By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Japan, which was the single largest source of development funds for Sri Lanka before the muscular entry of China following the end of the civil war in 2009, is now keen to re-establish its presence in the island to contain China’s inroads.
And Sri Lanka, under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is equally keen to open its doors to Japanese investment and development aid.
The reasons for Lanka’s wanting to do so are three-fold: to develop its war torn economy; to safeguard its sovereignty from possible Chinese economic and strategic dominance; to respond positively to pressure from regional power India and global power, the US, to prevent the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) from becoming subject to China’s dominance.
The prospects of an enhanced relationship between Lanka and Japan are bright also because the two countries have very pleasant memories of their relations in the past.
Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu’s visit to Colombo earlier this month, has laid a firm foundation for an enhancement of the relationship. Getting down to business straight away, Motegi and Gotabaya precisely identified areas of cooperation. These were: Information and communication technology (ICT), harbor infrastructure, including Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), expressways, agriculture, digitalization of television transmission, disaster prevention and security cooperation.
Motegi said that Japan wishes to set up a bilateral mechanism to oversee successful implementation of mutually agreed development projects. In his reply President Gotabaya said: “Ours is a small economy. But we have a skilled, educated and talented workforce. My intention is to build an employment-oriented, technology-driven economy. We seek Japan’s assistance to reach that goal.”
Indicating that Lanka is not a handmaiden of China, Gotabaya said that he would like Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and Singapore to invest in the island, apart from China.
On the sensitive issue of keeping the Indian Ocean free and open for navigation (an area of intense Sino-Japanese conflict) Gotabaya agreed with the Japanese position, and reminded Motegi that it was Lanka which had first proposed that the Indian Ocean be a “Zone of Peace” at the UNGA in 1971.
“The Indian Ocean must remain a zone of peace free of any conflict,” Gotabaya re-iterated.
However, with his characteristic frankness, Gotabaya cautioned Motegi that Japan should not expect Lanka to be a party to any conflict in the Indian Ocean. “Sri Lanka does not want to get involved in rivalries among world powers. We seek friendship and reject domination by others”, the Lankan President said.
When Motegi raised the issue of ethnic reconciliation (in passing only), the Lankan President said that ethnic reconciliation should not be given priority over economic development of the Tamil areas. They should go hand-in- hand, Gotabaya said.
This should satisfy Japan because during the 2002-2004 peace process, Japan organized a world conference to give war-torn Lanka US$ 4.5 billion in development assistance for a three year period between 2003 and 2006. Japan’s soft “check book diplomacy” contrasted with the West’s brazen meddling in Lanka’s internal affairs.
Therefore, the only Peace Envoy happily welcomed in Lanka those days was Yasushi Akashi of Japan.
One of the reasons for the consistently good relationship between Lanka and Japan is that they have been magnanimous to each other. Lanka had played a key role at the Colombo Conference of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers held in January 1950 and at the San Francisco Conference on a peace treaty with Japan held in 1951.
At the San Francisco conference, the leader of the Lankan delegation, J.R.Jayewardene (JR), said: “Why is it that the peoples of Asia are anxious that Japan should be free? It is because of our age-long connections with her, and because of the high regard the subject peoples of Asia have for Japan when she alone, among the Asian nations, was strong and free and we looked up to her as a guardian and friend. I can recall incidents that occurred during the last war, when the co-prosperity slogan for Asia had its appeal to subject peoples, and some of the leaders of Burma, India, and Indonesia joined the Japanese in the hope that thereby their beloved countries may be liberated.”
Calling for forgiveness and friendship with Japan, JR recalled Buddha’s words: “Hatred ceases not by hatred, but by love”. J.R. got a standing ovation, the New York Times praised his speech, and the Japanese never forgot JR’s impassioned speech peppered with Buddha’s sayings.
Sri Lanka had also not accepted Japan’s offer to pay war reparations. Lanka politely and graciously declined the Japanese offer to build the Lankan embassy in Tokyo as compensation for the damaged done to Colombo and Trincomalee by Japanese bombers in 1942.
Of course, as Bandu de Silva pointed out, the conservative and anti-communist United National Party (UNP) government in Lanka, in which JR was Finance Minister, had its own strategic reasons to see that war-torn Japan was not humiliated. Humiliated Japan could have gone communist, which was a trend at that time. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Communist Soviet Union and Mao’s China were supporting communist armed struggles in Vietnam, Korea and Malaya. In that context it was important to build Japan as a conservative bulwark against the “red menace.”
Today, Japan is up against an aggressively nationalist (if not a genuinely “communist “) China. In that context, Japan needs Lanka’s support to contain the new threat. Lanka, under President Gotabaya, also needs Japan to build itself up without being wholly tied to China whose real intentions behind the huge loans granted to countries under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remain a mystery for many.
China’s muscular approach has caused worries in Lanka’s neighborhood. Colombo is now under pressure from India and the US to loosen its ties with China. And the only country which can adequately compensate for the loosening of ties is Japan, which has a history of giving technical aid to Lanka.
Over the years from 1979 till 2008-09, Japan became the largest donor to Sri Lanka, providing grants, concessionary loans, and technical assistance. Currently, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is a key development partner in Sri Lanka. Formed in 2003, the JICA has focused on four key areas in Sri Lanka: increasing economic growth; poverty eradication and regional development; enhancing living conditions of those residing in conflict-ridden areas and tackling disaster management and climate change.
Some of the recent Japanese aided projects are as follows: Construction of the Bandaranayake International Airport – Rs. 20.7 billion; Baseline Road – Rs. 12.5 billion; Expansion of the Colombo Port – Rs. 130.6 billion; Southern Transport Development Project – Rs. 60.7 billion; Provincial/Rural Roads Development Project – Rs.17.8 billion; New Mannar Bridge and improvement of the Causeway – Rs. 3.1 billion; Upper Kotmale Hydro Power Project – Rs. 63.3 billion; Vavuniya- Killinochchi Transmission Line – Rs. 4.5 billion; Solar Electric Power Generation – Rs. 1.4 billion; Kandy City Wastewater Management Project – Rs. 23.6 billion; Eastern Province Water Supply Development Project – Rs.8.2 billion; Pro-Poor Economic Advancement and Community Enhancement Project – Rs.6.4 billion; Improvements of Anuradhapura Teaching Hospital – Rs. 3 billion; Improvement of central functions of Jaffna Teaching Hospital – Rs. 3.8 billion; Digital Topographic Mapping of the Northern Province – Rs. 836 million; Development Planning for the Rapid Promotion of Reconstruction and Development in Jaffna District – Rs. 836 million; and Development Planning for the Urgent Rehabilitation of Resettlement Community in Mannar District – Rs. 836 million.
The Colombo Dockyard is a successful joint venture. Japan is likely to help improve the Trincomalee harbor and join India and the Sri Lank Ports Authority in building the Eastern Terminal at the Colombo harbor.
Sri Lanka’s bilateral trade with Japan stood at US$ 566.4 Million in 2004. It gradually increased to US$ 1,602 Million in 2015 but it decreased to US$ 1,150 Million. The balance of trade is hugely in favor of Japan, with Sri Lanka exporting only US$ 209.55 worth of goods to that country.
However, Japanese technical and financial assistance in the high tech sector promised by Foreign Minister Motegi, could lead to an export-led Lankan economic growth as envisaged by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Japan is also enhancing defense (naval) cooperation with Sri Lanka in tandem with India to keep the Indian Ocean free for navigation for all. Japanese naval vessels have been visiting Colombo and Trincomalee. Japan had sent its largest naval vessel, a helicopter carrier, Kaga, on a visit to Lanka in 2018.
(The featured image at the top shows the Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu meeting Lankana President Gotabaya Rajapaksa)