With China pushing its way into Sri Lanka, spending US$ 8 billion to build infrastructure to support its ambitious global One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, Japan is worried about its navigation rights in the Indian Ocean.
Already facing a serious challenge from China in the South China Sea, Japan has been making determined moves to see that the Indian Ocean island does not become a Chinese client state situated bang on the main sea route between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.
The other reason for Japan to be worried is that China has supplanted it as Sri Lanka’s single largest donor. Since Tokyo does not have a deep pocket to match China’s multi-billion dollar largesse to Sri Lanka, it is adopting other means to wean Sri Lanka away from China.
For one, Japan is continuing its economic engagement with Sri Lanka helping it with funds and technical expertise to meet its felt needs. For another, it is trying to rope in Sri Lanka into its Asia-centered scheme to ensure maritime security against China which is challenging the rights of existing powers through force.
In the economic sphere, the advantage Japan has over China vis-à-vis Sri Lanka is that it has been a very long standing and non-controversial development partner unlike China, which has used every trick in the book to swing projects, over-invoice project estimates, and charge interest as high as 6% on some of its loans.
Deals that China had entered into with the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime between 2010 and 2014 were so controversial that they contributed to his defeat in the January 2015 Presidential election and the defeat of his group in the August 2017 parliamentary elections.
Japan and Sri Lanka also have a strong historical foundation to build on. Way back in 1945, at the first post-World War II international conference at San Francisco, Sri Lanka’s representative, the future President J.R.Jayewardene, made an impassioned appeal for mercy to be shown to Japan. Later, Sri Lanka refused to accept any reparations from Japan for the damage inflicted on it during the war, unlike may South East Asian countries which took reparations.
However, economic engagement with Sri Lanka was virtually non-existent during the socialistic phase of Sri Lankan politics ( in the 1960s till liberalization in 1977). China’s close relations with the Left-wing regime of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had put other countries in the shade.
But the moment the floodgates were opened to foreign investment when the right wing leader J.R.Jayewardene came to power as Executive President in 1977, Japanese companies like Sony and Sanyo were eager to set up manufacturing units in Sri Lanka. However, the 1983 anti-Tamil riots and the subsequent unceasing ethnic violence put paid to Japan’s plans to invest in Sri Lanka.
During the 30 year war, China sold military hardware to the Sri Lankan armed forces, filling the gap created by the Western powers which had refused to sell military equipment to Sri Lanka citing human rights concerns. But Japan offered aid in a variety of civilian spheres like telecom, civilian ship building, and airport construction.
Because it believed that equitable economic development will bring peace and understanding between estranged communities, Japan strove to make use of the 2002-2004 Norway-brokered and US-backed peace process to get the Western powers to join it to offer Sri Lanka a US$ 4 billion development plan.
To sell its “development for peace” idea to the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Japan appointed a Special Envoy, Yasushi Akashi. To make its approach acceptable to both sides, Japan neither criticized the human rights violations of the Sri Lankan government nor the brutality of the LTTE. But while the Sri Lankan government was willing to go along with Japan, the LTTE feared that Japan’s “cheque book diplomacy” will weaken its resolve to fight for a separate “Tamil Eelam.”
Predictably, the peace process ground to a halt in 2005-2006, and war resumed. And when that happened, peaceful Japan withdrew from Sri Lanka, yielding place to China which backed Sri Lanka to the hilt with military aid.
Once the war ended with the victory of the Sri Lankan forces in 2009, China took on a different “avatar” – that of an “economic messiah”. With the West continuing to accuse Sri Lanka of committing “war crimes”, investments and aid from the West were negligible. China filled the gap with huge investments. It built a container terminal in Colombo, a brand new deep water port in Hambantota and an ultra modern airport in Mattala, besides highways crisscrossing the island.
Chinese investments are estimated to be of the order of US$ 8 billion. It is now in the process of getting control over the Hambantota harbor with an 80% stake for 99 years.
Japan has a long way to go to catch up China in Sri Lanka in the economic sphere. Japan had, up to 2015, given a cumulative loan of US$ 9.2 billion; a cumulative grant of US$ 1.8 billion and for technical cooperation it had given US$ 673 million. China on the other had lent US$ 8 billion in seven years and is to give more.
In terms of trade, Chinese exports to Sri Lanka amount to US$ 3.7 billion. But Japanese exports are valued at just 1.4 billion.
However, Japan is making efforts to come back .There are already 37 Japanese companies in operation in the island, and of them, the joint venture Colombo Dockyard Ltd.,has distinguished itself as a profitable venture. The Japanese have renovated Colombo airport, also modernized state broadcasting equipment and aided the IT sector.
But Japan is currently more interested in roping in Sri Lanka into its maritime security plans for the Indian Ocean. Right from the time of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Japan has been seeking Sri Lanka’s cooperation to ensure maritime security.
In 2016, it offered two Offshore Patrol Vessels to Sri Lanka and since 2009, there have been 55 ports calls by Japanese war ships. Japan’s largest warship the helicopter carrier Izumo will be visiting Sri Lanka en route to India to participate in the India-US-Japan exercise codenamed Malabar. In March, the Japanese navy joined the US and Australian navies for a rescue and disaster relief exercise off Hampantota harbor.
Meanwhile, the Japanese scholar, Dr.Satoru Nagao, visited Sri Lanka and advised Sri Lankans to align themselves with US, India and Japan to resist China. He recalled that China has always filled a vacuum and would dominate areas and set its own rules if allowed to do so.
Giving examples, he said that in the 1950s, when France withdrew from Vietnam, China occupied half of the Paracel Islands, and when the US withdrew from Vietnam, it occupied the rest. When the Soviets left Vietnam, China occupied the Spratly Island and when the US withdrew from Philippines, China occupied the Mischief Reef. China is now building artificial islands which could be used as air bases.
The Japanese say that though China says that it will not use Sri Lanka’ ports for military purposes, there is no guarantee that it will not, if, as in the case of Hambantota port, China gets 80% stake for 99 years.
As to how far Japan will succeed in weaning Sri Lanka away from China, remains to be seen.
(The featured image at the top shows Japanese destroyer Shirayouki in Colombo in 2013)