N Sathiya Moorthy 3 May 2021
Coming as it did not long after the Sri Lanka visit of China’s top foreign policy official Yang Jiechi in October last, that of Defence Gen Wei Fenghe now should cause eyebrows to be raised in world capitals, even outside the region. It was neither a courtesy call, nor was it to lend moral support to the nation that’s fighting the second wave of Covid-19 after successfully fending off the first wave. The long list of Chinese officials who accompanied Gen Fenghe should go on to show that the two sides meant business, as if it could not have waited until after the pandemic had receded in Colombo and the rest of the country.
After the forgotten Israel in the early years of the LTTE war, violence and terrorism, China and by extension or otherwise, Pakistan, were major supplies of weapons, fighters and equipment to the Sri Lankan armed forces. India sent in the IPKF on request, but post-Rajiv Gandhi assassination, New Delhi’s role in the southern neighbour’s fight against terrorism was limited to crucial intelligence-sharing and supply of non-lethal equipment like radars.
If anything, it was unlike what some Sri Lankan leaders had claimed after the end of the war, and mostly ahead of successive sessions of the UNHRC, where allegations of ‘war crimes’ in the nation was in focus at Geneva. Contrary to this, as the late Lakshman Kadirgamar had said, at times on record, not only did the Chinese supply weapons, but did not even bother discussing the prices and payment schedules.
Truth be acknowledged, Beijing thought ahead. It was China’s way to entering the Sri Lankan heart(s). They did it through Sri Lankan stomachs long ago, through the ‘Rice and Rubber’ deal of the fifties. Today, China has Sri Lanka, or that’s what critics of Sri Lanka, especially the incumbent ruling Rajapaksas, seem to have concluded.
Stomachs, hearts and minds
The question arises if stomachs, hearts of minds should rule 21st century Sri Lanka. That is to say, should the former two influence Colombo’s decision-making disproportionately, compared to contemporary realities? Can the nation let Beijing rule its decision on matters that are otherwise unconnected to China in its own sphere and immediate periphery?
It is one thing for Colombo to take developmental funding from China, even for projects that are not going to produce economic-returns in the foreseeable future. It is equally so if it were to drive the nation into a debt-trap, whatever the Central Bank might say about the current fiscal and economic position – and the nation blames it near-exclusively on the pandemic.
It is however a different story if one were to discuss the truth that in seeking to thank China for the good things, is Colombo (whoever is in power) overdoing the thankfulness part? China is a veto-power in the UNSC, and can be counted upon for defending Sri Lanka if and when the question arises. But when the chips are down, and whenever a vote is taken at the UNHRC, for instance, China could not ensure that it went in Sri Lanka’s favour.
It only means that there is more to international politics than China’s clout. Can Colombo thus strike a balance, where it can work also with the rest of the world even while it walks along with China, hand-in-hand, and balance between development funding and Beijing’s diplomatic support? It cannot be at the cost of the rest of the world, that is.
Shifting the goal-post, still
The Government’s shifting stand on specific issues should explain this one better. With the Indian neighbour, the most recent episode involves the cancellation of the Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) for the trination Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) draft, also involving Japan, while similar facilities had been given to China with regard to the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT), years ago.
The argument that the labour and a section of the Buddhist monks were opposed to handing over national assets to foreign nations were lost when even more recently, the Government still wanted to go-ahead with the Colombo Port City Commission Bill, also involving China, despite similar protests. Not just the Rajapaksas now in power, but even their predecessor-rivals talked sweet but did not deliver on India’s handling of the unused Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport at Matara.
The predecessor also went ahead with the conversion of the Hambantota debt to equity for the Chinese creditors, blaming it as a ‘debt-trap’, but that again was another fig leaf. Yet, they too looked the other way when the present dispensation cancelled the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the American MCC offer. It is nobody’s case that Sri Lanka should not have the sovereign right to choose friends and allies, but the explanations and excuses offered do not seem to last even a year – give or take a month or two.
Colombo only needs to recall how at the height of the maiden post-war UNHRC resolution, a stream of western Governments and their leaders kept charging the incumbent administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now Prime Minister, with ‘shifting the goal-post’ on the successive promises to deliver a political solution to the Tamils, and also ‘justice’ for their ‘civilian war victims’. It is the kind of credibility – or, lack of it – that can embarrass the nation when the UNHRC begins taking a more serious note of ‘war crimes probe’ and other accountability issues in the months and years to come.
The issue thus is not one of the nation’s friendship or friendliness with China, that too in preference to other nations, both in the neighbourhood and otherwise. Instead, it is about the wanton ways it may have chosen to mislead the international community on specifics, which makes Colombo a less-than-credible stake-holder, especially on commitments that it had voluntarily made, or on explanations that’s offered to deny a facility or favour to one nation, which is also in favour of China.
If at the end of it all, the world believes that Beijing is running Colombo’s foreign and security policy, and also economic and commercial policies, and takes its political decisions accordingly, then no one should complain about anyone. In international diplomacy and politics, it still needs two to tango, but the same to can duel – which cheer leaders from the side-lines being able to do only so much, and nothing more!
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@