India-China tug of war in Sri Lanka

The central government of India faced tremendous political pressure from the state of Tamilnadu over the problems of ethic Tamils in Sri Lanka in the island nation’s long-running and brutal civil war.

India-China tug of war in Sri Lanka

Mohammad Talukder

What is common between Bhutan’s former prime minister, Nepal’s Maoist and Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahindra Rajapaksa? They all snubbed India at one point of time and tried to play it against China. But soon, quite unexpectedly, they all lost their respective elections to weak rivals. It is really difficult to say whether they were just co-incidents or India really played some role in these elections. Whatever the reason may be, India has a good luck to have more friendly governments in these countries.

 Now in Sri Lanka, India has a favourable option, whether by chance or through some clandestine machination, “to make a new beginning”, as expressed by Sri Lanka's new president Maithripala Sirisena, who was in India on the four-day visit from February 15 to 18, 2015. Sirisena’s selection of India as his first foreign destination after becoming president gives a very clear signal that better relation with India and enhanced diplomatic, political and economic support from New Delhi is a matter of the highest priority for him. This was further indicated by his earlier moves, soon after taking oath as newly elected president, to create conducive condition for fairer treatment to minority Tamils in Sri Lanka's North and East.

 Under Rajapaksa, although the relations remained cordial, occasional tensions and suspicion remained the order of the day. The central government of India faced tremendous political pressure from the state of Tamilnadu over the problems of ethic Tamils in Sri Lanka in the island nation’s long-running and brutal civil war.

 The former government of Rajapaksa must be given credit to end the long reign of dreaded LTTE terrorism in Sri Lanka. In 2009, the government forces conclusively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a terrorist group that for decades used guerrilla warfare and suicide bombings to fight for a separate homeland for the Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. In this war against terrorism there were alleged excesses and brutalities against common Tamils too. That became the major cause of conflict between India and Sri Lanka. The bilateral ties suffered over India's backing to US-moved resolutions at the UN rights body over alleged war-crimes.

 Apparently, the former Rajapaksa government paid no heed to India’s concerns. Rather since then, with complete backing from China, he had embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects like new highways, airports and seaports in a country devastated by years of war and by the 2004 tsunami. That way, Rajapaksha government had snubbed India in favour of China.

For long, ever since the election of Mahindra Rajapaksa as president in 2005, India watched, with strong reservation, China’s foray into the island nation. Of the totals assistance of 5.056 billion dollar extended to Lanka by China from 1971 to 2012, around 94 percent or around 4.761 billion dollar came between 2005 and 2012. In the past two years between 2012 and 2014, China has committed another 2.18 billion dollar, mostly as loans with a high rate of interest. With its "no strings" overseas-aid policy, China has even replaced Japan as the number one donor to Sri Lanka.

In return of all these favours to Rajapaksa government, China had succeeded in manifold increase in its presence. India was greatly concerned about the entry of Chinese naval forces there. What precipitated matters was the sudden appearance of two nuclear submarines at the Colombo Port late last year. In a recent report, Wall Street Journal described the Chinese submarine fleet as Beijing's most significant military challenge in the region. When they surfaced at Sri Lankan ports, it brought alive some of India government's worst fears of China expanding its base in India's neighbourhood. Sri Lanka's growing proximity with China caused serious concerns in India’s security establishment.

 The new government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe has daunting tasks ahead, both in terms of maintaining a balance in foreign policy and clearing the economic mess left by the former government. By no means, Sri Lanka can afford to displease China or forego its largesse which has been utilised in core sector development, like railroad and ports.

 Even now China made it clear, while Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was in India on his first official trip abroad, that no one should think China is being left out. The Foreign Ministry of China announced that Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera will travel to China at the end of February. As Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying pointed out, Samaraweera will be the first cabinet minister from Sri Lanka to visit China since Sirisena’s government took office. “Both sides attach great importance to the visit,” Hua said, adding China’s “hope that the visit by Foreign Minister Samaraweera will be an opportunity for the two sides to exchange views on the development of China-Sri Lanka relations under the new circumstances.” 

Obviously, it won’t be a smooth ride for Sirisena government in Sri Lanka to maintain a balance in the tug of war between India and Sri Lanka. However, he has a nice chance to set a fresh tone for regional politics in south Asia. After having electorally trounced India's long-time foe, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena has got prime minister Narendra Modi's fullest support and backing. If he succeeds in creating a balance and taking help from India without displeasing China, that would go a long way in cementing ties with the two powerful neighbours.

 Sirisena government is going to face tremendous political pressures and economic challenges soon. Due to extravagant spending of the earlier government, the international debt has piled up hugely. Debt servicing is expected to begin later this year. According to one estimate almost one fourth of the national revenue will be consumed in debt servicing. The new government has to take urgent steps to bring back the economy on track. It is imperative to add here that although the debt has piled up putting great burden on the economy, it has also brought in good infrastructure and development into the country. Sri Lankan industry bodies now want deeper economic ties with India beyond the current Free Trade Agreement to boost export capacity through accelerated investments in the island.

 From the Indian perspective the new regime in Sri Lanka should help strengthen the bilateral relations between the two countries. On the security front, India and Sri Lanka can have greater cooperation in India's ambitious objective of maintaining peace in the Indian Ocean region.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 05 Nisan 2015, 17:13