Betwixt India and China: Little Lanka

ACL Ameer Ali in Colombo Telegraph, 6 June 2021, where the title is “Delhi’s Choice & Colombo’s Highway to Beijing ”  … but note that the highlighting is an imposition of The Editor, Thuppahi

Post-war Sri Lanka has turned into a contestable terrain for a new Great Game played chiefly between two regional powers, India and China with their respective allies. Although India’s presumption of control over the Indian Ocean remained uncontested once the former colonial masters started leaving the region one by one, Indian historians and political strategists like K. M. Panikkar warned Independent India of economic and security perils of surrendering control over Indian Ocean[…]

The Indian Ocean touches the shores of forty independent nation states that house 40 percent of world’s population. Two-thirds of world’s oil shipment, one-third of its bulk cargo and one-half of container traffic travel through this ocean. In short, 80 percent of global seaborne trade passes through this arterial waterway. What is even more crucial in the context of present discussion is that China’s export of goods reaches the Persian Gulf, East Africa, Western Europe and North America by sailing towards the Cape of Good Hope via the Indian Ocean route. Hence, freedom of navigation through the Indian Ocean or at least some control over that volume of water is extremely vital for the global aspirations of this awakened giant.[…]

China in Sri Lanka

[…The signing of the Rubber-Rice Pact in 1952,  tne opening of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1957, China’s gift of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in 1973, and the visit to Beijing by SL President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) at the invitation of her Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin in 1996, China’s presence in Sri Lanka was nothing more than ordinary. It was the civil war that really tied together the two nations into what now looks like an inseparable economic, diplomatic and even security relationship.  Sri Lanka’s former president CBK expressed publicly that the country has become almost a colony of China. Certain developments as will be shown below would vouch for her contention.

Delhi’s Dilemma & China’s Opportunity

[…] Shivshankar Menon, India’s former Ambassador to Sri Lanka (1997-2000), candidly explains Delhi’s predicament as, “an impossible choice between reasons of state and humanitarian instincts, between idealism and self-interest, between intervention and allowing a war to run its course. As a democracy, India chose to find a middle way between them, to try to satisfy both, in the event not fully satisfying either” (Shivshankar Menon, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Washington D. C, Brooking Institution Press, 2016, p. 103). He also states that had “India … stood aside … defending the killers of an Indian prime minister, we would have effectively written ourselves out of Sri Lanka for the next decade or more, sacrificing our maritime and other interests in Sri Lanka and abdicating a geopolitically strategic neighbor to other powers (p. 96).[…]

Delhi’s hard choice and the West’s reluctance to help  the Rajapaksa Government left a huge gap which came as manna from heaven for China to capitalize.  An awakened  China with aspirations for economic dominance globally and to counter the unipolar world order embarked on her string of pearls strategy with the construction of her One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) new maritime silk road, through the Indian Ocean.  Acquiring at least semi-permanent halting stations along that route would clear the way for her final objective. A war ravaged and debt burdened Sri Lanka, right on the door step of China’s regional rival, India, offered a golden opportunity that was too good to miss. From the point of view of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka, China’s OBOR with its latest subway, China-Pakistan-Sri Lanka-Economic Corridor became Colombo’s highway to Beijing. Even a regime change in 2015 by the West-oriented UNP could not change that direction. In fact, the ninety-nine years lease of Hambantota Harbor signed by the new regime reinforced China’s long-term foothold in Sri Lanka.

China’s Consolidation & Delhi’s Retraction

With the return of the Rajapaksa regime in 2019, Delhi’s relations with Colombo became even more precarious. […The Rajapaksa cabinet provocatively approved the Sinosoar-Etechwin Joint Venture in China to install hybrid renewable energy systems in three of Sri Lanka’s small islands, Nainativu, Neduntivu and Analaitivu – all three situated in the Palk Strait and less than 50 km away from Tamil Nadu.  India raised its concerns without any response from Sri Lanka.

The completion of the celebrated Colombo Port City, built entirely at China’s expense of $15 billion, on a 269-hectare reclaimed land, was the crowning achievement of China’s consolidation of her foothold in Sri Lanka.  This Port City has been technically handed over to an independent Commission whose members have been appointed by President GR.  A Bill to that effect was hastily presented in the rubber stamp parliament and was rushed through in spite of serious criticisms from the opposition.

This Port City has been advertised to the world, including India, as a one- stop destination for foreign and local investors and is described as marking a turning point in the country’s economic development. State Minister Cabraal invited investors to capitalize on the “awesomeness” of Sri Lanka. (He must have actually meant the Port City’s awesomeness, because there is a lot of awfulness outside that fantasyland engulfed by the pandemic, which would distract global fortune hunters). Yet, how much of control will China exert over this financial and entertainment megalopolis and how much of the revenue earned there would trickle down to historic Sri Lanka, are questions to which only time will provide answers.

New Great Game

However, the $64k question is how does India view this rapidly changing Sri Lankan scenario? Historically, India’s security had been threatened always from her northern borders and that threat is kept alive by China’s capture of Tibet and aiding Pakistan over anti-Indian resistance in Kashmir. The southern coast until now had always been safe, and that was one reason why India considered Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue as one to be settled internally. That assumption has now been shattered with the aggressive penetration of China into Sri Lanka.  Menon’s fear of sacrificing India’s maritime and other interests in Sri Lanka has come almost close to reality.  Did Delhi miscalculate? And, has Delhi got a counter strategy to redeem its losses?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is warning world leaders to act in removing China’s rising threat to the region.  That region includes even the Indian Ocean through which Australia trades with the Middle East and Europe. Morrison’s call would be music to Delhi’s ears.  Delhi also would be pushing hard on US and European policy makers to confront China’s threat to keep the Indian Ocean safe for navigation and commerce.  Sri Lanka cannot escape from that confrontation and is destined to become the main theatre of action for the new Great Game.  Are the current rulers of Sri Lanka aware of what is ahead? Ignorance is always bliss. 

Colombo Telegraph    6 June 2021 

***********

A NOTE from MICHAEL ROBERTS, 22 October 2021

Ameer Ali is a friend and a colleague from Peradeniya University days residing now in Perth. He is evidently guided by information from the upper middle class of our times and present time. While my capacities in political economy are limited, I am inclined to think that (A) Sri Lanka has never been in a position to survive as a sturdy independent country and (B) must therefore pursue a difficult juggling act.

Nor am I aligned with the commonplace views of the upper middle classes in and around Colombo who were in line with the Yahapalana government set up around Sirisena, Ranil and CBK in 2015 by the US conglomeration.

From my distant position in Adelaide however it appears that, at the present moment, Ameer Ali is totally blind to the one-eyed Morrison government programme of serving as USA’s lackey — as argued within several items in Thuppahi and by comments inserted by “Fair Dinkum” [who has to protect himself from governmental ‘hits’ by adopting a pseudonym].  “Fair Dinkum,” incidentally is proficient in Chinese and Malay.

For other relevant items, see

An ancillary facet of this discussion is the assessment of the Hambantota port project indicated by Ameer Ali as he echoes the views of armchair critics in middle-class circles in Sri Lanka. My attention to this issue can be found in a clutch of items in Thuppahi retailing the varied viewpoints. I advise Ameer Ali and associates to read the viewpoints presented by (A) Chris Devonshire; (b) Gus Mathews; and (c) Insider. I note, here, that my readings of this debate is not only directed by the port construction, but also by the ancillary aspects of road links, Mattala airport et cetera …. all contentions read in long term perspective with an emphasis on broadening Sri Lanka’s economy beyond the overweightage around metropolitan Colombo (so that the mapwork and other clues in that ancient tome People Inbetween (1989) are introduced as an argument in favour of the port project).

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY on HAMBANTOTA PROJECT

Jonathan E. Hillman: The Story behind the Rise of Hambantota Port: An American Twist,” 7 September 2021

https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/07/the-story-behind-the-rise-of-hambantota-port-an-american-twist/

Chris Devonshire-Ellis: “The Real (not Secret) History of Hambantota,”, circa 6 September 2021, https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2021/09/06/the-real-not-secret-history-of-hambantota/

Fair Dinkum: “American Schemes of Global Bifurcation behind Hillman’s Story on Hambantota Port,” 8 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/08/american-schemes-of-global-bifurcation-behind-hillmans-story-on-hambantota-port/

Mick Moore:  “Spats about Ports in Sri Lanka: The Bigger Picture,” 10 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/10/spats-about-ports-in-sri-lanka-the-bigger-picture/

Lakshman Gunasekara: “Lakshman’s Hambantota Diarrhoeas,” 11 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/11/lakshmans-hambantota-diarrhoeas/

Deborah Brautigam & Meg Rithmire: “No Debt Trap at Hambantota: False Picture on China’s Role,” 13 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/13/54997/

An Insider: The Internal Tussles, Vagaries and scheming that Hindered the Development of the Hambantota Port Project,” 15 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/15/the-internal-tussles-vagaries-and-scheming-that-hindered-the-development-of-the-hambantoa-port-project/

Thuppahi:Map Illustrating the Hegemony secured by Colombo within Island Lanka in the Twentieth Century,” 16 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/16/map-illustrating-the-hegemony-secured-by-colombo-within-island-lanka-in-the-twentieth-century/

 Fair Dinkum: “Pointers from Singapore towards the Appraisal of the Hambantota Port Scheme,”  17 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/17/pointers-from-singapore-towards-the-appraisal-of-the-hambantota-port-scheme/

News Item: Hambantota Port inks in New Prospects,” 19 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/19/hambantota-port-inks-in-new-prospects/

Common Sense: “ The Hambantota Port Debate: Common Sense from the Sideline,” 21 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/21/the-hambantota-port-debate-common-sense-from-the-sideline/

Fair Dinkum: “Addressing Hostility to China from Sri Lankan Commentators,” 22 September 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/09/22/addressing-hostility-to-china-from-sri-lankan-commentators/

Thuppahi: “The Benefits from the Hambantota Port Project: Mathews faces Perera Head-On,” 22 September 2021, thuppahis.com/2021/09/22/the-benefits-from-the-hambantota-port-project-mathews-faces-perera-head-on/#more-55178

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5 responses to “Betwixt India and China: Little Lanka

  1. chandre DW

    Ameer Ali says what is perhaps evident and treads on safe ground, and so, that Sri Lanka stands in the cross roads of the big powers is well taken.

    Captain Percival, writing in 1803 said the same thing in “An account of the Island of Ceylon”, where he also emphasized the positioning of Ceylon on Palk Straits (known then as Paulk straits) through which all marine traffic flowed.

    Captain Percival emphasized the importance for the British of capturing the Island from the Dutch, and also emphasizing the importance of Trincomalee. So, replace US and China by the Dutch and the British in the narrative, and the situation has many parallels.

    After stating the topology of the problem that is no different from what prevailed at the twilight of the 18th century , Ameer Ali, like every one else, is silent on what steps are available for Sri Lanka to take, and maintain its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The King of Kandy welcomed the British as the Dutch had observed all its promises and treaties in the breach.

    Unlike in the 18th century, today instead of direct aggression, the big powers have more subtle methods.Instead of governments, multinationals and NGOs are employed as the instruments of subjugation, while the relevant diplomatic pressure as well as aid-packages with well defined objectives (e.g., US- MCC & SOFA etc).

    However, what Ameer Ali and many other commentators forget is that today, unlike in 1803, a very large proportion of cargo is moved by air. This will increase even more as very energy efficient giant cargo planes become even more of a standard feature.

    What the US needs is a strategically placed airbase, as Diego Gracia’s place is being wound down. Now that India is a part of the QUAD, the US can twist the Indian arm and get from India what Sri Lanka failed to give.

    But China cannot use India, and so it needs Sri Lanka even more. The Lankan rules should use it to to their best advantage.

    So, whether Sri Lanka likes it or not, the direction it may have to take is rather clear, and has nothing to do with Sri Lanka’s rulers who should take a page from Finland in the days of Soviet hegemony – or- strangely enough, from Canada which has to sway with the US even to the extent of arresting the daughter of the biggest Mobile telephone company of China, at the behest of the US..

  2. AN IMMEDIATE RESPONSE to the NOTE by Michael Roberts — via Email — by Abdul Cader Lebbe AMEER ALI, 23 October 2021:

    “Dear Michael, ….My contention is not to dispute the economics benefits of Hambantota to Sri Lanka. But since Hambantota was leased, China’s penetration into SL has deepened with the Colombo Port City and the power generation plants in three islands closer to India’s door step. India obviously feels threatened by China’s encirclement of her borders in Kashmir, Tibet, and now in the south. By not helping Rajapaksa to build the economy after the war Indian let the horse bolt. With AUKUS and Quad trying to put together their defence strategies against China, Indian Ocean as Robert Kaplan wrote is bound to become a new theatre of confrontation. Rajapaksas are beginning to feel the pressure and beginning to take a fresh look at the nation’s foreign relations.”

    Regards, Ameer

    • Why AUKUS when you had QUAD? AUKUS or Anglo triad is not trusting Empire India or Oz do mot want to be Fiji of India’s Ocean? China is threatened by POIs in in the Anglo Triad. China has always won or did not loose in confrontations with its enemies as well as friends. How long will Anglos will back their Partner in the British-Indian Empire, now the Indian Empire?
      About the local politics, POIs in the country have been involved with democracy since early 20th century. But they could not wrestle it out until 1956. Yes, Rajapaksas and others are feeling the pinch from the local POIs block vote and their economic clout and the pressure from Empire India and POIs and NRIs (Non Residents Indians) around the world.

  3. Pingback: Misreading the Asian Political Scenario: Ameer Ali’s Six Misconceptions | Thuppahi's Blog

  4. China is gone hypersonic. So AUKUS (Anglos triad) Nuke Subs or INS Vick-rants (manned by high caste thong wearing navy) is no match for the dragon.
    Up in the Himalayas Bhutan and others States are joining Tibet? The days subs could hide are gone unless they lie deep for ever. Aircraft carriers are no more than a containership, with flying junk on board.
    Going back to Percival it is just six months of bad weather in the Indian Ocean, the reason why Adani partnered with Keels. If the 700 Swiss mercenaries hired by the Dutch were able to sail from Mauritius in 1796 the fate of Ceylon and Africa and other places would have been different. At least not so many Persons of Indian Origin (POI) around the world.
    There seems to be massive changes in the foreign policies of the island nation on display. Clan displaying red wrist bands, Nano-chemicals becoming Organic chemicals, cow slaughter to be banned to name a few.

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