Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe left Colombo to attend China’s One Belt One Road Forum in Beijing within hours of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s departure from Sri Lanka after his participation as chief guest in the International Vesak Day celebrations on 11th -12th May.
China’s OBOR project is seen as its most ambitious foreign policy initiative, linking Asia, Africa and Europe with massive infrastructure investments on the part of China. Sri Lanka was one of the earliest to pledge support for the OBOR also known as the Silk Road. Significantly India boycotted the Beijing Forum because of what India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley referred to as ‘sovereignty issues.’ Indian disapproval relates to the fact that part of the project runs through territory in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which New Delhi says is its own.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe however has made positive remarks about the Beijing forum at its conclusion, describing it as ‘historical,’ because for the first time, he said, there has been a trade and cooperation plan for Eurasia.
A number of developments point to cross-currents that Sri Lanka will have to navigate in participating in the ambitious project, while maintaining a balanced foreign policy and good relations with the two Asian giants India and China. Special Projects Minister Sarath Amunugama has already sailed into uncharted waters with his remarks to PTI in Beijing. Eyebrows would surely have been raised in Pakistan, a friend of Sri Lanka, when he said that the issue over Kashmir “is going through the heart of Indian interests.” Amunugama confirmed reports that Sri Lanka turned down a recent Chinese request to dock a submarine adding that “Sri Lanka is taking assistance from the Indian Navy to maintain maritime security including tracking submarines.” In the same breath he asserted that “We are equidistant from everyone.”
A previous submarine docking in Colombo in 2014 so angered India that it is believed that India had a hand in the regime change of January 2015. China has consistently maintained that the submarine visits relate to anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
Amunugama’s remarks come against a backdrop where the government is trying to iron out issues relating to Chinese investments. The Port City project, though it has now got the go-ahead, was earlier suspended by the Sirisena Wickremesinghe government owing to Indian pressure. The Hambantota Port and industrial zone are yet to be finalized amid local apprehensions.
Where the proposed Indian projects are concerned, fears were revived following a MoU signed during Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to New Delhi, that listed a plethora of envisaged projects with Indian collaboration that included the strategic Trincomalee port and environs. Owing to local concerns the Indian prime minister’s travel had to be preceded by categorical announcements on both sides that there would be ‘no signing of agreements.’ In Delhi, responding to a question on Trincomalee port ahead of the trip, an Indian official told reporters “it’s a little premature at this stage to be talking about it.”
The Indian media has no illusions as to the geopolitics underlying Modi’s visit. “Now it appears New Delhi has decided to use religion as the language, perhaps more saleable in Sri Lanka, through which India will pitch the security co-operation that it wants with its closest Indian Ocean neighbor” said a commentary in the Indian Express.
While Prime Minister Modi in his keynote speech inaugurating a Buddhist conference in Colombo mainly dwelt on the two countries’ ‘shared Buddhist heritage,’ he also remarked that “... the economic and social well being of the people of Sri Lanka is linked with that of 1.25 billion Indians. Because, whether it is on land or in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the security of our societies is indivisible.” A projection of Indian soft power may be read into these words.
For Sri Lanka the question is, must these development partnerships with China and India necessarily be seen as prejudicial to each other, or can the island state find ways to benefit from the ‘multiple suitors’ it attracts on account of its strategic location, while protecting its own
“As India’s neighbour and the country with which we have had the longest historical, religious and cultural links we need to be sensitive to India’s concerns, especially security concerns,” says Dr Palitha Kohona, former Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs and Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the UN in New York. But this does not mean we have to be obsequious, he says, nor does India expect us to.
“We maintained a proactive balance between India and China over the years. Sri Lanka benefitted immensely from this approach. Instead of sycofantishly being over loyal to India or anyone else, we can be ourselves while being sensitive to India’s security concerns” he told the Daily Mirror. “The secret is to keep India informed, be independent and not offend other friends gratuitously.”
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) is of the view that Sri Lanka “does not need to reposition as a hub of the Indian Ocean, as it has already been that since ancient times.”
“The Indian Ocean does not belong to India and a Chinese submarine visiting Sri Lanka should be seen as a positive gesture by Indians, primarily because India has a close and deep relationship with Sri Lanka” he says. “Second, because the submarine, was not even nuclear powered was just making a port call.Third because India, being the island’s closest neighbour, is building a massive arsenal of 170 warships, five submarines and one nuclear submarine with Sri Lanka not having raised any question regarding this. Fourth, Sri Lanka always keeps India’s security concern in mind and Sri Lankan leaders do not make knee- jerk reactions because of the carefully calibrated policy by our leaders.”
He goes on to say “Sri Lanka should also build its capacity to counter any future destabilization activities by regional and extra regional powers which would affect the economic development of the nation. It is in Sri Lanka’s national interest to defend its territory and its surroundings. Therefore, if Sri Lanka wishes to build a submarine fleet in the future, for defensive purposes, this act should not be viewed as a threat by
Pointing out that China has helped Sri Lanka financially and to develop its infrastructure, Abeyagoonasekera says Sri Lanka should assist China fully with the OBOR project which “will benefit our people and our economy immensely.”
In this he concurs with Kohona who also drew attention to the “immense economic opportunities” the OBOR offers. “As an independent country we must chart our own destiny. No country, however well meaning will safeguard our future and that includes India” Kohona said. “We must not play our hand so as to miss out on this opportunity. We must decide what is in our best interest and hope that as a mature neighbour India will understand our needs. We can and must manage this relationship with our interests uppermost. After all Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly emphasised the commonalities between India and China and invited Chinese businesses to invest in India. China is India’s biggest trading partner.”
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