Lanka’s China Policy and the ‘Waves’ in the Indian Ocean

Palitha Kohona, in The Island, mid-May 2018, where the title reads  “China, India and the Indian Ocean:Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Challenges,”

bassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations; Former Foreign Secretary.

Sri Lanka’s foreign relations must reflect the country’s priorities. Sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean at the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka occupies an enviable strategic position. A blessing that, with careful and thoughtful handling and long term vision, can be leveraged to its advantage and, mismanaged, a curse that has and will attract the unwelcome attentions of global and regional powers seeking to strategically dominate the Indian Ocean. Throughout history, Sri Lanka has captivated the greedy interest of various powers, for strategic and trading reasons. At times, we elegantly parried and benefited from this attention. At other times we faultered. Responding to and judiciously managing these covetous advances and ensuring that the national interest is safeguarded, including its territorial integrity and sovereignty, will remain a priority. Having overcome a terrible terrorist challenge, nine years ago, we are again facing one of those seminal periods in its history.

Today, an additional factor must enter our calculations. We possess a 200 mile exclusive economic zone and, possibly, a vast area of sea bed to which we have lodged a claim since 2009.  The wealth of this area, both in the water column and trapped in the sea bed, could make Sri Lanka a prosperous nation with careful management. This could also be another attraction to Sri Lanka’s suitors.

Recent history

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, at times, has demonstrated a maturity out of proportion to its relative size and the country has played an impressive role in international affairs. Punching above its perceived weight was accepted as normal, with men of undoubted stature managing or representing its national interest. Sri Lanka was a country to be reckoned with at the United Nations and in multilateral affairs. In the 50s, 60s and 70s and later, Sri Lanka adroitly adopted a non-aligned approach in international relations and used it to its advantage. This helped to keep the contending super power wolves at arms length, manage our ever sensitive neighbour, India, with its own affiliation to non-alignment and also attract development assistance from both major camps. But an overt and ill considered shift towards the West along with the implementation of an open economy in the late seventies, on the advice of multilateral funding agencies, following the election of the Jayawardena government in 1977, saw the carefully nurtured geopolitically balanced approach of the Bandaranaika governments being disrupted. India, which was close but not too close to us in the past and despite its much lauded non-aligned purity and cultivated image of non violent respectability, was disturbed and found excuses to militarily intervene in Sri Lanka and openly sided with the nascent Tamil insurgents, training and arming them. India’s unwelcome military and political incursion in to Sri Lanka, which resulted in the insurgency reaching unmanageable proportions, in all likelihood, had the blessings of Moscow which was intensely competing with the West for friends and allies even at this stage and destabilising ostensibly pro Western Sri Lanka may have been part of its strategy.

Forlorn hopes of Chinese or Western intervention on our behalf proved grossly exaggerated. Sri Lanka was left alone to fend for itself in a difficult situation. Subsequently, India, exploiting its advantage, pressured Sri Lanka to enter in to the much reviled Indo-Lanka accord which provided India with extensive security assurances and the excuse to deploy over 100,000 troops as peace keepers. The Indian goal may have been to keep at least some of its troops permanently in Sri Lanka. But fate intervened when the Tamil Tigers whom India had nurtured, turned violently against its benefactors, and subsequently killed Prime Minister Gandhi by deploying a suicide bomber. India was subsequently forced to pull out with considerable loss of life and, more importantly, dignity. Sri Lanka quickly returned to its non-aligned base under President Kumaratunga and later under President Rajapaksa. But something had been lost in all this confusion and its image was blemished. It took considerable effort to restore a semblance of the confidence of India in its southern neighbour. Over the years, India had also emerged as the regional power with a legitimate security interest in Sri Lanka’s geo political stance and it became essential to manage India’s concerns with care. India was also eyeing Lanka’s economic potential.

The Rajapaksa regime that took over in late 2005, despite its relative lack of experience, managed the relationship with India with impressive dexterity that contributed towards generating a sympathetic understanding which was a critical factor that enabled it to comprehensively defeat the torist LTTE. Unfortunately, after the conflict ended, the same intensity did not characterise our efforts to manage Indian perceptions of Sri Lanka and the consequences were a disaster.

The US and the West

While the critical Indian factor was being carefully managed during the period before the conflict was ended, the attention that was being paid to the West suffered a decline. Over the years, Sri Lanka had succeeded in getting the terrorist LTTE proscribed in most of the West, (The US proscribed the LTTE in 1997) including in Canada and the EU, due to the concerted effort made by policy makers and diplomats. The endless suicide bombings targeting civilians and non military targets, and the murder of the respected Foreign Minister, Kadiragamar, by the LTTE, contributed to this outcome. As the internal conflict escalated, and as the much vaunted Tamil Tigers began to lose ground rapidly, a combination of factors was manipulated to change this perception. The pressure exerted by the groups supportive of Tamil separatism and the NGO community intensified with a focus on alleged, and often exaggerated, violations of human rights by the security forces and US policy makers with a human rights background were lobbied incessantly. Sri Lanka’s response could not match the intensity of the Tamil separatist propaganda effort. A stronger and more effective presence and a dedicated professional lobbying apparatus in Washington and other Western capitals may have helped to counter these pressures and the national approach could have been more refined.

Legislation unhelpful to Sri Lanka was adopted by Congress, for example the Leahy Amendment, resulting in the gradual dilution of sympathy for the Sri Lankan cause and the suspension of military assistance.  Bushmaster guns purchased by Sri Lanka could not be used due to the absence of ammunition, the supply of which was caught up by the Leahy Amendment. The long-hoped-for joint exercises did not materialise. The millions of dollars pledged to this country under the Millennium Challenge Account for infrastructure development were withdrawn putting tremendous financial pressure on us. Tamils for Hillary began making significant donations to her presidential campaign, which were returned only after protests were registered at a senior diplomatic level. Disturbingly, a statement made by Hillary Clinton at the time seemed to suggest that a distinction could be drawn between good terrorists and bad terrorists. Leaked cables published in Wikileaks indicate that Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, had intervened to exert pressure on the IMF to deny Sri Lanka a critical stand-by loan just two weeks before the LTTE was vanquished. The IMF appears to have resented this intrusion by the Secretary of State to its domain. The same leaked cables reveal that there was even a serious suggestion by the US to extricate elements of the LTTE leadership  from the Mulaitivu beach and Indian objections may have stymied this effort. Relations between the two countries spiralled downwards further when anto the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister for a bilateral visit to Washington was ignored. This may have been the opportunity to bring a semblance of balance to the relationship that was now on a distinct downward curve. The relationship became openly antagonistic.

What was happening in Washington was being repeated in Ottawa, London, Brussels and Geneva and a chorus of criticism to the Lankan cause gathered momentum. Strident commentary took a painful form when the EU withdrew the GSP concession, ostensibly for non complying with global human rights conventions to which Sri Lanka was a party. Aid allocations were reduced dramatically. The EU began pressuring its members to stop arms supplies to Sri Lanka.  Approaches had to be made for the supply of spare parts and refurbishing of weaponry to Eastern European countries on an ad hoc basis. Only personal interventions helped to secure some of the weaponry from Eastern Europe.

The downward tendency in relations with the West got magnified in post conflict period resulting in the West using the Human Rights Council to hold Sri Lanka to account for the alleged violations of human rights standards and war crimes.

The concerted withdrawal of support by the West and the increasingly hostile attitude was a key reason for the Rajapaksa regime to turn to China, Pakistan, Ukraine, Russia and others for support. Interestingly, Israel continued its supply of weapons to Sri Lanka, although at a price.

If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is that a small country such as Sri Lanka could not afford to isolate itself from any of the major powers and be allowed to live in peace. Policy approaches have to be carefully balanced against historical experience and future implications. Any policy adopted has to be comprehensive and not piecemeal and the entire administration had to subscribe to and work hard at it.

Today’s international missteps appear to be a broad parallel of the events of 1815

Lanka can learn many lessons from its history but unfortunately this does not appear to being done. Lanka ceded its sovereignty to Britain in 1815 through the mechanism of a convention. While the Kandyan leadership in 1815, uninformed of the momentous developments occurring in the outside world, debilitated by 300 years of endless armed resistance to invading European powers, divided by internal dissension, suspicious of each other while conspiring to acquire greater personal power and position and only united in their hatred of the king, agreed to a covenant accepting the sovereign of the United Kingdom as our sovereign, today we appear to be heading broadly along the same path with no such excuses except a lack of appreciation of the seething resentment of the vast majority of the people, an incomplete understanding of the shifted global economic circumstances and the real powers of international institutions such as the Human Rights Council and only an intense desire to stay in power.

A naive belief that prescriptions of external entities, essentially the emerging European powers, were meant well and complying with them would somehow be a panacea for our own ills seemed to have had a significant influence on the thinking of those who agreed to the convention of 1815. The real motives of the perfidious Brits escaped the leaders who signed the the Kandyan Convention. Three years later, as Britain blithely reneged on its treaty commitments, as it had done elsewhere, our vain efforts, spearheaded by the Kandyan aristocracy, to regain the country’s sovereignty were ruthlessly crushed with unmitigated brutality, with military resources drawn from a vast empire, even though the rebellion limped on for over one year. There is a lesson to be learnt here. Sovereignty once surrendered, is difficult to recover.

We are witnessing events with familiar echoes to those that resulted in the cession of our sovereignty in 1815 unfolding in slow motion, including a worrying willingness to unquestioningly comply with the prescriptions of Western powers and their ready tools, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The advice provided by the West may serve their interests but it is necessary to be cautious about its usefulness to us. In 2015, concessions were readily made at the international plane through the Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 which we naively cosponsored. It has been described as an act of appeasement, under pressure from countries with tainted pasts and suspect agendas and lobby groups still seeking to achieve the terrorist goals through other means, in the forlorn hope that our internal issues would be resolved, a development bonanza would materialise and we would gain ready acceptance in the West. Today the implementation of those concessions which we voluntarily undertook has become millstone around our neck and a subject of continuing pressure, including economic blackmail. Despite simmering domestic resentment, the concessions made are now being implemented almost surreptitiously with likely negative impacts on the unity, identity and sovereignty of the country with hardly any economic advantages ensuing. The consequences of the concessions made will continue to reverberate for decades to come.

It is nevertheless intriguing that the international media and the NGOs have continued to harp on the need to address human rights violations and war crimes allegedly committed by service personnel, while the well documented endless massacres of villagers, bombings of sacred sites, buses, trains and busy cities, the slaughter of devotees and monks at religious sites, extensive ethnic cleansing, and the recruitment of thousands of child combatants by the LTTE remain hardly mentioned. Of course, the concessions made at Government level in Geneva hardly touched upon these. Those who raised funds for the LTTE to purchase weapons, explosives to carry out suicide bombings, and recruit children for combat purposes and who continue to live comfortably in Western countries do not get mentioned in the pained reports and press releases. There is hardly a country anywhere else which expresses such public jubilation in pursuing the men and women who made such an enormous sacrifice to protect the integrity and sovereignty of the country on allegations which remain to be proved.


Future foreign policy makers of Sri Lanka will be well advised to take their cue from the masters of foreign policy formulation of the West, including Prime Minister Theresa May, and strongly defend the role of the average soldier who fought a terrible and reputedly invincible terrorist foe and prevailed against enormous odds and also liberated almost 300,000 civilians who were held as hostages, bargaining chips and as a human shield.


One is tempted to ask, even at this stage, whether it was really necessary to accommodate all the demands of certain countries with the West, who were being egged on by the vociferous and well resourced Tamil lobby overseas with endless funding and the NGOs. This, in the face of massive resentment in the majority community.


While the UNHRC adopts resolutions against many targeted countries, usually those that have fallen in to disfavour of the West and least capable of defending themselves, these are regularly ignored, Sri Lanka proceeded to cosponsor the resolution creating at least a moral obligation to comply with it. The moral obligation so blithely accepted and issues of national credibility will hang over not only the present government but also future governments. If cosponsoring was the favoured option of the government, and in view of the sympathy and goodwill that existed for the newly elected President, were all possibilities for mitigating the provisions of the resolution explored? It would be difficult to contend in the contemporary world that those who cosponsored the resolution were unaware of existing global realities. The effect of resolutions of the UNHRC were well known. UNHRC resolutions, like resolutions of the UN General Assembly, have no legally binding effect. The UNHRC or the High Commissioner also have no powers of enforcement and the other target countries have recognized this reality. If the goal was to curry favour with the West, and secure funding to advance our development goals, there was a clear lack of appreciation and an absence of foresight in not taking into account the prevailing global economic realities. While, as a nation, we must strive to do right, we need not always accept that others know better than us of what is right for us.

As Winston Churchill so incisively observed, a nation that does not learn from history is condemned to relive it.

Today, dragged behind in the development race by 30 years of terrorism, (terrorism resulted in $200 billion in lost opportunity costs for Sri Lanka) mismanagement, credibility gap, and increasingly poor governance, the country, with the economy struggling, is seeking to attract foreign investments to fast track its economic development. When the new government was elected to power in 2015, misguided attempts were made to attract Western resources through ill-considered international commitments made at the Human Rights Council, and an unfortunate effort to crudely distance Sri Lanka from China, a long standing and reliable friend which had begun to finance our infrastructure development with endorsement at the highest levels in China.

With not much relief coming from the West, now a concerted renewed endeavour is being made to reengage with China. While there is doubt whether the initial damage can be undone, there is some nervousness that India and the West might not view this development too enthusiastically. Neither India nor the West, though provided the opportunity to do so, are in a position to infuse the large capital inputs necessary to enable Sri Lanka to push its way up the development ladder within an acceptable time frame.

One Belt One Road

President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) provides Sri Lanka with a unique opportunity to fast track its economy along the path to development. The investment bonanza that is being made available under the BRI could revive the glory days of the ancient Silk Route for Sri Lanka. China’s BRI investment ambitions, focused mainly on cooperative infrastructure and connectivity enhancement, have been compared with the post World War US Marshall Plan. But the funds available under the BRI make the Marshall Plan pale into insignificance. The Marshall plan provided over $140 billion, at 2017 dollar values, and was designed to assist selected Western European economies recover from the devastation of the World War. The BRI expects to make available a stunning USD 4-8 trillion. While the Marshall Plan achieved much, the BRI funds can be expected to realize substantially much more by creating a vast region of shared prosperity, the clear beneficiaries being a large number of developing countries.

Additionally, the Chinese Yuan has now been recognised as a reserve currency by the IMF and China appears to be increasingly moving towards international payments in Yuan.  The IMF elevated the Yuan, also known as the renminbi, or “people’s money”, on the same day that the Communist Party celebrated the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The Yuan joins the U.S. Dollar, the Euro, the Yen and British Pound in the IMF’s special drawing rights (SDR) basket,which determines currencies that countries can receive as part of IMF loans. This would be the first time that a new currency has been added since the Euro was launched in 1999. It is an impressive achievement as the Yuan had very little credibility as recently as thirty years ago.

Challenge before policymakers

The challenge confronting the policy makers is to sensitively manage our international approach to benefit from the BRI without unnecessarily causing discomfort to the West or India or both. Developing countries in a hurry appear to have little choice but to join a bandwagon such as China’s BRI .

Historically, Sri Lanka has had close relations with China stretching over two Millennia and seeking to renew those connections would seem to be the natural thing to do.

The copious writings of the fifth century scholar monk Fa Xian from China who spent six years at the Jetawanaramaya Monastery in the ancient capital, Anuradhapura, tell a tale of bygone prosperity and complex international diplomatic and trading relations. Fa Xian carried a ship load of religious texts from Sri Lanka to China. 

Sri Lanka, like other countries of South Asia, had developed important relations, religious, trading and social, with the Middle Kingdom from early days, and the writings of scholars, soldiers, monks, travellers and traders suggest a strong Chinese interest in Lanka from times immemorial. The country also attracted waves of traders, businesses and holy monks seeking the sublime teachings of the Buddha over the centuries, from far afield as ancient Rome on the one side and Khan Balik on the other, not to mention rapacious invaders. Those who came from, especially from China, not only left detailed observations which have been used to corroborate our own historical records but also bits and pieces of their own cultures, enriching ours. The Chinese traders and Shaolin monks probably introduced Chinese martial arts. One word in Sinhala for the indigenous martial arts is Cheena – Adi. This is too much of a linguistic coincidence. The Chinese account “The Biography of Bhikkunis” written in the sixth century details a visit by Sinhala nuns to Nanjing to inaugurate the order of nuns in China. Four embassies were sent from Lanka to the Chinese imperial court in the fifth century. The Lankan King sent an embassy with a valuable Buddha statue to the court of Emperor Xiaowu.

The Arab geographer Edrisi details the extent of Lanka’s international trade during the time of Parakramabahu the Great who also sent a royal princess to the court of the Emperor. The great Kublai Khan dispatched an envoy to Lanka asking for the alms bowl of the Buddha venerated by the Sinhala people but the Lankan king refused this request.

Lions and the Chinese

The lions at Yapauwa are very much Chinese influenced. The troves of Chinese coins and porcelain being recovered from various parts of the country suggest a thriving trade. A large number of Chinese vessels lie beneath our waters, having sunk in rough weather. Admiral Zheng He’s visits and his involvement in the replacement of the Lankan king with Parakramabahu vi who was later ousted by Parakramabahu vii are well recorded. Parakramabahu vii sent six missions to the Ming court.

More recently, particularly during the time of the domination of Asia by Western powers, many Chinese migrated to other countries in search of a better life. Some came to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and settled down to become the Sri Lankan Chinese community.  In 1950, independent Ceylon became the 13th country to recognise the People’s Republic of China and, since then, has unconditionally endorsed the

One China Policy

One China Policy. Subsequently, in 1952, Ceylon breached a Western embargo and concluded the Rubber Rice Pact with China to swap rubber (listed as a strategic material) for rice. Prime Minister Zhou En Lai visited Sri Lanka in 1957 and established the framework for a lasting solid relationship which flourished particularly during the stewardship of Prime Minister Mrs Sirimao Bandaranayaka. The Bandaranayaka Memorial Conference Centre stands proudly as a symbol of the bonds developed during this period. It is said that Chairman Deng Xiaoping sent a delegation to Sri Lanka to study the Greater Colombo Economic Commission before setting up the spectacularly successful Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. During Sri Lanka’s conflict with the terrorist LTTE, China provided weapons and other assistance unconditionally to Lanka while Western countries progressively distanced themselves from Sri Lanka and withheld weapons and funding as a means of exerting pressure on the government. China’s generosity contributed in no small measure to the eventual defeat of the LTTE and the elimination of the terrorist threat.

China also provided unqualified support to Sri Lanka at international fora, including the UN. Subsequently, as the country sought desperately to recover and reconstruct and Western assistance continued to dry up, an economically resurgent China, contributed magnificently to Sri Lanka’s recovery efforts. In addition to the Hambantota Harbour, the Mattala Airport, the roadways, the Performing Arts Centre in Colombo and the Lotus Tower bear testimony to the economic and cultural relationship that blossomed during this period.

The key lesson for us is to cultivate assiduously  those countries that are genuinely interested in working for the mutual benefit but also be cautious of those whose interests are not our own.

BRI and regional prosperity

While traders from distant lands sought mutual prosperity, invaders sought and succeeded in grabbing the country’s wealth and stunting the development of the people. The BRI initiative can be compared to the multitude of traders who visited us in the past and gave us the opportunity to prosper.

Despite muttered reservations and orchestrated criticisms, already the countries of the region, especially in Africa, are reaping the benefits of China’s investments. Economists agree that the recent rapid upward movement of the economies of a number of African countries has been the result of significant Chinese investments. Many African economies are prospering for the first time in years and analysts ascribe this development to Chinese investments in infrastructure in Africa. By 2014, that had risen more than 20-fold to $220 billion according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. It is likely that this trend will accelerate as China also learns from experience, irons out irritations and responds more to the aspirations of the people of the region.

Africa and Chines loans

Since 2000, Ethiopia has been the second-biggest recipient of Chinese loans to Africa, with financing for dams, roads, rail and manufacturing plants worth more than $12.3bn, more than twice the amount loaned to oil-rich Sudan and mineral-rich Congo. The BRI while raising some concerns, especially among the former colonial powers who ruthlessly ravaged Africa, can be used by countries of the Indian Ocean region and beyond to enhance their mutual prosperity without being constrained by fears and suspicions inculcated by the colonial past.

Australia received AUD 15.4 billion in Chinese investments involving 103 deals. Australia is the second biggest country recipient of Chinese investments after the US and investors have grabbed hotel assets, real estate, agri business, healthcare, infrastructure, etc. The port of Melbourne is now controlled by a Hong Kong-Chinese concern. 

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