Taranjit Singh Sandhu
Pic by Waruna Wanniarachchi
By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
India is always available to collaborate with Sri Lanka, according to the pace Sri Lanka is comfortable with, said India’s top diplomat in Sri Lanka this week, in a diplomatic speech which nevertheless alluded to regional geopolitics.
“We want to work with you at a pace you are comfortable with. India will be there whenever you need us,” Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu said at the Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Oration, which was organised by the University of Colombo Alumni Association, this week.
Although the local Indian diplomats and visiting Indian dignitaries have continuously insisted that India is not competing with China for influence in Sri Lanka, the ambassador’s words, which did not once mention China, appeared to act as a contrast to China’s policies.
Sandhu said that India has committed US $ 2.9 billion in concessional funding to Sri Lanka, of which US $ 545 million was in grant assistance.
“I want to emphasise one aspect. Our aid is not to raid or invade. Our assistance is based on Sri Lanka’s own requirements,” he said.
In comparison, many analysts worldwide have hammered home the point that China’s financing is intended to trap developing countries situated along the One Belt One Road initiative in debt, before converting the debt into political influence or asset ownership, by citing the examples of Sri Lanka leasing the Hambantota port for 99 years and Djibouti allowing the construction of a Chinese military base and considering the sale of a port.
Most of China’s financing in Sri Lanka has been focused on large-scale hard infrastructure projects and China has emerged as Sri Lanka’s top development partner in recent years, accounting for over one-third of funds disbursed in 2016 and 2017 for such projects.
Sandhu meanwhile said that “we do not pervert your markets, your assets or your land”.
He said that India has attempted to develop soft infrastructure in Sri Lanka and the region with the launch of the South Asia Satellite in 2017, the providing of hundreds of scholarships annually to Sri Lankans and the launch of the Lankan Education and Research Network in Sri Lankan universities, which is connected to India’s own National Knowledge Network.
“We firmly believe that our assistance should result in true capacity building, so that changes are sustainable,” he said.
He also said that Sri Lanka can more easily gain access to the world’s fastest growing economy, following the Indian tax reforms.
Sandhu however stayed clear of the controversial Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) currently under negotiations between the two countries.
He also chose not to talk on India’s recent unilateral action on pepper imports, which Sri Lanka spice exporters have said threatens the sincerity of the existing free trade agreement (FTA). This follows past unilateral action India has taken to undermine the FTA, according to local academics.
Sandhu’s speech encompassed three main points: broad friendship between the two countries, India’s helping hand blending with Sri Lanka’s requirements and the connections through Buddhism.
“We have never believed in setting conditions for friendship. Our heart is broad and big. We don’t view friendship through a transaction lens. There is no quid pro quo,” Sandhu went on to say. He said that India has over time become more action oriented in its assistance to Sri Lanka compared to the past and has proven this in recent times with flood and drought relief.
“We have tried to overcome the hesitations of history, if I can use the term in some cases,” he said.
Last year’s Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Oration was delivered by the then Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Yi Xianliang, at the height of Sri Lanka’s negotiations with China to lease the Hambantota port.
Xianliang delivered a politically-charged oration on the One Belt One Road initiative, following which he gave controversial comments to the media.