by N Sathiya Moorthy 3 September 2020
Sri Lanka’s ‘India First’ strategic security policy, outlined by the new Foreign Secretary, Adm Jayanth Colombage (retd), is a timely reiteration of a policy of past 20-plus years, but seldom understood and appreciated as such in the northern neighbourhood. In doing so, Secretary Colombage, a former Navy chief, becomes the first Sri Lankan official or politician to articulate the nation’s foreign policy so comprehensively and cogently, that too in a well-articulated manner, publicly.
Sri Lanka “cannot afford to be a strategic security threat to India,” Colombage told local TV channel Adederana, hours after taking the charge. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that for economic development, the nation would accept Chinese investments, he said. This is precisely the considered line of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-15), brother of incumbent Gotabaya and the Prime Minister at present.
However, the Mahinda declarations, made personally, did not receive the same coverage in Indian media and positive attention in strategic circles. It may have also owed to the post-Galwan India-China strains, where every Indian wants Sri Lanka to shed its pro-China image, especially so under the ruling Rajapaksas.
“We are an independent, sovereign nation,” Adm Colombage told Colombo-based Daily Mirror in a separate interview. “If any warship arrives in Sri Lanka, there is a procedure… If they come without following the procedure, it is war…” He said that “China really understands it. I have not seen China pushing for strategic things….China understands the strategic situation here. China also understands it isn’t ethical to push Sri Lanka beyond a certain point that is worrisome to India. China understands that stable Indo-Lanka relations are good for China.”
Shift in global order
‘Economic development’ was his foreign policy goal, Secretary Colombage declared. He said that Sri Lanka had to move away from well-entrenched West-centric positioning, to take advantage of happenings in Asian neighbours like India and China. “Best career diplomats should be posted in neighbouring countries,” he told the Daily Mirror, recalling how in the Covid fight, neighbours were the first ones to help.
There is a ‘clear shift’ in the world economic order, Secretary Colombage said. “China is the second largest economy … and India … the sixth… we are between two economic giants. How we benefit from both is diplomacy… That is why the President mentioned that as far as strategic security is concerned, Sri Lanka will always have an ‘India First’ approach…As far as economic development is concerned, we cannot depend on one country. We are open to anyone. We know China is one country willing to invest…We have to benefit from it. We have to balance,” he added.
On the Hambantota port project going to China, Secretary Colombage pointed to its strategic locale, as the mid-point between Singapore and Dubai on the one hand, and between Shanghai and Rotterdam on the other, in distances. “The busiest shipping lane in the world is just 12 nautical miles south of Hambantota…. conveying 50 percent of world containers, 35 percent of bulk cargos and 72 percent of energy — gas and oil….Everyone knows, we initially offered it to India. India did not undertake it…maybe because of lack of capacity…Then, it went to a Chinese company.”
Clarifying for the first time, Colombo’s position on the predecessor government handing over 85 percent the Hambantota Port stakes to a Chinese firm, Colombage told the Daily Mirror: “That should be limited to commercial activities only. It is zero for military purposes. Sri Lanka cannot afford, should not afford and will not afford any particular country to use Sri Lanka as a staging area to do anything against another country, especially so India.”
The Chinese firm has a 99-year lease for the port. “Sri Lanka Navy is in charge of security there. We are here for five years or ten years…Over time, there could be laxity…That is why we want to take back control… President is looking at ways to do,” he told the TV interviewer. As if in continuation, he told the Daily Mirror, that the nation can check China, for instance, from using Sri Lankan territory, to target India.
The choice of Hambantota for a port did not owe either to the Rajapaksas’ earlier regime, or it being their native district. Over the post-Independence decades came the realisation – though generally not acknowledged — that Sri Lanka cannot become an export-oriented manufacturing economy. With that came the consensual realisation that the nation had to exploit its geographical location for economic advancement, especially since eastern Singapore and western Dubai were choking as transhipment ports, already. Hambantota became the natural choice as it cut down the travel time to the existing Colombo Port, which too suffered space constraints and could not have received huge oil tankers, anyway.
The decision to develop Hambantota and hand it over to China too was taken not by the Rajapaksas, as often mistakenly believed in India, but by Mahinda’s predecessor and then party boss, President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga. The two, in their times, offered it first to India, and went to China, only after New Delhi turned down the proposal, reportedly owing to economic reasons. The decision to hand over 85-perent stakes in the port to the Chinese firm, and with that a piece of Sri Lankan territory, too, was taken by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation (2015-19). The Rajapaksas openly opposed the same.
In this context, Secretary Colombage clarified that China is pushing for commercial things. We need FDI, joint ventures, ‘Built, Operate Transfer’ (BOT) projects, technology transfers, etc…The relationship we have with China, Japan, the US and European Union or any other country are purely on commercial, interests,” he told the Daily Mirror. In the TV interview earlier, he said that Sri Lanka will not take any more foreign loans as already the debt-to-GDP ratio was a very high 86 percent, and would prefer the FDI / partnership route.
Committed to ECT
In this context, Secretary Colombage pointed to the new guidance of the President’ that no ‘national asset’ is given with total control to any country. “It means at least 51 percent of the stake will always remain with the Sri Lankan Government and the balance can be divided,” he told the Daily Mirror. Focussing on this part of it in the TV interview earlier, he pointed out how in Hambantota’s case, 85-percent stake for China is only in financial terms, and not otherwise.
At the same time, Secretary Colomabage said that “India feared that we had moved towards China too much…India was happy that the regime was changed (in 2015)… We had given the Hambantota Port on a 99-year-lease to China Merchants Port Holding Company, which India, Japan and America considered as wrong. We actually made India jittery during the period between 2015 and 2019. But India is comfortable with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa”.
The President is “committed to honour” the agreement with India on developing the Colombo Port Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), with Japan, “because it is an arrangement between the two countries… There is opposition to it from port workers… (We will) find a solution.” He readily conceded that “India has a solid argument on this. Actually, 38-40 percent of transhipment containers we handle arrive from India. About 70 percent of businesses we handle are from India. Colombo port is the second biggest port for Indian containers after Mumbai. They argue that they should have a stake in this issue as a result. Yet, they don’t have the capacity to build and operate the terminal. Therefore, they have linked with Japan to do it. The President has said that he is ready to honour that agreement.”
India, Pakistan ties
“In South Asia, India and Pakistan are encountering problems. Both have been our friends. Both have helped us during very difficult times….We should stay away from this issue. We should not allow Sri Lanka to be used by one party against the other. Both the countries are important to us. India is our neighbour,” he told the Daily Mirror on Sri Lanka’s trilateral equations with the other two.
He recalled how “during the war-time, we almost lost the North to the LTTE. It was Pakistan which sent us MBRL (multi-barrel rocket launchers). Pakistan was using them in their operational areas. The Pakistani authorities removed them and airlifted them to Sri Lanka. That only prevented Jaffna from being over-run by the LTTE. That is something great!”