By Col. R. Hariharan
The first-ever visit by a Chinese Defence Minister to Sri Lanka with an entourage of 23 members indicates the ever increasing Chinese interest in the island nation. China’s Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie’s visited Sri Lanka for five days from August 29, 2012.
Evidently there was a conscious effort to keep the visit at a low key. It would be charitable to think that this was done as both sides were mindful of India’s sensitivities to Chinese overtures to Sri Lanka. But it would probably be accurate to say that the Chinese defence minister did not want the Colombo visit to be overplayed as New Delhi was his next stop.
India – Sri Lanka Relations
General Liang’s meeting with the President was only briefly reported in official release with traditional averment to peace and friendship between the two countries. On the Chinese visitor’s meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapksa, Sri Lanka defence ministry said Sri Lanka and China had sought to strengthen their military ties. The Chinese press release was a little more detailed. It quoted General Liang as saying that political trust between the two countries had deepened with the rapid expansion of exchanges and cooperation in various fields. He expressed the hope that the two sides would continue to work hard to maintain the close and friendly relations and strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the field of non- traditional security and improve the ability to respond to crisis together, so as to contribute to regional peace, stability and development.
Presumably the reference to non-traditional security and responding to crisis together was related to international counter-terrorism cooperation that China had been promoting for some time. This was mooted in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and joint exercises have been carried out. Probably China would like to promote similar joint efforts with South Asian nations. This is evidenced by the Chinese military participation in the Sri Lanka joint services exercise “Cormorant III” from September 10 to 25 in Eastern Vakarai in the Eastern Province. In this exercise along with Sri Lankan troops, Chinese troops would be participating side by side with military personnel from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Maldives.
India is not participating in the exercise. However, Indian observers will be attending the exercise. It will be interesting to watch how China progresses in this nascent foray of “joint training” with South Asian countries. India’s response to this initiative will be equally interesting as during his Indian visit later, the Chinese defence minister had spoken of resuming military cooperation and exercises with India which were disrupted for a while.
However, more relevant from the Indian point of view is, in future Sri Lanka will have the option of seeking Chinese military assistance in such an eventuality. This gives a totally different dimension to the growing military cooperation between the two countries. Probably, Sri Lanka has a similar understanding already with India. Despite such an understanding, China’s active military cooperation if and when it comes through in Sri Lanka, literally in India’s ‘backyard’, would complicate India’s security calculus.
Any India-China military stand-off in the future would be a testing time for Sri Lanka as it has excellent defence understanding and cooperation with India. In this context, Sri Lanka Prime Minister D.M Jayaratne remark when Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang visited Sri Lanka in June 2010 is interesting. He said Sri Lanka would unswervingly support China on issues of core interest. China went to war with India in 1962 as they considered security of national borders as a core issue. Considering Sri Lanka’s past conduct in 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, and economic compulsions facing the country now, in any future India-China confrontation also Sri Lanka is likely to adopt a neutral stance.
Presumably to ally suspicion among South Asian nations of China’s increasing interest in the region, General Liang emphasised China’s peaceful intent in his speech at the Defense Services and Staff College. He focused on peaceful development as an essential component of China’s defence policy presumably to allay suspicion of China’s growing economic and military power. He said China exercises a military strategy of active defence, with the basic principle of adhering to a self-defence position that not to take the initiative to offend others, stand for non- military means to solve disputes, take defensive posture strategically, conduct self-defence and attack only after being attacked.
China’s soft power is increasingly visible in all aspects of Sri Lankan society – diplomatic, economic and military fronts, mega projects and infrastructure building, and trade and commerce. Chinese entry into real estate and some manufacturing projects is also coming through. And it will be only a matter of time before cheap Chinese goods monopolise shop shelves. Chinese language teaching and cultural spread are also on the cards as the Confucius Centre is scheduled to open in Colombo.
Though Chinese soft power expansion is also happening in India (except for the Confucius Centre), as the Chinese footprints expand in Sri Lanka they are eating into Indian space. And the Chinese have probably added a strategic dimension to it now. Even as the Chinese defence minister embarked upon his onward journey from Colombo to New Delhi, hapless Sri Lankan visitors and pilgrims hounded out from Tamil Nadu were disembarking from their aircraft at Katunayake. This would have given General Liang a peep into the soft underbelly of Indo-Sri Lanka relations exposing its weaknesses. There is no denial that India-Sri Lanka relations had been drifting for sometime despite some major initiatives from the Ministry of Commerce. The only option for India is to evolve a holistic plan to upgrade its relationship with Sri Lanka so that China gets a clear message.
(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies.) (Eurasia Review)