Colombo, December 25 (Daily Mirror): A foreign envoy’s visiting any part of the country is a routine affair as it is part of his/her duty. Heads of foreign missions resident in Colombo, regularly undertake visit to cities such as Kandy, Anuradhapura, Jaffna and Galle. The recent visit of Chinese Ambassador Qi Zenghong to the North and his engagement with some leaders over there are nothing unusual. However, given the context of the visit, it is viewed from a geopolitical angle because of rivalry between China and India which plays out openly in the region.
In Sri Lanka, Chinese investments have mostly been in the southern part of the country. They have constructed a seaport in Hambantota, an airport in Mattala and a Container Terminal in Colombo port. China’s economic footprint in the South is visible. India, on the other hand, has looked to the North and the East. Here, India has economic, geostrategic, cultural and political interests. It also has a lot of its investments. Sri Lankans jokingly say: “The South is for China, and the North is for India!”
Indian political interests have manifested themselves in different forms from time to time in the North and the East mainly since the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord that paved the way for the incorporation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The implementation of the 13th Amendment some powers devolved to the provincial councils has been a consistent demand by India. The South Indian State of Tamil Nadu, only 32 km across Palk Strait from Jaffna, and the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka are predominantly populated by ethnic Tamils giving an advantage to India in terms of culture diplomacy. India’s interest in this sphere is amply reflected in the construction of the state-of-the art Jaffna cultural centre, for example. India also has diplomatic presence in Jaffna, and has offered to invest in the geostrategic projects such as the expansion of the Jaffna International Airport and the Kankesanthurai port.
India has opposed Chinese presence in the north and the east. It became apparent when it raised security concerns over a solar and wind project to be implemented by a Chinese company in three islands off Jaffna
India has opposed Chinese presence in the north and the east. It became apparent when it raised security concerns over a solar and wind project to be implemented by a Chinese company in three islands off Jaffna. Sri Lanka suspended the project pending further evaluation much to the consternation of the Chinese who expressed their concern openly.
The Chinese ambassador undertook a visit to the north for the first time between December 15 and 17 against such a backdrop. The embassy delegation started off their schedule with a visit to the Jaffna library, an iconic building in the northern city with a symbolic value for Tamil society polity. It is a structure associated with the sensitivity of Tamil people. The burning down of the library in the early 1980s is a black mark in the long drawn ethnic conflict. A visit to the library means a lot for the people of Jaffna.
The Chinese Ambassador was received by Jaffna Mayor Viswalingam Manivannan with a traditional Tamil welcome ceremony. A statement from the embassy said the Chinese envoy had a comprehensive tour in the library and donated five laptops and plenty of books in different languages, to enhance capacity and enlarge the collection of this well-known library in Asia.
China has now stepped in seeking the goodwill of northern Tamils battered by IUU fishing by South Indian fishermen. Wooing the northern polity is now in the spectrum of China’s ties with Sri Lanka He also visited historic ‘Nallur Kovil’ and participated in Hindu religious rituals bare-bodied and wearing the traditional ‘vetti’ in accordance with local Tamil custom. All these actions were an excellent example of public diplomacy.
After that he had what the embassy called ‘a fruitful meeting’ with the Governor of the Northern Province Jeewan Thiyagarajah at the Governor’s Residence on the evening of December 15.
“A wide range of topics have been discussed on how to enhance cooperation between China and the Northern Province and improve local Tamil community livelihoods. Governor Thiyagarajah invited more Chinese investment and assistance on marine aquaculture, fishing equipment, industries, and IT in the Northern Province, which had received positive response by the Chinese delegation,” the statement said.
On the request of the Governor’s Secretariat, the ambassador donated five sets of ROI (water purification) mobile plants to the province, one unit for each district. The high quality ROI mobile plants to be purchased from local market and assembled and serviced by the Sri Lanka Navy, will provide fresh water to thousands of people in various areas. Drinking water is a pressing issue in Jaffna peninsula.
The ambassador focused on the fisheries sector. The delegation along with Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda inspected the Guilan Sea Cucumber Hatchery and Farm at Ariyalai in Jaffna. It was a Chinese investment.
The ambassador donated piles of packs of foodstuff (Rs. 5,500 each), fishing gears and facial masks purchased from local suppliers, valued Rs. 20 million to 2,500 fisher families.
Fisheries is a key sector in the North because of the conflict between local fishermen and their Indian counterparts who poach in their waters. Fishermen from Tamil Nadu continue to indulge in IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fishing in North Sri Lankan waters. It has deprived northern fishers of their livelihood in addition to damaging the maritime ecosystem of Sri Lanka. Arrests of illegal fishers continue. Bilateral discussions have taken place between the two countries for over a decade under successive governments of both the countries, but the problem remains unresolved to date. The business interests of Tamil Nadu politicians and the clout of the large fisher community in local politics stand in the way of resolving this problem. China has now stepped in seeking the goodwill of northern Tamils battered by IUU fishing by South Indian fishermen. Wooing the northern polity is now in the spectrum of China’s ties with Sri Lanka.
In recent times, China has been concerned over the suspension of the wind power projects which were to be implemented by one of its companies in three northern islands. A Chinese company Sinosoar-Etechwin Joint Venture, had won the project to build power projects in three northern islands – Delft, Analativu, and Nainativu islands. The project company could not proceed with the project since Sri Lanka suspended it following a request by India citing security concerns. The latest engagement in the north by the Chinese side has to be viewed in that context.
The Chinese ambassador also visited the northern most point, Sakkotai Cape in Point Pedro overlooking India. As geopolitical rivals, China and India have competing interests in Sri Lanka with each seeking enhanced cooperation with Sri Lanka. India explored a lot of investments in the north and the east including the solar energy project in Mannar with the final aim of grid connectivity between the two countries, and the Trincomalee petroleum hub.
Unlike China, India enjoys political goodwill among Tamils in the north and the east since it advocates political power devolution to these two provinces. It also shares historic and cultural links. In mainstream Tamil politics, China is not looked at favorably because it supported the Sri Lankan government in countering UNHRC resolutions. Also, China’s defence cooperation helped defeat the LTTE.
In sum, both China and India have political influence in Sri Lanka, but in different politico-cultural and geographic regions. While China has influence in South Sri Lanka and the government in Colombo, India has it among the political class in the North. But now, China has clearly signalled its wish to be a factor in the North too, encroaching on what India thinks is it’s “backyard”.