By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, June 22: The Indian Foreign Minister Dr.S.Jaishankar spoke to his Sri Lankan counterpart, Dinesh Gunawardena on Monday and discussed a range of bilateral and regional issues.
Jaishankar tweeted on Monday to say: “ Good conversation with [email protected] of Sri Lanka. Reviewed our bilateral agenda. Also BIMSTEC, IORA and other regional mechanisms. Will continue to remain in close touch.”
The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said in a press release that the steps that both countries have taken so far to enhance relations between Sri Lanka and India have been fruitful. Foreign Minister Gunawardena thanked the Indian External Affairs Minister for the financial assistance and COVID relief support extended by the government of India to combat the pandemic.
During the discussion, the two Ministers agreed to work in collaboration with the regional organizations such as BIMSTEC and IORA. Plans were also exchanged to continue cooperation especially through common platforms like Colombo Plan and Commonwealth.
The two Ministers discussed at length the challenges posed by the COVID-19 encountered by the two countries and Foreign Minister Gunawardena wished the Indian External Affairs Minister that India will have all the strength to restore normalcy at the earliest occasion.
A number of important matters of mutual interest for both countries were also discussed during this conversation which lasted for almost half an hour.
Efforts to get some details about the conversation proved unsuccessful but the fact that the tweet came from Jaishankar in New Delhi not from the Foreign Ministry in Colombo, gave the impression that it was Jaishankar who called and that he might have had some issues to thrash out.
Political grapevine has it that India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval also had a telephonic talk with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But this could not be confirmed.
Although Jaishankar mentioned BIMSTEC, the Indian Ocean Region and other regional economic and security mechanisms as the subjects discussed, the call would have had more to do with the Chinese funded and built Colombo Port City (CPC), political observers said. India and the West see the possibility of China using the CPC and its other assets in the island to tighten its economic, commercial and strategic grip on Sri Lanka.
After much delay, the Sri Lankan government recently worked out an administrative structure for the Colombo Port City and got parliamentary sanction for a governing mechanism. The mechanism had to be modified to suit the constitution of Si Lanka on the directives of the Supreme Court. The current governing mechanism is entirely within the constitution of Sri Lanka with all its top council members being Sri Lankan citizens. All systems, rules and laws in the Port City will have to accord with the larger Sri Lankan system.
Nevertheless, there is an acute concern in India, the US, the EU and Japan that the Chinese will eventually use the Port City for their economic and strategic benefit vis-à-vis India ,the Western powers and Japan. Significantly, the EU’s parliament’s recent resolution of human rights in Sri Lanka expressed concern about China’s “interference” in Sri Lanka. The prospective US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, is said to have strong views on China’s role in Sri Lanka. The West, Japan, and India are worried that China will use the Port City, the container terminal in the Colombo port and the Hambantota port in the deep south for military and intelligence purposes
India was promised the Eastern container terminal in Colombo port, but the Gotabaya Rajapaksa reneged on it. The government asked India to build the West terminal in Colombo but a miffed India was not too enthusiastic and handed over the task to a private Indian company, the Adanis. Japan too ceased to take interest in the project. Shipping sources say that some work is being done in regard to the West Terminal but clearly no one seems to be in a hurry.
More recently, India objected to a Chinese company setting up solar power stations in some of the islands off the Jaffna coast, close to India. India said that these were a security threat to it and offered US$ 12 million as a grant if the contract was given to an Indian company. But the Chinese company, which had had the sanction of the Asian Development Bank, threatened to challenge any change. The project is now in the doldrums.
Apart from this, the leaders of the West and India keep saying that China has put Sri Lanka in a debt trap, though the Sri Lankan government does not think so. It says that only 10% of the total debt is to China.
On their part, the Sri Lankans see the concerns and steps taken by the West and India as challenges to their independence and sovereignty. They see the objections to their economic projects as “obstructionist and vengeful”.
The resolutions passed by the UN Human Rights Council and the European parliament and a pending resolution in the US House of Representatives are seen as efforts to arm twist Sri Lanka into falling in line. The EU resolution even advocated the temporary suspension of tariff waivers under the GSP Plus scheme to hit Sri Lanka economically..
India and the West have approached Sri Lanka differently. India has not put any pressure on Sri Lanka on the human rights and “war crimes” issues. But it has been wanting Sri Lanka to implement the devolution scheme under the 13 th. Constitutional amendment to help the Tamil minority to govern itself to an extent. To press this, India did not vote for Sri Lanka at the UNHRC but remained neutral.
Recently, the Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay had a meeting with the Tamil National Alliance and reiterated India’s commitment to the 13A which it had sponsored in 1987 under the India-Sri Lanka Accord. The Indian envoy also pressed for holding elections to the Provincial Councils at the earliest.
India’s concerns stemmed from the fear that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, allegedly wedded to Sinhala majoritarian nationalism, will dilute or do away with the 13A and will also indefinitely postpone elections to the Provincial Councils.
Jaishankar’s call to Dinesh Gunawardena took place in this context. It has to be seen as an expression of India’s multiple concerns vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. It is significant that Jaishankar said at the end of his tweet that he would “keep in close touch”. It showed that New Delhi will keep up its pressure on Colombo.