By Salma Yusuf
The 50 anniversary of the Indo-China War of 1962 is marked on October 20,2012 through 21 November 2012. A disputed Himalayan border was the main pretext for war, but other issues played a role. The war failed to resolve disputes between the world’s two most populous countries and its legacy continues to weigh down on an otherwise robust bilateral relationship built mainly on economic terms.
From a Sri Lankan perspective, the war must be remembered for another reason. Given the leverage of Sri Lankan leaders during the time, then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was able to take the initiative for a conference of the non-aligned countries in December 1962 in Colombo, to mediate between India and China.
As Sri Lanka was regarded a close and trusted ally, Prime Minister Bandaranaike was subsequently invited to visit both countries where she explained what has henceforth been called the “Colombo Proposals.” While India accepted the Colombo Proposals absolutely, China accepted the Proposals in principle. The Proposals became the basis on which mediation between the two countries took place. Prime Minister Bandaranaike regarded the mediation effort as ‘the highest of Ceylon’s efforts in seeking to achieve its foreign policy aims.’
The China-Indian Footprint in Post-war Sri Lanka
The economic footprint of two emerging Asian giants in post-war Sri Lanka has been established. China has invested as much as US$ 6.5 billion, primarily in infrastructure projects. Its commitments for the past five years other than infrastructural investments have included, among others, US$ 2.12 billion of which 2.1 billion was repayable. US$ 24 million has been in the form of outright aid. It has been reported that China provided as much as a quarter of Sri Lanka’s foreign borrowings in 2011. Chinese companies have bagged, so far, at least 14 major infrastructure projects in the country.
India’s assistance package in post-war Sri Lanka began with an assistance package of approximately US$ 110 million for immediate relief and resettlement; and thereafter an initiative in the form of construction of 50,000 houses for Internally Displaced Persons under a grant; a US $800 million credit line for reconstruction of Northern Railway lines; a Southern Railway Project under another concessional credit line of US$ 167.4 million; and among others, assistance to fishing communities; setting up of vocational training centres; assistance to war affected women through training and employment generation projects; and revival of agriculture through provision of tractors, seeds and agricultural implements.
As highlighted in this column in a previous article titled The Asian Century: A Diplomatic Renaissance in Global Politics and International Relations, and published on October 22, 2012, ‘Established is the fact that two key players in a potential Asian Century are India and China, both of which are gaining increasing relevance to Sri Lanka’s positioning both nationally and internationally. Sri Lanka too is keenly aware of the importance of both countries in the region and seems to maintain a careful balance of the respective interests.’
Importance of the relationship
The Indian position on Sri Lanka too is clear. The 2012 Independence Day Message of the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Ashok K. Kantha was telling of the value his country accords to the bi-lateral relationship with Sri Lanka: ‘Mahatma Gandhi called Sri Lanka the “nearest neighbour” to India. It is through that prism that we see our ties. For Sri Lanka, the end of three decades of internal conflict has brought historic opportunities. India, as its closest neighbour, is prepared to be Sri Lanka’s partner in this journey.’
The High Commissioner went further to explain the importance of the relationship in the region: ‘India and Sri Lanka, knit together by the ties of history, geography and culture, are destined to play key roles in the coming rise of Asia. Our partnership must therefore progress in the spirit of being the closest of neighbours and friends whose destinies are interlinked.’ The importance and value of this relationship is also reflected in the magnitude of the India-funded housing project in Sri Lanka which the High Commissioner described as ‘one of the largest grant assistance projects undertaken by the Government of India in any part of the world.’
Tamil Nadu Factor
However, despite such significant investment in rebuilding Sri Lanka, the central government in India is faced with political pressures from its ruling coalition in the south of the country which has had its own implications for the India-Sri Lanka relationship. This has been reflected in intimations from Indian leaders in different contexts.
The former Indian Cabinet Minister and Member of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Subramanian Swamy summed up the Indian perspective in August this year when speaking at the National Defence Seminar in Sri Lanka, ‘I can tell you with full conviction today that the Indian people wish Sri Lanka well. We, in India in fact feel kinship with you Sri Lankans, emotionally, historically, religiously, linguistically and also for the benefit of our mutual national security. As recent genetic research reveals, Indians and Sri Lankans have the same DNA.
‘But I make it clear at the same time, even the most ardent well-wisher of Sri Lanka in India wants to see that the present feeling of marginalization that seems to have gripped the Tamil community for real or imagined reasons, including sections which were never with the LTTE such as the Plantation Tamils, is ended by a reconciliation process wherein the Tamils feel empowered to participate in nation building as if the LTTE era had never existed.
The devolution must, we in India recognize, be within the comfort zone of Sinhala majority feelings and at the same time be considered adequate by the Tamil minority.’
President speaks to Times of India
The value accorded to the India -Sri Lanka relationship is undoubtedly mutual. The most recent interview of President Mahinda Rajapaksa by the Times of India on August 10, 2012 recorded the President’s emphasis on the need to move on, declaring that the vote by India in favour of the United Nations Resolution on Sri Lanka in March 2012 by the United Nations Human Rights Council did not irreversibly alter the dynamics of ties between the two countries, ‘The past is past, let’s look at the future now,’ he said, reiterating his comment in the past that Indians would remain like ‘relations’ and that the two countries remain ‘much more than good neighbours.’
India against separatism
Even at the height of the Tamil Eelam Separatist Organization (TESO) conference in August 2012 in Chennai, the Indian government was outright in stating its position on separatism. Indian Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and adjacent to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, V. Narayanaswamy reiterated categorically, when speaking to a group of Chennai newsmen, the Indian Central Government’s stance, ‘India would never-ever support the idea of dividing the island nation.’ Elaborating further, he said, ‘India will stand by any political solution reached to address the Tamil question without harnessing the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka.’
China’s Minister of National Defence
China’s position on Sri Lanka is less complex. In a speech titled “China’s Peaceful Development and its National Defence Policy” delivered by China’s State Councillor and Minister of National Defence General Liang Guanglie, at Sri Lanka’s Defence Services Command and Staff College of Sri Lanka on August 30, 2012 during an official visit to Sri Lanka, was resonant with gratitude and reassurance. ‘Sri Lanka is one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, China-Sri Lanka friendship has withstood the test of international vicissitude and we have always maintained good cooperation.’
The Minister of National Defence went further to extend China’s unequivocal support and commitment to Sri Lanka’s progress, “We are ready to take this opportunity to further advance the All-round Co-operation Partnership of Sincere Mutual Support and Ever-lasting Friendship between us.’
The long-standing amity and co-operation in defense, economic and other areas can be traced back to the China-Ceylon Rubber-Rice Pact of April 1952, which entered history books as one of the earliest, if not the earliest of agreements signed by Communist China with a non – Communist country. The Pact is one now held out by China as an early example of a continuing pragmatic principle in international relations. Chinese President Hu Jintao, during his talks with visiting Sri Lankan President to China, described the continuing relationship as ‘a model of inter-state relations between a big country and a small country.’
String of pearls versus necklace of thorns
The Indo-Chinese rivalry in relation to regional domination is oft characterized in modern times by what is called the “String of Pearls” phenomenon, described as China’s naval expansion in the Indian Ocean region which links several ports in the region, namely, Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwader in Pakistan and Marao in Maldives. The phenomenon has been described by others as a “Necklace of Thorns intended to strangle India.”
The entrance into Sri Lanka’s economy in a big way by both emerging Asian giants, China and India, has become a cause for concern among some quarters in Sri Lanka’s political circles which believe that Sri Lanka is now the ground on which India and China will openly clash.
That said, both India and China, together with the rest of the world, are only too aware of the need to maintain peace in the Asia Pacific region, not only in its own interest but also in those striving to achieve global security.
Strategic space for sovereign growth
Accordingly, there have been attempts on both sides, namely, Indian and Chinese, to find common space that is non-confrontational and accommodative of the interests of what is said to have become the most important bilateral relationship of the century. Shyam Saran, a former Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs was very clear when he indicated some years ago that ‘there is enough space in the region for both China and India to be on the ascendant as we were once in history for an extended period of time.’
Further, India and China willingly became signatory to a document called the “Shared Vision for 21st Century” in 2008 which means that both countries accept “significant historical responsibility to ensure a comprehensive, balanced, sustainable social development of the two countries and to promote peace and development in Asia and the world as a whole … they respect the right of each country to choose its own path of social, economic and political development and drawing lines on the grounds of ideologies and values or on geographical criteria is not conducive to peace and harmonious coexistence.”
Neither battle nor bargaining tool
What becomes imperative for Sri Lanka then is to play a critical role, given its increased interest and engagement with India and China, to ensure that contention is not peddled between the two countries. Rather, it should seek to diffuse existing tensions and provide fresh impetus towards emphasizing that there exists sufficient strategic space for both countries to co-operate and develop within the Asian region, and globally, with no encroachment on the national sovereignty of either.
Sri Lanka must in no way become a battle ground or bargaining tool in what is fast becoming the most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century. Rather, it must strive to be a constructive force that shapes the destinies of the two emerging Asian giants individually, thereby contributing to peace and stability in the region, and in turn acquiring its own unique international positioning.
The trusted peace broker
Sri Lanka must win the confidence of India and China, be a trusted friend of both emerging superpowers so that it can be called on to mediate and be the reliable peace broker in the unfortunate event of a potential dispute similar to that which erupted in 1962. It is time we pick up from where we left off in our foreign relations, inheriting the pristine legacy of the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
This article appeared at The Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission.