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FINANCIAL CHRONICLE™ » FINANCIAL CHRONICLE™ » Sri Lanka’s pivot to India breaks China’s dreams

Sri Lanka’s pivot to India breaks China’s dreams

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Quibit


Senior Vice President - Equity Analytics
Senior Vice President - Equity Analytics
Sri Lanka’s pivot to India breaks China’s dreams Screen10

Following elections earlier this year, a major shift in the geopolitical and perhaps military balance of power is taking place on this island that hangs like a jewel from the ear of India. Many Americans may have trouble finding Sri Lanka on the map, but sitting as it does in the Indian Ocean, so close to the sea lanes over which nearly half the world’s trade travels, including nearly 70 percent of petroleum to energy-hungry China and Japan, Sri Lanka has a strategic importance beyond its small size.

The new regime is rebalancing its relationship with India and China which may affect China’s maritime ambitions in the region. This will please both Washington and New Delhi which have been watching China’s rising power with some trepidation.

During the 10-year rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, from November 2005 to January 2015, Sri Lanka threw its lot in with China. The Indian Ocean isle borrowed huge sums from China, asked the Asian superpower to build massive infrastructure, and allowed Chinese submarines to dock in its ports — all to the chagrin of India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor and fierce China rival.

China’s building spree, including a new, 500-acre Colombo Port City project in the capital, a new international airport, and another port in Rajapaksa’s home district, was seen by many as a link in China’s so-called string of pearls that is extending China’s influence and naval potential all around the Indian Ocean littoral. China is building or planning new port facilities in Burma, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Few are as controversial as the Colombo Port City project, which has been attacked on environmental grounds and for the fact that Rajapaksa had allowed China to own part of the port in perpetuity and another part on a 99-year lease — similar to what the British once had in Hong Kong.

The island nation’s new leader is trying to improve its relationship with India without losing China’s friendship.

China is Sri Lanka’s top investor and biggest government lender and a major trading partner. Its building projects here have been described by author Robert Kaplan as “emblematic of China’s budding yet exquisitely elusive empire built on soft power.”

In January, however, in a surprising electoral upset, Rajapaksa lost power to his former ally, Maithripala Sirisena. Already, President Sirisena is pushing back on China’s influence and has temporarily halted construction of the Colombo project while he assesses the situation, much to the alarm of China and delight of India. And although Sirisena visited China last week, his first state visit outside the country was to India. Earlier this month Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned the compliment with a state visit to Sri Lanka, the first Indian prime minister to do so in 29 years.

Sirisena is attempting a delicate balance of tacking back towards India without losing China’s friendship. Such a move would please Washington, which is improving relations with India while carefully watching China’s newly competitive maritime and naval expansion in the Indian Ocean. It may also offer Sri Lanka its first shot at true reconciliation after decades of civil war.

FOREIGN POWERS have long seen the strategic importance of Sri Lanka, lying so close to the shipping lanes over which travels nearly half of the world’s seaborne trade, including oil from the Middle East to the great energy consuming nations of Japan and China. The island is bountiful and blessed by nature; Arab traders called it this island Serendip, from which Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity. Greek and Roman traders reached these shores in ancient times, and Sri Lankan traders were to be seen in imperial Rome. Then the prize was spices, gemstones, and the export of elephants. “A golden trade route between east and west,” as author Michelle de Krestser put it, Sri Lanka was a “useful bauble fingered and then pocketed by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and British in turn” for a period of 443 years. The British gave the island, which they called Ceylon, its independence in 1948.

India, which got its independence a few months earlier, is so near and so big that Sri Lankans have long feared that they could be squashed when India rolls over in bed. The relationship was further complicated by the 26-year-long civil war between Sri Lanka’s mostly Hindu Tamil minority and its majority Buddhist Sinhalese, which ended with a Tamil defeat in 2009. There is an even smaller Muslim minority — made up mostly of Malays from what are now the nations of Malaysia and Indonesia — who have been discriminated against by both Tamils and Buddhist extremist. A smaller minority are Christian, mostly Roman Catholics — a holdover from Portuguese dominion. The Sinhalese originally come from northern India while the Tamils come from southern India.

Both communities feel they are an endangered minority. For although the Sinhalese are the majority of the 20 million people in Sri Lanka, the keepers of the Buddhist faith that has all but disappeared in India with a language that is spoken nowhere else, they fear the weight of the more than 70 million Tamils in the nearby southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with whom Sri Lankan Tamils share a common language and the Hindu religion.

Tamil and Sinhalese empires have risen and fallen on this island for thousands of years, but it was independence that severely damaged the relationship between the two communities. After independence, the secular traditions of the British were soon abandoned in favor of a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism that made Sinhala the official language of the country, discriminating against the Tamils, who could no longer read official government documents or even job applications. The Sinhalese majority felt that the British had tended to favor Tamils in the days of the British Raj. Sri Lanka fell victim to the kind of majoritarian politics that has led to the detriment of linguistic, ethnic, and religious minorities in so many countries in the post-colonial world.

When Tamils began to feel their rights were being trampled by the Sinhalese majority, discontent grew and in due course Tamils began to agitate for their own independent country in the north and east where most of them lived. This soon deteriorated into rebellion and civil war with massacres between Sinhalese and Tamils reminiscent of the sectarian bloodlettings in India before the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

The Tamil Tigers, under the leadership of the megalomaniacal Velupillai Prabhakaran, became one of the most vicious and powerful guerilla-cum-terrorist groups in the world. They killed off rival Tamil groups that threatened the Tigers’ ascendancy, and moderate Tamils who sought compromise. Then they took on the mostly Sinahlese army, committing acts of terrorism that were the forerunner of what we have become so used to today. The Tamil Tigers pioneered the suicide vests that killed many Sri Lankan politicians as well as the prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. The army, at times, responded with brutal suppression.

It was India’s Indira Gandhi who began to seriously meddle in the affairs of her small neighbor to the south. Being pro-Soviet, she didn’t like the way Sri Lanka had courted the West. She also wanted to appease her Tamil Nadu subjects, who generally supported the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. She began to train and equip Sri Lankan Tamil rebels, and nearby Tamil Nadu became a safe haven for Tamil rebels who had only to hop on a boat to cross the narrow body of water that separates Sri Lanka from the Indian state to find a safe haven.

It may have been Indira Gandhi’s intention to eventually take the Tamil territories in Sri Lanka, including the great natural harbor of Trincomalee, for India. After all, Indira Gandhi took Goa from Portugal and ended the semi-independence of Sikkim. It was Indira Gandhi that severed Bangladesh from Pakistan. Or it may have been her intention just to have an independent Tamil nation in Sri Lanka as a friend and ally on her southern flank.

Her successor and son, Rajiv Gandhi, tried to bring an end to the Sri Lankan civil war and got both sides to agree to an Indian peace keeping force. But Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers soon revolted against what he saw was an Indian occupation, and after a two-and-a-half-year fight, he forced India to withdraw from the island and had Rajiv Gandhi assassinated. Even the government in Colombo got tired of the Indian peacekeeping force and asked it to leave. Indo-Sri Lankan relations were at their nadir.

RAJAPAKSA FINALLY managed to wipe out the Tamil Tigers and bring peace to the divided island six years ago, but, despite promises otherwise, he kept his foot on the neck of the Tamils and also strengthened his bond with China.

China is putting the best face it can on Sri Lanka’s current turnabout with India. “We believe that China and India may leverage their respective strengths in playing a positive role in helping Sri Lanka advance in its social development,” said China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in February.

Activists demanded the scrapping of a $1.4 billion Chinese project to reclaim land from the sea and build a new port in the capital Colombo. The project is on hold.

Activists demanded the scrapping of a $1.4 billion Chinese project to reclaim land from the sea and build a new port in the capital Colombo. The project is on hold.

Perhaps, but under the new regime China is not going to play the dominant role it has under Rajapaksa. It was not so much the former regime’s attachment to China that cost Rajapaksa the election, however. It was his extraordinary corruption and abuse of power, by which he and his brothers ran Sri Lanka as if they were the kings of old. President Sirisena has gone out of his way to present himself as more a man of the people.

Earlier this month I watched Sirisena’s motorcade pass by in the northern and former rebel city of Jaffna with a minimum of security while a Sri Lankan told me that if it had been Rajapaksa the entire street would have been closed off and emptied of traffic. Even the potted flowers on the wall of the prime minister’s official residence here in Colombo were taken away because they seemed an unnecessary government expense.

President Sirisena has begun a 100-day campaign to make political reforms, and although it has not been announced as such, a realignment with India was made possible by promising to give the Tamils a measure of autonomy that had previously been promised but never delivered. Sirisena fired an unpopular governor of the Tamil regions and has promised to give land seized by the army back to the Tamils as well. Sirisena seems to be pursuing a real policy of national reconciliation.

This has bought him respite from relentless Western and United Nations demands for an investigation of alleged war crimes committed during the last days of the civil war — which Rajapaksa refused to do. He has until the fall to look into the matter before the United Nations reacts.

The state visit of Narendra Modi symbolized a new relationship between India and its southern neighbor that, if continued, will mean that China’s “elusive empire” will not extend as far into the Indian Ocean as China might have wished.

As for Mahinda Rajapaksa, he has a chance to return to power as prime minister if Sirisena carries out his intentions to limit the constitutional power of the presidency and put power in the hands of elected prime ministers. Never a good loser, Rajapaksa has accused the secret services of India, Britain, and America of conspiring against him in the last election, and has even said that after his defeat at the polls he no longer believes in astrology.

But whatever the outcome, the stars are aligned so that Sri Lanka is back in the middle of great power rivalry the way it was when Portuguese, Dutch, and British fought over it half a millennium ago.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/03/27/sri-lanka-pivot-india-breaks-china-dreams/EOZKmXaguO32YRynMP4WvM/story.html

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