Explaining China’s Growing Influence In Sri Lanka – Analysis

By Dr. V. Suryanarayan

In the end, the current of Chinese expansion will meet the current of Hindu expansion over the submerged heads of the smaller and weaker and less efficient peoples in between who are fast going asunder. And after that has happened I surmise that the new frontier between China and India will tend, slowly but surely, to travel westward at India’s expense and in China’s favour. – Arnold Toynbee (Quoted in Tibor Mende, Southeast Asia between Two Worlds)

When the British Empire fades away, where will Ceylon go? She must associate herself economically at least, with larger groups and India is obviously indicated. Because of this it is unfortunate that many of the leaders of Ceylon should help in creating barriers between India and Ceylon. They do not seem to realize that while India can do well without Ceylon, in the future to come Ceylon may not be able to do without India. – Jawaharlal Nehru (Report to the Congress President, after a visit to Ceylon, 1939)

The future of the countries in South and Southeast Asia would depend on the impact that China and India would exert on them in the years to come. In this paper I have tried to analyse the rationale behind the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka. Few preliminary observations are in order.

The independence of India in August 1947 and the emergence of China as a united country in October 1949, in both cases after years of subjugation and relentless struggle, are momentous events in Asian history. And, as they develop, pursuing their own unique paths of development, the two countries are destined to play significant roles in international affairs. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), according to a publication of the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore, is the second largest economy in terms of GDP at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), the world’s sixth largest merchandise trading nation, the twelfth largest global exporter of commercial services and the largest recipient of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) among the developing countries. India is catching up, but at a slower pace, it is ranked fourth largest in terms of GDP at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) and has been, according to World Bank estimates, one of the fast growing economies in the world. The two countries together number 2.4 billion, 40 per cent of the world’s population and given proper leadership and vision, can transform themselves from demographic giants to economic and political super powers. It was this common commitment which made Deng Xiaoping to tell Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that when India and China attain their full potential, the world will witness the “Asia-Pacific century”.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways in which Sino-Indian relations can fashion themselves and leave their imprint on the countries of South and Southeast Asia. The first perhaps the ideal situation where India and China co-operate in creating a positive external environment in our region rather than pursuing a foreign policy approach based on balance of power. This implies India and China working together towards the common goal of establishment of a new equitable world order, in the creation of which the two countries will adopt common approaches. Our common development goals will have positive influence not only on Sino-Indian relations, but also on the rest of the world. Those who subscribe to this point of view argue that developing Asia -Pacific region can easily accommodate the growing influence of both China and India. The concept of “Area of Peace” in Indo-China, which New Delhi advocated after the Geneva Accords in 1954, was based on possible convergence of interests. New Delhi was keen to keep both the United States and China out of the Indo-Chinese states, so that Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia could pursue their goals of development. India tried to make China and North Vietnam commit themselves repeatedly to the principles of co-existence and thus allay the fears of the non-communist governments in Southeast Asian countries. This was all the more necessary because of the establishment of SEATO whose primary aim was to prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. The military approach embodied by the SEATO was fundamentally antagonistic to India’s policy of peaceful co-existence. The “Area of Peace” approach did not succeed. With the overthrow of the neutralist regime in Laos in mid-1958 by the CIA and the hardening of China’s stance, the Sino-Indian friendship froze in the snows of Himalayas. The rest is history…

The second possibility is that China will relentlessly pursue not only its goal of economic development and military modernization, but also fashion new relationships with the smaller countries of South and Southeast Asia so that the likelihood of United States, India, Australia and ASEAN coming together in a common front does not materialize. China will continue to pursue a foreign policy of winning friends and influencing people in the region and also provide legitimacy to the existing regimes through economic and military concessions. As is well known, during the Asian financial crisis and consequent economic meltdown in Southeast Asia, China’s principled decision not to devalue its currency was perceived as a benevolent gesture by Southeast Asian countries.

The third likely scenario is for India and China to find areas of convergence in certain spheres, while in certain other areas there will be conflict. From an Indian point of view, it is necessary to remind ourselves that China is one country which has resorted to the use of force to buttress its territorial claims against three neighbouring countries – India, Vietnam and the Soviet Union. I submit that as China steps up its “friendship diplomacy” in countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood, it will have adverse impact on India’s foreign policy objectives. Not only Sino-Indian relations, but also India’s relations with individual countries in South Asia, will be subjected to severe stresses and strains.

Given our nationalist heritage, our consistent support to anti-colonial struggles, our principled opposition to racial discrimination, our efforts to buttress the non-communist, secular and democratic regimes in the region, the deep seated sympathy and support for democratic struggles, there is an ethical and moral dimension to our foreign policy. It is unfortunate that New Delhi, during recent years, on few occasions, turned a Nelson’s eye to this important facet of our foreign policy. Thus during the Fourth Eelam War, when the war against the Tigers degenerated into a war against Tamil civilians, New Delhi should have made efforts to work out a mechanism, acceptable to both Colombo and the Tigers, under which the Tamil civilians could have been escorted, under UN supervision, to “safe areas” within the island. It may be recalled that during the anti-Tamil riots in Colombo in 1958 under international pressure, including Indian pressure, the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetileke requisitioned ships to transport approximately 10,000 men, women and children out of an estimated 12,000 housed in temporary refugee centres. In his lucidly written memoirs, Outside the Archives, Y D Gundevia, then Indian High Commissioner in Ceylon, mentions that the attack by the majority community was directed mainly against Sri Lankan Tamils permanently residing in Colombo. Some Indian property also suffered during looting and arson. To quote Gundevia, “there were hot words exchanged between the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetileke and the Indian High Commissioner”. The refugees were transported from Colombo to Kankesenturai. Similarly 2000 Sinhalese were transported from Jaffna to Colombo. What happened in Nandikadal in May 2009 was worse than what happened in Jalianwala Bagh. We failed to raise our voice in support of the Tamils, in those horrendous days of agony and anguish.  These shortcomings aside, there is a moral and ethical dimension in the pursuit of our foreign policy. For China this dimension is irrelevant. Beijing’s support to the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and its support to the tyrannical regime in Myanmar are grim reminders that Beijing would go to any extent in the pursuit of its foreign policy goals. I submit that in the pursuance of our foreign policy, it is not only necessary to develop bilateral relations at the governmental level, it is also essential that we are not perceived as the up holders of the status quo. When the Marcos regime was overthrown in the Philippines and when the Suharto regime was swept away in Indonesia, the ASEAN governments were caught with pants down. Let not history judge us in the same way.

Situated at the southern tip of India, and separated by the narrow Palk Strait, the Island Republic of Sri Lanka, small in size, with a population of 19 million, has been mainly concerned with fashioning the right type of relationship with its northern neighbour. The asymmetrical power equation has made the Sinhalese leaders deeply suspicious of New Delhi’s foreign policy objectives. Late Prof. Shelton Kodikara underlined this point as follows: “Perceptions of threat are, indeed, intrinsic to a small power -.big power relationship, but India is Sri Lanka’s only neighbour and in historical times all invasions of the island, barring one, emanated from South India”. To harp only on invasions from South India, without referring to India’s seminal influences on all aspects of Sri Lankan life – demography, religion, art, language and culture – is partisan interpretation of history. The benign interaction between the two countries has witnessed “continuities and adaptation, debts and autonomy”. As Ananda Coomaraswamy puts it, “The true impulse to a wider and fuller life must come once more, as in Ceylon, it has always come from India”.

Be that as it may, the obsession with the colossus in the north, or what Ivor Jennings referred to as “a mountain, which might, at any time, send destructive avalanches” has created mental and psychological barriers between the two countries. According to Sir John Kotelawala, the former Prime Minister of Ceylon, “the day Ceylon dispensed with Englishmen completely, the island would go under India”. He regarded the membership of the Commonwealth, “as the first insurance against any possibility of aggression from quarters nearer home”. I would like to characterize the India- Sri Lanka equation as “love hate relations”. Few illustrations are given below to substantiate this point of view.

The first major challenge to the Sri Lankan political system came in April 1971, when the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), reflecting the disenchantment and frustration of the Sinhalese educated youth and the under privileged, raised the banner of armed revolt. The Sri Lankan army could not cope with the security threat; Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike approached India, UK, USA, Yugoslavia, USSR and Pakistan for immediate help. But the country which immediately responded was India. According to an Indian diplomat, who was based in Colombo at that time, the JVP had cut off the telephone links between Sri Lanka and the outside world. The diplomat flew down from Colombo to Thiruvananthapuram by the next available plane, got in touch with Foreign Secretary TN Kaul and appraised him of the dangerous situation. New Delhi immediately airlifted Indian soldiers to save the beleagured island. There were five Indian frigates which sealed off approaches to Colombo. In addition, Indian assistance also included military equipment for 5000 troops, six helicopters with pilots for non-combat duties and 150 Indian troops to guard Katunayake airport. The revolt was crushed, and a large number of Sinhalese youth were detained. The armed forces had their first major experience in tackling an armed revolt. How did Colombo respond to Indian gestures of goodwill? Six months later, during the East Pakistan crisis, the Sri Lankan Government provided refueling facilities for Pakistani Air Force planes which were flying to East Pakistan to carry on savage reprisals against Bangladeshi nationalists. In more recent times, the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), on the invitation of President Jayewardene under the provisions of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, enabled the Sri Lankan army to devote itself completely to counter the JVP threat. What is instructive for India is the fact that the military marginalization of the Tigers, accomplished at heavy cost of men and materials, did not earn for India the corresponding gratitude of the Sinhalese. On the contrary it gave a fillip to Sinhala chauvinism and provided justification for the argument that Sri Lanka would soon become the “client state” of its hegemonistic neighbour. What is more, it brought the two hitherto antagonistic forces, President Premadasa and Prabhakaran, together. According to informed sources, the Sri Lankan Government provided considerable weapons and money to the Tigers. But the honeymoon did not last long. President Premadasa himself became a victim to the cult of the bomb and the bullet perfected by the LTTE. The decimation of the Tigers, during 1987-89 was accompanied by gross violation of human rights. During this period, the Bishana Samaya or days of terror, as the Sinhalese refer to it, the two rivers of exquisite beauty in the southern parts of Sri Lanka, the Kelaniya Ganga and the Mahaveli Ganga, were clogged with dead bodies and foamed with blood. It is also necessary to remind ourselves that one Sinhalese politician, escaped from Sri Lanka, camped himself in Geneva and pleaded for UN Humanitarian intervention to save innocent Sinhalese lives. Strange as it may sound, that politician was none other than Mahinda Rajapakshe.

When the military crisis deepened again with the fall of the Elephant Pass to the Tigers in April 2000 and the Tigers were about to enter Jaffna town, not only the Sri Lankan Government, but also the extremist sections of the Sinhalese, represented by the JVP, pleaded for Indian intervention. While fashioning India’s response to unfolding events in Sri Lanka, we have to keep these realities, a byproduct of love –hate relations, in mind.

How does China fit into Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and security considerations? The promotion of national interests – ensuring security, promoting economic development, diversifying arms purchases, enhancing trade and investment – implies fruitful interaction with as many countries as possible. China, being the most populous country and a growing economic and military power, naturally has to be befriended. What is more relevant, in trying to erode Indian pre-eminence, Colombo wants to encourage the involvement of external powers, who for their own reasons, want to cut India to “size”. In this connection, it is worth quoting the statement of Mahinda Werake, a Sri Lankan academic, “From the point of view of small states of South Asia, a stronger presence of China as a countervailing force is a desirable phenomenon in view of the growing and unquestionable supremacy of India in the region”. Lin Liang Guang of the Beijing University echoes the same sentiments. According to him, the “short sighted policy pursued by successive Indian Governments to make India the sole dominant power in South Asia has vitiated the strategic environment in South Asia”. But playing into the hands of India’s adversaries has its own limitations and could make Sri Lanka more vulnerable to external manipulations.

In the specific context of India-Sri Lanka relations, it is essential to keep in mind the fact that the Sri Lankan foreign policy establishment has tried to create a big wedge between Tamil Nadu and New Delhi and exploit the differences to its advantage. Their argument could be summarized as follows: While Sri Lanka continues to look upon North India as the cradle of its religion, it perceives its contacts with South India, as a source of perennial concern to its integrity as a nation state. Therefore, the foreign policy makers cultivated New Delhi in order to checkmate Tamil Nadu. What is more, they believed that they were successful in attaining their objectives.

The perception of the Sri Lankan foreign policy establishment can be better understood from the writings of two astute Sri Lankan diplomats, Bernard Tilakaratne, who was Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India for many years and who later became the Foreign Secretary of Sri Lankan Government and Nanda Godage, who has served Colombo with great distinction in several world capitals. Dealing with the inputs made by G Parthasarathy in the making of India’s Sri Lanka policy during the Indira-Gandhi era, Bernard Tilakaratne wrote: “Soon after Jayewardene became President, he was keen to cultivate closer relations with Indira Gandhi and particularly to update her on our ethnic problem. He sought my advice as High Commissioner, whether he should come himself or send an emissary and I proposed that Minister Athulathmudali be sent in the first instance  and that I would try to arrange a closed meeting. I was particularly gratified that GP (G Parthasarathy) was away for a while, there were no other advisor other than myself accompanying the Minister. We had a fantastic meeting at which Mrs Gandhi was so very sympathetic and understanding until GP joined us during the tea break and whispered to her in Hindi, a language I well understand having spent so many years in India, and the rest of the meeting was a disaster. The Minister asked me in Sinhala what caused the abrupt change and I said the voice of South India has spoken” (Emphasis added).

Indirectly making the point that enhanced relations with China will help Colombo in checkmating Tamil Nadu, Amb Godage in a recent article in The Island has written, “We were able to end the LTTE insurrection because China threw its weight behind us and sent us the required arms. Chinese aid to Sri Lanka is very many times more than the aid of countries such as the US…Why I flag these facts is to make the point that we are not without real friends and we do not need to be at the mercy of any group of countries which seek to destabilize this country to please their domestic constituencies” (Emphasis added). It needs to be pointed out that the only Sri Lankan political leader who wanted to build bridges of understanding with South India, especially Tamil Nadu, was Ranil Wikramasinghe, when he became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

A synoptic view of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, with special reference to Sri Lanka-China relations, is attempted here before analyzing the current situation. The triangular relations among Colombo, New Delhi and Beijing were naturally influenced by the cross currents of international politics, the ideological orientation of the ruling classes and critical issues of ethnic politics. As a general proposition, it could be stated that during the initial years of independence the SLFP Governments pursued a more vigorous non-aligned foreign policy, while the UNP Governments were more inward looking and were more pro-West in their foreign policy orientation. But with the end of the Cold War the ideological differences between the UNP and the SLFP have blurred and there is certain amount of continuity in their foreign policy objectives.

From a chronological perspective, Sri Lanka – China relations, during the last six decades, could be broadly divided into few periods.

First Phase

During the first period, which spanned from 1948 to 1956, when the right wing UNP was in power, Colombo was aligned to the West and was hostile to the communist countries. Kept out of the United Nations till the end of 1955 due to Cold War rivalry, Ceylon viewed the Commonwealth connection, especially the Defence Agreement with Britain as the “best insurance” against external threat.  What is more, on several occasions, the UNP leaders spelt out that the external threat could emanate only from India. The only exception to the general policy of anti-communism was the Rubber-Rice Agreement of 1952 with the Peoples Republic of China, despite a US embargo on the sale of strategic materials to China. Economically it was a boon for Colombo, for it not only provided a ready market for surplus rubber, but also enabled it to import the much needed rice at prices below the world market prices. YD Gundevia, who was India’s High Commissioner in Ceylon in the late 1950’s, has written: “Practically all the rubber, raw rubber, was exported to China, and China, in return, supplied eighty per cent of the country’s rice requirements”. Whatever be the nature of the Government, the Agreement has been renewed every five years.

Second Phase

The second phase, which commenced with the SLFP assuming power in 1956, continued till 1965. SWRD Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike brought about a definite shift in Colombo’s foreign policy.  Sri Lanka and China established full diplomatic relations on February 7, 1957 and exchanged resident embassies in each other’s capitals. Politically Colombo supported the “One China“policy and lent its support to the seating of the PRC in the United Nations. As an assertion of genuine independence and non-alignment, the British bases in Katunayake and Trincomalee were closed down in 1957, though the Defence Agreement itself was not abrogated. It may be mentioned in this connection, that in 1984 President Jayewardene maintained that Britain could come to Sri Lanka’s assistance, under the terms of the Agreement, in case its freedom and territorial integrity were threatened. Diplomatic relations with socialist countries, including China, were established and political, cultural and trade relations were expanded. Prime Minister Chou En Lai visited Sri Lanka in 1958 and 1964. When the Sino-Indian conflict took place in October-November 1962, Sirimavo Bandaranaike took the initiative to summon the Colombo Conference of a few non-aligned countries to mediate in the India-China dispute. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister visited Beijing in 1963 to explain the Colombo proposals. The opposition stance, especially that of the UNP, was definitely more pro-India, The UNP leaders criticized the Government for not branding China as the aggressor. Similarly the Maritime Agreement signed between the two countries in July 1963, which gave Most Favoured Nation Status (MFN) to the contracting parties, also became a serious issue in Sri Lankan domestic politics. The UNP cited it as evidence of the Government’s pro-China tilt; and since most of the China trade passed through Trincomalee, there were also accusations that Trincomalee had been handed over to China.

Third Phase

When Dudley Senanayake became the Prime Minister in 1965, there was a slide back in Sri Lanka-China relations. In the preceding election campaign, foreign policy issues had figured prominently. The UNP Government, being pro-West, it was but natural that relations with China should take a nose dive. What is more, China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and the domestic compulsions had their inevitable fall out on the foreign policy. Beijing expressed its displeasure with Colombo, by keeping the post of Ambassador vacant throughout Dudley Senanayake’s five year term. In 1967, when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was formed, Colombo seriously considered joining the new regional organization. The Vietnam War was escalating and the member states of ASEAN were in varying degrees aligned to the United States. All of them were anti-China and many observers considered the ASEAN as an instrument to stem the tide of Chinese expansionism in Southeast Asia. The matter did not proceed further, one consideration of Colombo being it would have jeopardized the Rice-Rubber Agreement.

Fourth Phase

The SLFP’s return to power in 1970 (as a major partner in the United Front Government) once again brought about a reversal in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike began to play a leading role in the Non – Aligned movement; Colombo hosted the fifth non-aligned summit in 1976. A major Sri Lankan initiative during this period was the proposal to convert the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, so that the littoral states could be insulated from the adverse effects of cold war rivalry.

Relations with China improved rapidly, except during the JVP insurrection during 1971, when Colombo suspected Chinese machinations behind the revolt. Beijing’s failure to respond to Colombo’s desperate appeal for military assistance and the presence of a Chinese ship in the Colombo harbour, carrying arms to Tanzania, lent credence to the suspicion of China’s complicity. However, it turned out to be a storm in the tea cup. Sri Lanka-China relations began to expand in a big way. In 1972, Sirimavo Bandaraniake made a successful, highly publicized visit to China, when she had an audience with Mao Tse Tung. She characterized the relations between the two countries as a “model of inter-state relations”. By the end of 1976, China had become Sri Lanka’s major trading partner. Colombo received from China an interest free loan of Rs 265 million to finance agro-based industries and a further interest free loan of Rs 48 million to finance an integrated textile mill. Beijing also gifted five high speed naval boats to Sri Lanka. In addition, China constructed the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, at an estimated cost of Rs. 35 million, a show piece of Chinese good will to Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately despite New Delhi’s sincere gestures of good will, India-Sri Lanka relations underwent stresses and strains. As mentioned earlier, New Delhi’s timely assistance to Colombo enabled the Government to put down the JVP revolt; however, during the Bangladesh crisis Colombo provided landing facilities to Pakistani Air Force planes and military personnel in civilian garb, on their way to East Pakistan. Sri Lanka also did not accord immediate diplomatic recognition to the newly independent Bangladesh. The recognition came only in 1972. Equally disconcerting for India was Colombo’s changing stance on Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. With the Pokhran explosion in 1974, Colombo became concerned about India’s intentions and capabilities.

In addition to broad concerns about super power rivalry, the India factor began to loom large in Sri Lankan thinking. In November 1976, Shirley Amarasinghe remarked, “We do not want any great power here. By the same token, we do not intend that we should drive out Satan by Beelzebub and allow some other powers within the group of littoral and hinterland states to take up the place of super powers”. To the dismay of India, Colombo also extended its support to the Pakistani proposal for the establishment of South Asia as a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. A situation was slowly emerging when the neighbouring countries in South Asia were ganging up against New Delhi

An important factor that contributed to the improvement of Sino-Sri Lankan relations should be highlighted. By the mid-1970’s China no longer projected itself as the “citadel of revolution”. “Support to revolutionary struggles” was no longer an important facet of China’s foreign policy. The left parties in Sri Lanka, which hitherto had played an important role in Sri Lankan politics, fell into disarray and could not wield much influence. Added to this was the strange spectacle, that in Sri Lanka the Trotskyist Party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was polling more votes than the traditional communist parties. The Sino-Soviet dispute had its inevitable fall out on the communist movement. While majority of the members remained with the parent organization, the pro-Moscow Communist Party led by Pieter Keuneman, a vocal minority led by Shanmugathsan formed the Communist Party of Ceylon, which supported China in the ideological struggle. The net result was the decline of the left movement in Sri Lanka.

China successfully rallied from the temporary setback suffered during the first JVP struggle, when Beijing adopted an ambivalent stance. For few weeks, there was a studied silence on the part of Beijing.  It was strange because CCP never missed an opportunity to involve itself in diatribes against Moscow and New Delhi. China naturally did not want to miss an important foothold in South Asia. This fact compelled Beijing to make amends. In a letter to Sirimavo Bandaranaike in May 1971, Chou En Lai condemned the “self styled Che Guevarists”. He added that China was opposed to both “ultra leftism and right opportunism” in revolutionary struggles. In his view, the JVP revolt was plotted by the “reactionaries” in Ceylon and abroad.

Fifth Phase

The decisive victory of the UNP and the virtual rout of the SLFP in the 1977 elections brought about a radical transformation in Sri Lankan political system. Despite pious commitment to the principles of Non-Alignment, there was a definite pro-American tilt in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. The economic policies of Colombo, modeled on the experience of Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea made it more and more dependent on Western bilateral and multilateral assistance. The dependency syndrome naturally resulted in major deviations in foreign policy. On the issue of Grenada, Sri Lanka voted with Britain in the United Nations; in the 1983 Non-Aligned Summit in New Delhi, President Jayewardene soft pedaled the issue of Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace; he also did not condemn the US Naval presence in Diego Garcia. On Afghanistan and Kampuchea, Colombo toed the line of the West, China and ASEAN. Sri Lanka vehemently criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and upheld the ASEAN point of view on the Cambodian question. Speaking on Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea, the Sri Lankan Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahul Hameed pointed that military intervention to bring about change in the political system of a neighbouring country was to invite “a breakdown of orderly conduct in inter-state relations”. During this period, Sri Lanka once again tried to become a member of ASEAN; however, it could not make much headway in this direction.

Sixth Phase

The sixth phase began in July 1983. With the escalation of the ethnic conflict, Sri Lanka was at war with itself. The internal security compulsions, the wider question of grappling with the external ramifications of the ethnic conflict and the problem of dealing with the critical India factor became matters of overriding concern for the Sri Lankan Foreign Office. The internationalization of the ethnic conflict in the post 1983 period resulted not only in Colombo moving closer to the West, but it had also adverse repercussions on India’s geo-political and strategic environment. Colombo’s enthusiastic attempts to cultivate Islamabad and Beijing, its shopping spree around the world capitals for building up armed strength, the induction of the notorious Israeli counter insurgency set up Mossad, the arrangements with British mercenaries to train the Sri Lankan armed forces – all these had serious bilateral and regional implications. The increasing US interest was evident from the Voice of America Deal. Under this agreement, a transmitter was supposed to have been installed ostensibly for the use of Voice of America. It was the most powerful transmitter outside the United States and Colombo was to have no editorial control over it. The Sri Lanka watchers in India felt that the whole arrangement was intended to be a communication relay facility between Diego Garcia and Pina Gap communication in Australia. It could also be used for jamming Indian communication systems. It should, however, be underlined that if President Jayewardene hoped that the West will bail him out of his domestic problem, he was sadly mistaken. On the contrary, the United States advised Colombo to use India’s good offices to solve the ethnic imbroglio.

India’s policy towards Sri Lanka during this period was full of contradictions. The mediatory-militant supportive policy did not earn for India the good will of either the government or the militants. But one thing was clear. India was determined not to allow Colombo to have a military solution to a domestic problem; finally Colombo had to sign an agreement with New Delhi to resolve the problem peacefully. The India Sri Lanka Accord, July 1987 not only represented a commitment on the part of New Delhi to the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, it also accommodated New Delhi’s security concerns vis-à-vis the island. In sum the relevant provisions implied an adherence to the policy of Non-Alignment from which Colombo had made fatal and costly deviations. It must, however, be mentioned that the provisions in the Exchange of Letters represented statements of intentions as opposed to binding legal obligations.

While the Indian involvement in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict provides ample testimony to the pangs of proximity, the long distance which separates China from Sri Lanka has not provided any enchantment either. India’s mediatory role and the IPKF operations are pointers to the inherently limited role that an external power can play in resolving a domestic conflict in a neighbouring country. At the same time, attempts made by Sri Lanka to internationalise the ethnic conflict and encourage the involvement of external powers is an example of cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face. Finally when the moment of reckoning came in June-July 1987, no external power even lifted a finger against India.

An analysis of Beijing’s reactions to the ethnic conflict makes it clear that China’s support to Sri Lanka was on a low key. There was a pragmatic realization that a high profile policy would adversely affect the ongoing process of normalization of Sino-Indian relations. When Harry Jayewardene, the special envoy of President Jayewardene, visited China towards the end of 1983, Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian extended China’s support to Sri Lanka’s efforts to safeguard its sovereignty and oppose foreign interference in its internal affairs. The same position was reiterated by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Gong Dafei in November 1984 in Colombo; he stated “big should not bully the small”. In November 1985, a 3000 ton Guided Missile Destroyer and supply ship made a “friendly visit” to Colombo after a similar visit to Karachi. This was the first goodwill visit of a Chinese naval ship since the founding of the PRC in 1949.  In March 1986, President Li visited Colombo as part of a five nation tour and reaffirmed the traditional friendship between the two countries. However, in private Li advised Colombo to seek a political solution to the ethnic problem. When India-Sri Lanka confrontation escalated in the summer of 1987, Ranil Wikramsinghe visited Beijing to mobilize Chinese support. Beijing again preferred a political solution to the problem. However, it continued to pump arms to Sri Lanka. In one official statement, without naming India, China expressed its disapproval of the bullying actions of the big powers and “interference in internal affairs of other nations”  President Jayewardene summed China’s attitude towards Sri Lanka as follows: “They were good friends and gave us military equipments, guns etc, at reasonable terms. But what could they do? I could not ask them to start a border war in the north to keep the Indians busy. Even if I had, I doubt, if they would have done it”.

An  important fallout of the escalation of the ethnic conflict had been the rapid expansion and modernization of the Sri Lankan armed forces. In the fifties and the sixties, the Sri Lankan army was a ceremonial one, providing guard of honour to the visiting dignitaries and holding march pasts on independence days. In 1978 Sri Lanka allocated only 3.1 per cent of its national income to defence, by 1992 it was spending as much as 12.0 per cent on defence. After 1983, thanks mainly to the US, Israel, Pakistan and China, the Sri Lankan army had developed as a professional group, vastly more in numbers and equipped with sophisticated weapons. China has emerged as a major arms supplier to Sri Lanka in terms of value, quantity and quality. The military equipment supplied by China for use against the Tigers include Jian-7 fighter jets, anti-aircraft guns and JY-11 3 D air surveillance radars. China’s military assistance to Sri Lanka is estimated to be around US Dollars 100 million per year.

The odds were completely against the Tigers when the Fourth Eelam War commenced in 2006. The LTTE’s attempts to procure arms were thwarted by the Sri Lankan Government. With inputs from Indian Intelligence agencies, the Sri Lankan armed forces successfully destroyed LTTE ships bringing arms into the island. With the supply lines cut and Sea Tigers destroyed the Tigers were like fish out of water. The armed forces were not only enlarged, they became also highly professional, especially at the officers’ level. President Mahinda Rjapakshe gave complete freedom to the Chiefs of the Armed Forces to determine the war strategy. Unlike the Third Eelam War, there was absolutely no political interference. As President Mahinda Rajapakshe stated in an interview with N Ram, editor-in-chief of the Hindu group of publications, “From the beginning I had the feeling that if you gave the forces (the Sri Lankan armed forces) proper instructions and whatever they wanted, our people could defeat them”. The most efficient wing was the Air Force, which resorted to savage bombing of the Tamil areas. And the attempts made by the LTTE emissaries to acquire the much needed anti-aircraft missiles from the United States was nipped in the bud by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the words of an Indian scholar, the Sri Lankan security forces “were better equipped and trained than ever before” They were using superior artillery, recently inducted Kifirs, MIG 27, MIG 29 and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, a newly acquired US Beechcraft and advanced radars. The ascendancy of the Sri Lankan Air Forces led to the initiative slipping out of the hands of the Tigers. Kilinochi, Elephant Pass, Mullaithivu and finally Nandi Kadal – a series of dismal defeats – culminated in the decimation of the entire Tiger leadership, including Prabhakaran.

Given the nature of coalition politics in India, especially the role played by the alliance partners from Tamil Nadu, New Delhi’s maneuverability in strategic co-operation was limited. The suggestion made by Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasinghe that India and Sri Lanka should enter into a Defence Co-operation Agreement could not make much headway. However, India continued to provide non-lethal weapons like radars, stepped up training of the Sri Lankan armed forces, especially the Sri Lankan Navy, modernized the Palaly Airport, kept vigil in the Palk Bay, and above all did not succumb to the demands made by the political forces in Tamil Nadu to follow an activist policy in support of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. A Sri Lankan academic informed the author that the greatest contribution of New Delhi during the Fourth Eelam War was “to keep Karunanidhi in check” so that the war could continue till the final goal was accomplished. The astute Sri Lankan defence and foreign policy establishment knew the constraints on the Central Government in New Delhi; to gain maximum leverage from such a situation, they first approached New Delhi with the list of defence equipment they required, knowing fully well that New Delhi will give a negative answer, then they approached Pakistan and China for the same weapons and perhaps more. The “careful management” of relations with India was left to Basil Rajapakshe, Gotabhaya Rajapakshe and Lalith Weeratunga. In characteristic understatement, Amb Godage has written that this policy “resulted in the Indian Government playing a quiet but effective role to enable us to finish of the war”. For China, its ties with Colombo gave it a foothold near the critical sea lanes and also entry into what India considers to be its backyard.

Colombo was also extremely happy that when the issue of human rights violations figured in the UN organizations, China and Russia extended their whole hearted support to Sri Lanka. In a recent article in The Island, reference to which has been made earlier, Amb Godage highlights this point. After describing the munificent armed assistance received by Sri Lanka from several international quarters, Godage added, “This is not to forget the military assistance we received from Russia and the tremendous help Russia extended, along with China, in the Security Council to counter the hostile West which was determined to save the LTTE”. Unfortunately India also went along with Russia and China in the United Nations. I submit that India should not have adopted the same cynical attitude which Moscow and Beijing displayed in the United Nations. These two countries have number of skeletons in their cupboard to hide. From an Indian point of view what must be highlighted is the fact that during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War, the war against the LTTE had degenerated into an inhuman war against the Tamil civilian population. Even the innocent Tamils who were holding aloft the white flag of surrender were brutally killed. What happened in Nandi Kadal, to say the least, was one of the worst crimes against humanity. The least New Delhi could have done was to make efforts, with the assistance of like minded countries and international organizations, to rescue the Tamil civilians trapped between the “Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers”. That would also have been in conformity with the noble traditions of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Like Banquo’s Ghost these tragic realities will continue to haunt us for a long, long time.

From China’s point of view, aid and trade have been important instruments of fostering better relations with Third World countries, especially in South Asia. From 1956 to 1973, nearly 20 per cent pf China’s aid was targeted to South Asia, with Pakistan receiving 13.1 per cent, Sri Lanka 3.5 per cent and Nepal 2.9 per cent. During recent years, China has expanded its economic assistance to Sri Lanka many times more. President Mahinda Rajapakshe has visited China three times since he became the President to strengthen bilateral relations. Sri Lanka has recently opened a Consulate in Chengdu, where Pakistan has already an active Consulate. In a recent seminar in Chennai, B. Raman, the strategic specialist, pointed out that Chengdu military region coordinates China’s military strategy in South Asia.

From an Indian point of view it needs to be underlined that China is not part of South Asia, but through systematic efforts, Beijing has made its presence felt in a big way in India’s neighbourhood – in Myanmar, in Nepal, in Pakistan, in Sri Lanka and in Maldives. China is not a littoral state of the Indian Ocean, but it is making its presence felt through expanding and deepening relations with Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. From an Indian point of view the possibility of China and Pakistan working in tandem to reduce India’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood should be a matter of great concern.  One cannot escape the conclusion that China’s diplomacy is aimed at counterbalancing and checkmating India’s pre-eminent influence in its immediate neighbourhood.

The bilateral trade between Sri Lanka and China has doubled during the last five years from US dollars 660 million to US Dollars 1.13 billion, making China the second largest exporter to Sri Lanka. Colombo is conscious of the fact that during the early years of independence, efforts were made to capture US markets, but the time has come to reduce its over dependence on the West by diversifying its trade with East Asian countries. In addition to coconut fibre products, natural rubber, tea, precious and semi-precious stones and ready made garments, during recent years, Sri Lanka had been exporting mineral sands (Zirconium ores and concentrates). The imports from China include machinery and machine parts, cotton, textiles, vehicles and parts, fertilizers, iron and steel and plastic parts. Explaining expanding relations with East Asian countries, especially China, Palitha Kohona, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary, remarked, “Sri Lanka’s traditional donors, namely, the United States, Canada and the European Union, had receded into a very distant corner to be replaced by countries in the East. The new donors are neighbours; they are rich; and they conduct themselves differently. Asians don’t go around teaching each other how to behave. There are ways we deal with each other – perhaps a quiet chat, but not wagging the finger. Chinese assistance has grown five fold in the last year to nearly US Dollars 1 billion, eclipsing Sri Lanka’s long time big donor Japan”.

China’s assistance to specific projects includes development of Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka, the constituency which Mahinda Rajapakshe formerly represented in the Parliament. During the first stage, China will construct a 1000-metre jetty, which will enable the harbour to import and export several items. When completed the Hambantota port will serve as a safe haven for bunkering and refueling. 85 per cent of the estimated expenditure will be given by China at concessional interest, the balance will be contributed by Colombo. China’s Export-Import Bank is financing 85 per cent of the cost of this one billion dollar project and China Harbour Engineering, which is part of a state owned company, is building it. It may be recalled that initially Sri Lanka approached India for assistance in the development of Hambantota, but New Delhi dragged its feet.

China is also assisting Sri Lanka in the construction of the following: an international airport at Maththala in Hambantota district, at a cost of US Dollars 190 million. The Government hopes to commission the airport by the end of 2011. China has also offered its assistance in the construction of a Colombo-Katunayake Express Way; improvement of the existing railway network; a coal power plant in Norochcholai; flood protection system for the suburbs of Colombo; a National Theatre for Performing Arts in Colombo and a special economic zone in Mirigama, meant for investment by Chinese businessmen. It must be pointed out that 50 per cent of the funding received by Sri Lanka since Mahinda Rajapakshe became the President has come from China. The work in these projects would entail the stationing of large number of Chinese technicians in Sri Lanka. And, what is more, all these projects are located in Sinhalese areas. In addition, China has offered its assistance for the rehabilitation of the Internally Displaced Persons and technical assistance for demining operations in the North and the East. In addition, China has also offered to rebuild part of the railway line connecting Vavuniya with Jaffna.

The high profile policy pursued by China in India’s neighbourhood will have profound consequences for India. Unfortunately, except for the scholars associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Center for Asia Studies, Chennai there is no serious debate about the rapidly unfolding events in Sri Lanka and the changing nature of its foreign relations. India cannot afford to be complacent and a re-appraisal of our vital stakes is the need of the hour.

Though the war against the Tigers has been won, the return of peace and stability and ethnic reconciliation still remain to be achieved. The victory in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections was achieved by pandering to the majoritarian desire for Sinhala domination. An alienated Tamil minority, in the short and long run, is not to India’s advantage. We in Tamil Nadu and the North Eastern parts of Sri Lanka are like Siamese twins, what afflicts one will affect the other. And, therefore, we cannot afford to adopt the policy of cynicism which Beijing and Moscow displayed during the last days of the Fourth Eelam War. The Doctor in Albert Camus’s book, The Plague, has the following advice: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it is up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences”.

Dr. V. Suryanarayan was Senior Professor and Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. This essay is partly based on author’s earlier writings on the subject. This paper was presented in a national seminar on China and South Asia organized by the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi on April 29 and 30, 2010.


Enjoy the article?

Did you find this article informative? Please consider contributing to Eurasia Review, as we are truly independent and do not receive financial support from any institution, corporation or organization.


 

SAAG

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CLOSE
CLOSE