Guess, who is wooing Sri Lanka now?

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N Sathiya Moorthy 11 February 2020 

At their Delhi talks over the weekend, Indian Prime Ministers Narendra Modi with his Srilankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa discussed a wide range of bilateral and regional issues,  which included joint fight against terrorism and Colombo realising the “expectations of Tamil people for equality, justice, peace within united Sri Lanka”. While these were Modi’s words at the joint media-appearance at the end of the talks, the guest was conspicuous by his silence on the subject. In an interview to The Hindu later, Rajapaksa however referred to the ethnic issue and said that they would talk to the elected Tamil representatives back home after the twin-polls to the nation’s Parliament and the nine-Province Council, including that for the Tamil North.

However, the talks did not produce any formal agreements as predicted by media and anticipated by the outside world, the US and China included.  As per Rajapaksa’s political rival and predecessor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, US is already the ‘elephant in the room’ as far as the shared Indian Ocean waters of the two South Asian nations and also common neighbour Maldives are concerned. He said that Sri Lanka and the IOR could not ignore or side-step the American (geo-strategic) presence and had to work with them. Others have said that China is the ‘elephant in the room’ in Colombo.

PM Rajapaksa in his interview to The Hindu asked India to defer pending payments for three years, so as to enable Sri Lanka to seek a similar moratorium from other debtor-nations and international organisations. He mentioned China specifically, as if to indicate Sri Lanka’s willingness to strike an economic parity between the two regional powers after the decade-old ‘la affaire Hambantota’ had back-fired politically on the Rajapakasa’s, both nearer home and in the international arena – if only New Delhi played ball with Colombo like Beijing had done earlier.

Before China took up the Hambantota port work on a construction-cum-concession basis, successive Governments in Colombo had offered the same to India, to no avail. The Rajapaksas had to take the blame when it actually came through under Mahinda’s term as President. Even his successor government’s debt-equity swap-deal with China did not have as many critics in India and elsewhere as the Rajapaksa’s had when they invited China as the only available alternative to India. 

Keeping non-regional players out

There is a need now for the Indian strategic community and their western cousins to take a closer look at Sri Lanka than otherwise. PM Mahinda himself told that Sri Lanka wanted to revive the trilateral maritime security cooperation involving the two countries and also common neighbour Maldives. The idea seems to have been based on the past perception that the two smaller nations needed India to keep ‘extra-regional players’ out of the region, on the geo-strategic front, even if not on the economic front. In the present-day context, it would involve India taking the lead, and also revisiting its role in the US-initiated Indo-Pacific strategic comity. New Delhi did not discuss its post-Cold War re-alignment towards the US side, and that too has had its reverberations in the neighbourhood.

As may be recalled, the three South Asian neighbours had made some progress on mutual military cooperation when Mahinda R was President (2005-15) and more so after the elimination of Sri Lanka’s LTTE menace in 2009. India and Maldives began by inducting Sri Lankan into their bi-annual ‘Dhosti’ Coast Guard exercises. The three also began discussing further military cooperation, leading possibly up to a trilateral defence agreement of some kind. With India now expanding its Indian Ocean neighbourhood out-reach to cover Mauritius and Seychelles, Madagascar, Cocoa Islands and Reunion Islands, such a common approach to maritime security should have greater reach and depth.

PM Rajapaksa also reiterated India’s assistance in putting down LTTE.  He also repeated his presidential era declaration that “India is a relation to us while other nations are friends”. The primary reference,  is of-course s to China. However, there seems to be more players in the region after his brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s election as President   last November.

While responding to a query  about a statement made by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Beijing “will ensure that there is no outside interference in Sri Lanka”, PM Rajapaksa said that “no one has tried to interfere in Sri Lanka’s matters so far other than in 2015”. It was a reference to the presidential polls he lost that year. Not long after he told The Hindu’s Suhasini Haidar (who was also the interviewer this time) in Colombo that ‘Indian agencies’ had worked with their western counterparts for a ‘regime-change’ in his country. Mahinda R made light of his statement months later, and also met with PM Modi during a Delhi visit in 2018.

Return to Cold War era?

If it sounded as a slap on China’s face on the ‘interference issue’, it’s not, neither from an Indian perspective, nor from an extra-regional geo-strategic consideration. In the immediate context, Pakistan has now offered assistance to Sri Lanka Air Force. Like China, Pakistan too has continued with multi-dimensional assistance to Colombo, both in stand-alone ways and in competition to Sri Lanka’s immediate Indian neighbour. That could had continued through the pro-Indian, anti-Rajapaksa Government in Colombo.

There has been a visibly increasing American interest in engaging with the Rajapaksas after the latter had suspected Washington of master-minding ‘regime-change’ in 2015. Surprisingly  equally engaging is the mood and mode of a ‘rejuvenated’ Russia,  who also wants to be seen and heard across the world. The US analysts have since talked about the increased presence of Russian submarines in the Atlantic.

In his post-poll congratulatory message to President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in November last, US Secretary of State, Michael R Pompeo seemed sending out a caution on the ethnic and human rights fronts. But, in his newer message to President Rajapaksa on the nation’s Independence Day on 4 February, Secretary Pompeo hoped to see the two nations “working together toward a bright future for both countries”. While under-scoring that “our relationship is based on common democratic values”, he made a pointed reference Sri Lanka’s ‘vibrant democracy and its sovereignty’,

This was possibly a pointer to the US acknowledging President Gota’s election and Colombo’s posturing on ‘war-crimes probe’ and ‘accountability issues’ at the UNHRC, where the US was the lead-accuser of the war-time Rajapaksa dispensation of older brother Mahinda. In between, Secretary Pompeo had despatched his Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells to Colombo as part of her South Asia tour, when she also handed over a personal message from US President Donald Trump to President Gota R. ‘

Secretary Pompeo’s Independence Day message also underlined the American interest in ‘deepening the relations’ with Sri Lanka and made a straight reference to a shared “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region that ensures peace, economic growth, security, democracy, and human rights for the advancement of our peoples”. In a way, it was indicative of the US’ desire to work with the Rajapaksas as with their predecessors. From a larger Sinhala political and Sri Lankan State perspective, it would now be possible to consider such sweeping cooperation on the Indo-Pacific front only if the UNHRC sword is taken off from above Colombo.

In her media appearance in Washington after South Asia visit, Assistant Secretary Alice Wells spoke about Sri Lanka as ‘that piece of real estate in the Indo-Pacific’ which was important to the US. Lest the American intent should be misunderstood by their supporters in Sri Lanka, including the Tamils, visiting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Jonathan Henick, told newsmen in Colombo that his nation may not be ‘perfect, but will continue to advocate universal rights’ – and indirect reference to the UNHRC process?

It is in this context, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Independence Day message to Sri Lankan counterpart Gota Rajapaksa assumes increased relevance. Putin said he was convinced that the further development of bilateral ties with Sri Lanka was in line with the strengthening of regional security and stability. President Putin’s call was accompanied by Russian Army chief, Gen Oleg Salyukov’s call for increased Sri Lankan participation in international military affairs assume significance

In the Indian capital for the recently-concluded MEA-ORF Raisina Dialogue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was openly critical of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ military cooperation (involving the US, India, Japan and Australia, among others). As a parallel, Russian diplomats have also been speaking about India and Russia coming together to create a multi-polar world (to be counter the US in a unipolar world and also the American idea of an Indo-Pacific strategic entity. This is at a time when India is already a part of the Indo-Pacific strategic community, with increasing participation.

Though linkages between Minister Lavrov’s public posturing and his President’s wooing of Sri Lanka the same way the American Cold War era rival too is doing to keep Colombo on its side – it is as yet unclear if Moscow is in it all by itself, or is also fronting for China, too. This is in the context of the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka being wary of identifying with Beijing more than already – and still requiring both China and Russia to vote out anti-Sri Lanka motions in the UNSC and elsewhere, too, where Colombo continues to see a western hand and American brains 

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