and regulate their domination, my mind went back to a episode of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ in which the role of Britain in a closely integrated Europe was being discussed by the PM and his civil servants.
While the PM was praising stronger European integration and a closer collaboration by Britain with a so-called ‘United States of Europe,’ the reaction of his civil service permanent secretary was very hostile to the idea. He said: “But Prime Minister, don’t you see, throughout Britain’s history we have survived by keeping the Froggies (the French) and the Huns (the Germans) at each other’s throats and thereby permitting us to play a dominant and manipulative role in Europe together with the smaller countries, punching well above our weight!”
Analysts have likened modern India’s attitude to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), in similar fashion. While India is active in SARC and plays a key role, Indian foreign service mandarins and politicians fear that the smaller south Asian nations, like the Maldives, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and India’s traditional and historical rival Pakistan, could use SAARC as a forum to isolate and surround India for their own political and diplomatic purposes.
Historians trace this fear of the modern Indian polity of being isolated and surrounded, back to ancient historical times, when the first Aryan migrants travelled over the Hindu Kush Mountains and settled down in isolated villages on the fertile Indo-Gangetic plain. Giving up their hitherto nomadic pastoral lives, they lived in fear of being surrounded by the indigenous Tribals, who resented the presence of these invaders from the North.
Even today, these tribal ‘Aadivasi’ people are isolated and discriminated against by the Indian mainstream races with Aryan roots. These Tribals form the bulk of the Maoist Naxalite rebels conducting a violent campaign against the India state in the fabled Red Corridor of India, ranging across the states of Bihar, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Chattisghar, Orissa and many others.
The attitude of India’s political class, bureaucracy and military, to the minority rights issue in Sri Lanka changed dramatically after the LTTE assassinated the former Prime Minister of India and scion of the Nehru dynasty, Rajiv Gandhi. No small wonder that LTTE ideologue, the late Anton Balasingham, referred to the assassination as a ‘colossal blunder’.
Finally when an all-out, no-holds-barred war was declared by the Government of Sri Lanka after the LTTE’s botched attempts at assassinating the Secretary of Defence at Pittala Handiya in Colombo, and the Commanding General of the Army inside his headquarters complex, India gave the war its tacit support, providing some diplomatic cover and vital intelligence, analysts say.
It is indeed ironic that it was the LTTE that ensured the accession of the Rajapaksa regime into power, through the so-called democratic process, by arranging a boycott of the presidential poll in the north and east. Even outside the north and east, many Tamils in Colombo and other areas did not vote.
It is on record that the LTTE cruelly, without anaesthesia, amputated the hand of a hapless voter, in full public view, who, with Dutch courage, under the influence of liquor, tried to enforce his democratic right to vote at the presidential election somewhere in the Northern Province on election day.
The grapevine has it that the election officials at the voting booth, aware of the consequences for the poor guy at the hands of the LTTE if he actually voted when the LTTE had ordered a boycott had almost convinced the voter to go back home and sleep off his over-indulgence, when a group of election monitors rolled up in their air conditioned SUVs and the election officers resignedly gave up their efforts and had to let the guy vote, to preserve the mockery of a free and fair election!
A right hand chopped off and the election of a President who annihilated the LTTE was the result, among others! The individual who negotiated the boycott and was rewarded with a bear hug, is now supposedly an oppositionist!
Author S. Murali, in a new book ‘The Prabhakaran Saga’ says, “Prabhakaran betrayed his political bankruptcy when he let Rajapaksa narrowly win the Presidential election. He gambolled that Rajapaksa would re start the war, which the LTTE could win.” Rajapaksa did restart the war, which the LTTE decisively lost.
Recent diplomatic and political visitors from India , have clearly indicated that they had, may be benignly, supported the military annihilation of the LTTE at and in the build-up to Mullivaikkal, on the basis of certain undertakings provided by the Sri Lanka troika of the Minister for Economic Development, the President’s Secretary and Defence Secretary, to the Indian politicians and bureaucracy, on their innumerable visits to New Delhi, and now felt betrayed, over the non-implementation of the much heralded 13th Amendment Plus.
India supported Sri Lanka at most international forums like the UN General Assembly, until their sudden about-turn at the recent Geneva UNHRC. China has steadfastly supported Sri Lanka, and is reaping the economic benefits.
Indeed a story making the diplomatic rounds, may be facetious, but is telling – that when the development of the northern railway way line to the Jaffna peninsula was being divided up between the competing donors, China and India, the Indian interloper had pleaded: “Please don’t give the last stretch of the line up to Kankesanthurai to China, give it to us, I don’t want my epitaph to be that China advanced up to the Palk Straits during my watch!”
It is this competition that drives India to want to set up a coal power plant at Sampur, Trincomalee, to set off China’s (malfunctioning) Norochcholai. Also Palali for Mattala, airports. That India pleads for the Kankesanthurai Harbour to set off Hambantota Mahinda Rajapaksa Magampura car transhipment port, of which the Government makes much of that it was first offered to India, who refused to touch it!
That also drives India to open a consular office at Hambantota, that Sri Lanka had opened a consular office at Chengdu in China, the Chengdu military region coordinates China’s military strategy in South Asia.
Dealings between India and China
Dealings between India and China, over and above the machinations over Sri Lanka, also reflect a Great Game of sorts. As Nobel Laureate Economist Amartya Sen, one-time Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who is involved in the revival of the famed Nalanda University, an ancient centre of Buddhist learning in Bihar, has pointed out, the connections between India and China from ancient times covered the study of eclipses at Nalanda to the study of Buddhist chanting. Sen laments that hardly anyone recalls that today.
In the 1950s when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was enamoured with the central planning statist model of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, there was what analysts have described as a ‘virtual love in’ between India and China. India kept smaller Third World countries in the non-aligned camp out of the sphere of influence of the United States of America. This so annoyed the Americans that Secretary of State Dulles labelled non alignment as “immoral”.
Recently the two countries’ economies have emerged as world beaters. They are leading players in the BRICS group of nations, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
A huge change has taken place in the makeup of India’s international trade. In 1991 when India first began to liberalise its economy, the West still dominated the world economy and was India major source of trade. China’s rise has now changed everything.
China is now India’s third largest trading partner in goods. If you include trade with Hong Kong in the computation, China is the biggest trading partner. India mainly imports capital goods. The giant Reliance Group has imported equipment for power stations and telecoms networks from China.
But there is a huge trade imbalance. For every dollar’s worth of Indian exports to China, India imports three dollars worth from China. China accounts for over a fifth of India’s overall trade deficit with the world. This drove Indian politicians and bureaucrats to protectionist inclinations.
No bilateral free trade agreement exists between India and China. India often flirts with slapping duties on Chinese imports, alleging that goods are being dumped. Chinese banks are extending loans to Indian firms to finance some of these exports. The Reliance Group has accessed such financing from Chinese banks. More loans from Chinese banks will be good, but India has been wary. So far only one Chinese bank has been allowed to have a branch in India.
Chinese FDI also will be useful. But India still seems to regard FDI as something being sourced from Western multinationals. But in India’s Maharashthra State, a Chinese company which makes diggers and other construction machinery has opened a factory. Huawei, a Chinese telecom company, is building a research facility in Bangalore.
India needs FDI and expertise in manufacturing and infrastructure. China must invest its surplus funds abroad, not only in American Government bonds. Chinese investment in India is something which is sensible, given the state of Europe and other economies. But there is a legacy of mistrust which must be overcome.
This mistrust extends to overseas relations. Other than the competition for influence over Sri Lanka, the same contest is taking place over Burma, Nepal and Afghanistan. Even in the Maldives, when a President was ousted in what was a tourism tycoon inspired military coup, both India and China were big players in the post-coup political scenario.
Islamic militancy worries both countries. The security of the southern ocean, on the sea lanes of which 80% of China’s crude oil, natural gas and raw materials are transported, is paramount for China’s rulers. The fear of Somali Islamic fundamentalist pirates basing themselves on an uninhabited Maldivian atoll and preying upon the southern shipping routes given the Chinese strategic planners the shivers.
In fact China has deployed battleships to safeguard the waters off Africa’s eastern coast from Somalia-based pirates. So there is space for India and China to cooperate in the spheres of economic development and security also.
One factor which could decisively push Sri Lanka into India’s fold is access to the huge Indian internal market, geographically much closer to us than China. This is probably why the Government is playing shy on making any commitments on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India.
Sri Lankan corporates have already benefited from the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India. Sri Lankan opponents of CEPA fear the flooding of our markets with dumped India products and the infusion of Indian manpower under the agreement, but analysts have pointed out that both these can be controlled.
China on the other hand in 2010 was the second largest exporter to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka’s 13th largest export destination. At the recent Indo-Lanka Chamber AGM, the High Commissioner for India cautioned that the window of opportunity for CEPA would not remain open forever.
Indian analysts have pointed out that India does not have strategic long-term policy in dealing with the south Asian neighbours. The Indian policy is too ad hoc. The positions on Sri Lanka reflect this: In 1971 and 1989 assisting the Government in crushing JVP revolts, at one time assisting Tamil militants to put pressure on the Government, then changing track and sending in the IPKF, to ‘enforce a peace,’ then after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, allowing the Government the space and providing covert assistance to destroy the LTTE. Indian analysts say that although China is not an Indian Ocean power, China has through a long-term strategic plan built up relations with South Asian countries.
A very fine balancing act
Sri Lanka’s strategic location on the key shipping routes of the southern seas and at the southern end of the Indian sub continent has resulted in this island featuring heavily in the strategic forward defensive plans of both China and India. Sri Lanka has to act in such a way as to make sure it benefits to the maximum from the interest of both countries while at the same time ensuring that it is not dominated by any one of them. It is a very fine balancing act, in reality a Great Game.
As far back as 1947, at the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, delegates from Ceylon had expressed fears of domination by China and India. A delegate from Ceylon referred to the fear small Asian countries had that they might be faced with aggression, not necessarily political nor military, but economic or demographic from countries such as India and China.
Historically, India has always had an expansionist telescopic long view over the Palk Straits. One of the five lectures of the JVP in 1971 was on ‘Indian Expansionism’. Similarly China’s traders have been active in the ancient port of Gokanna (today’s Trincomalee) and at ancient Anuradhapura and Chinese imperial fleets led by Admiral Cheng Ho have visited Galle left behind a stone plaque in Tamil, Arabic, Persian and Chinese to record their visit in 1410.
Playing ‘Great Games’ with neighbours and friends for the benefit of the country is well and good, provided national sovereignty and economic and political freedoms are not jeopardised.
At the recent Sri Lanka Economic Summit, Indian author, Columnist and Management Consultant Gurcharan Das, who was the Guest Speaker at the Inaugural Session, said that Sri Lanka’s future lay with connecting with the Indian and Chinese economies; whether Sri Lanka’s present strategy being followed for doing so is the best way, is the question.
(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)