Explaining China’s Growing Influence In Sri Lanka 


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.

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