The Unenviable Position Of Weaker States Bordering The Powerful – Analysis


Historically, weaker border States have had to accommodate the geopolitical and strategic interests of a powerful neighbor

Weak countries that share a land or a sea border with a powerful State having geopolitical interests, have been on the horns of a dilemma historically. The choices they have had to make have been hard.  

All States, whether weak or strong, have a powerful psychological need to maintain their sovereign and independent status as equals in the comity of nations. All States have to develop trade and political ties with a wide variety of countries, including world powers with clashing interests. At the same time, they are subject to the pulls and pressures emanating from global and/or regional powers, especially from the Big Brother at the doorstep. 

To overcome the dilemma, some States have voluntarily chosen neutrality. Switzerland has always been neutral by common consent. Sweden chose to be neutral. Finland has had a difficult relationship with the USSR/Russia but has managed to keep its independence by acquiescing to the Soviet Union or Russia in many respects. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland has changed track and wants to join NATO, like Sweden.

When a weaker border State, is seen posing a security or geopolitical threat to the more powerful neighbor, the latter becomes hostile and may even threaten absorption, war or blockades or other forms of sanctions.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the US and the Soviet Union engaged in a tense, 13-day political and military standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles from US shores. When border State Ukraine was contemplating joining NATO, which was slowly but steadily making its way to the Russian border, Russia invaded Ukraine. In the eyes of Moscow, a border State has to be mindful of Russia’s security and geopolitical interests.   

Even more recently, when the US was encouraging Taiwan to be formally independent of mainland China, and the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a controversial visit to Taipei, China put its armed forces on the attack mode. In the eyes of Beijing, Taiwan is a part of China. During the days of European empires, powerful nations built buffer States on their borders which were weaker but neutral, and prevented the giants from clashing. The buffer States provided security to both giants against each other. 

In modern times, powers, whether regional or global, expect their smaller neighbors to be aware of their geopolitical and economic interests and not damage them. The docking of the controversial Chinese vessel in August Yuan Wang 5 and a Chinese submarine in 2014 in Sri Lanka incurred India’s displeasure because of the long-standing and still intensifying geopolitical tension between India and China. India fears encirclement by China. 

In 2013, India and Sri Lanka, along with the Maldives, had entered into an agreement to cooperate and share information on maritime security. The agreement was at the National Security Advisors (NSA) level with Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary, substituting for the NSA. But despite the agreement, Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese submarine to dock at Colombo in 2014 when it was known that it will irk India. The said agreement was restated in 2020. And yet, the spy/research vessel Yuan Wang 5 was allowed to dock in August this year, behind India’s back. 

The matter was put to rest as both Sri Lanka and India wanted to continue good relations in the larger interest of the two countries. However, the residues of the stand-off still remain. China attacked India through its foreign office and the Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka, with the latter even asking Sri Lanka to join China in fighting for independence and sovereignty against threats such as those seen over Taiwan and the docking of Yuan Wang 5

India responded with a travel advisory that could hurt tourism in Sri Lanka at a time when the Chinese are being prevented from venturing overseas. New Delhi wanted Colombo to know that it will not be pleased if Colombo takes Beijing’s bait on support at the UNHRC. India is feeling hurt that despite its US$ 3.8 billion loan to Lanka to tide over economic distress, and despite China’s refusal to help, Lanka should treat India’s concerns with scant respect. 

While the Lankan government is silent on the risk of a Indo-Lankan rift, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India, Milinda Moragoda, has made an attempt to mend fences. In a candid and constructive interview to the The Hindu on Saturday, Moragoda said: “There is no question that the docking of the ship was an issue between us. The question is how to build a framework for such problems in order to avoid them in the future, and not to allow this kind of issue to lead to a trust deficit. Despite ups and downs, Sri Lanka would like to build an equilibrium in the relationship, where there are no surprises.”

But Colombo has to find ways of getting China’s help. Although the IMF is working on a bailout package for Sri Lanka, the island nation has to restructure its external debt to a variety of creditors, a task which is not easy especially when China says that it cannot agree to any collective decision to take a “haircut”. Beijing is against restructuring debt. And without its joining any agreement, other creditors will not agree. And if there is no collective agreement, the IMF bailout of US$ 3 billion will not materialize.

Sri Lanka has to coax China, but China will not agree easily if Colombo does not agree to its condition that it should turn a deaf ear to India’s demands. The Chinese Ambassador, Qi Zhenhong, made it very clear in his recent article in the Sri Lankan papers.  

Talking of India but without naming it, Qi said: “Looking back at the great history of the island of Sri Lanka, which overcame aggression from its northern neighbor 17 times, colonization by the West for 450 years, and an anti-terrorism war for nearly 3 decades, is now still standing in the world bravely and proudly.”

“Any infringement of national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka shall not be tolerated. Approving a foreign vessel’s port call at Hambantota or any other port for replenishment is a decision made by the Sri Lankan government completely within its sovereignty, not to mention all the scientific research activities of Yuan Wang 5 that comply with the international law and common international practice.” 

“External obstruction based on so-called security concerns but without any evidence from certain forces is de facto a thorough interference in Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence. Fortunately, with China and Sri Lanka’s joint efforts, the incident was resolved properly, which not only safeguarded Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence, but also defended international fairness and justice once again.”

“Just like Sri Lanka, China had suffered a hundred years of humiliation from 1840 till 1949. Because of a similar dark experience, China has always been supporting Sri Lanka in international fora for protecting its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. We will continue to do that. In contrast, some countries, far or near, always make various groundless excuses to bully Sri Lanka and trample on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence repeatedly. “

“Next month, the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council will be held in Geneva where human rights issues in Sri Lanka might probably be stirred up again. As the Sri Lankan people are still grappling with severe economic and humanitarian difficulties, many might wonder what those countries, who have been always been preaching about human rights, will actually do. Will they help Sri Lanka to ease its human rights crisis by providing concrete support? Or will they again use human rights as a cover-up tool to interfere in the island nation’s internal affairs and continue to rub salt into the wound of Sri Lankan people? Just let’s wait and see.”

Support at the UNHRC is a major Chinese bait for Sri Lanka as the Sri Lankan polity gets rattled by censures at the council because such censures could lead to the withdrawal of GSP trade concessions and the arrest of its leaders by Western nations under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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