By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Ceylon Today
Colombo, February 8: The oft-repeated advice given by foreign policy wizards to smaller countries who are victims of power rivalry is that they should understand the reality of geopolitics. Sri Lanka, a country that burnt its fingers once for ignoring geopolitics, is well aware of the bitter realities and is always eager to come to an understanding with regional and global powers, while zealously guarding its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Sri Lanka’s gratitude to friends was well displayed at the simple, but majestic, parade on the occasion of the 73rd Independence Day last Thursday. The armory proudly displayed its gleaming 105 mm guns received from China and the Indra radars received from India which can detect aircraft intruding into Lankan airspace. Ironically, the sole occasion on which the airspace of independent Sri Lanka was violated was in June 1987, when Indian fighter jets accompanied the Indian transport planes flew over north Sri Lanka to drop parippu (dhal) to the allegedly ‘starving people of Jaffna’.
The current spat between New Delhi and Colombo arose when the Lankan government dropped the proposal to collaborate with India and Japan to develop the strategic East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo Port due to strong opposition from trade unions, political and religious groups across the country.
Memorandum of Cooperation
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) would build and operate the ECT on its own. At the same time the cabinet approved a proposal to develop the West Terminal at the Colombo Port as a Public Private Partnership with India and Japan, which was seen as a bid to compensate India. However, immediate reports indicate that India is unwilling to accept the latest proposal.
Indian Media, quoted a spokesperson of the Indian High Commission in Colombo, as stating that the Government of India expected the expeditious implementation of the trilateral Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) signed in May 2019 between Sri Lanka, India and Japan. The commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka in this regard had been conveyed several times in the recent past, including at the leadership level. “All sides should continue to abide by the existing understandings and commitment,” the High Commission said.
Japan, too expressed regret after the announcement on the ECT was made. A Japanese embassy official in New Delhi responding to a media query, “expressed regret at the unilateral decision taken by Sri Lanka”. In the aftermath of the development, the Japan envoy to Colombo Akira Sugiyama met Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.
Meanwhile, the Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said at a media briefing in New Delhi: “As is well known, the Governments of India, Sri Lanka and Japan had signed a memorandum of cooperation in May 2019 to develop and operate the East Container Terminal of Colombo Port in a trilateral framework. We sincerely believe that the development of infrastructure in Sri Lanka, in areas such as ports and energy, with foreign investment from India and Japan, will be a mutually beneficial proposition.”
He added the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo is in talks with the Lankan Government on the issue. “Our High Commissioner in Colombo is in discussion with the Government of Sri Lanka, including on the importance of adhering to international commitments,” he said. India’s response was that Sri Lanka should not be taking a decision in a unilateral manner on an existing tripartite agreement.
Referring to the Sri Lankan offer of the Western Container Terminal (WCT) to India, some experts told the Indian media that commercially, the WCT offer is better for India as it gives a larger stake for developers of the WCT against the 49 per cent in ECT. But even if this is a better deal for investors, including the Adani Group, the final decision has to come from the Indian government. Geo-politically too, the WCT is almost the same when the security aspect and the necessity to have a port terminal in Sri Lanka is considered.
Start From Scratch
Furthermore, WCT is no smaller in size or depth compared to the ECT. There is no difference between East and West Terminals except the development of the ECT is partially completed while the development of the West Terminal has to start from scratch.
However, the ECT decision should not be taken as an irreparable blow to Indo-Lanka relations. It certainly will not take back the relationship to June 1987, when ties hit rock bottom. In this era of development and cooperation, bullying tactics have no place and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a special regard for neighbors. Leaders of both countries have a perfect rapport and an amicable consensus could be reached through frank exchange of opinions.
It must be noted that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister last month expressed a desire to strengthen the bilateral relationship through post COVID-19 economic development. “India will be a reliable partner in Sri Lanka’s development” Jaishankar said. “Strengthening the bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and India through post COVID-19 economic development, health care, power generation etc. were discussed thoroughly,” he added
Although, some critics of the Sri Lankan Government hope for hostilities between India and Sri Lanka to rise and anticipate many national and international impacts surrounding the latest decision on ECT, the saner opinion is that the issue will die down soon with the offer of the WCT to India. Sri Lanka Port Authority officials are confident that the issue could be settled once for all with the offer of WCT.
“John Keells Holding PLC (JKH), the largest public listed conglomerate in Sri Lanka and the Adani group, at the Indian side, may agree with WTC offer as a compromise formula with a promise that the private stake will be 85 per cent in WTC instead of 49 per cent at ECT,” he told Indian media.
Sensitivity and understanding
There could be some opposition from a section of port trade unions, but that could be handled, the official said. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his Independence Day address said, “I will never take decisions that will damage the country and to please those who seek gains for themselves personally or for their businesses.”
It is now for India to be sensitive to Sri Lankan political compulsions. When External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Sri Lanka in 2018, she clearly showed her sensitivity towards Sri Lanka and her perfect understanding about the internal and external issues in this country.
At one discussion with then President Maithripala Sirisena, her Foreign Secretary Jaishankar (now External Affairs Minister) said India wanted an immediate decision on ECT and President Sirisena explained that he could not decide immediately as that could become an issue at the upcoming local government elections. When Jaishankar raised the issue once again, Minister Sushma Swaraj intervened and said, “No. If His Excellency thinks this is not the best time for that project, let us wait. We have to understand his sensitivities”.
It is now hoped Minister Jaishankar would display the same magnanimity, understanding, patience and sensitivity shown by his late predecessor.