By Sunanda K.Datta-Ray/Free Press Journal
Sri Lanka has always been a small country in search of a global role. History recalls how Jawaharlal Nehru rushed up to Sir John Kotelawala, prime minister of what was then Ceylon, after he had gone against the fashionable trend and made an anti-China speech at the Bandung conference. “Why didn’t you show me your speech, Sir John?” Nehru exclaimed. The latter retorted, “Why should I? Do you show me yours?
A similar controversy was reported in the nineties when the United States ambassador to Colombo, Teresita Schaffer, supported the case for a powerful Voice of America transmitter that Sri Lanka wanted but India opposed. It should surprise no one if similar exchanges – perhaps not quite so blunt – are taking place now over the future of the Hambantota and Trincomalee ports while India struggles to reconcile its regional and international duties.
This time round, Sri Lanka and India are on the same side – more or less – where the US is concerned, although cynics might suggest that India may not be too happy about Sri Lanka striking out on its own.
But China is another matter, seen in India as making inroads in Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar, apart from being Pakistan’s much talked of “all-weather friend”, and a formidable presence in the surrounding waters.
Earlier this month, Sri Lanka entered into a $1.12 billion “framework agreement” over Hambantota with China Merchant Port Holdings, formerly known as China Merchants Holdings (International) Company Limited. Although the ports minister, Arjuna Ranatunga, says this was only a memorandum of understanding, Hambantota is of crucial strategic importance since it faces the geo-strategic sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean.
If Sri Lanka’s former defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is to be believed, India had opposed the Rajapaksa government’s close relationship with China, and thrown its weight behind the Opposition in last year’s presidential polls. This doesn’t quite tally with Narendra Modi publicly wishing Mahinda Rajapaksa victory when they met at SAARC’s regional summit in Kathmandu only a few weeks earlier. But, of course, playing double roles in the national interest is only to be expected.
According to Rajapaksa, India wanted Colombo to cancel its $1.4-billion port city project with a Chinese undertaking and also to take over the Colombo International Container Terminals Limited, a joint venture between the Chinese and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, with 85 per cent Chinese involvement.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa also quoted India’s national security advisor Ajit Doval “as having told him that India wanted all Chinese funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port”.
According to Rajapaksa, Doval said, “Sri Lanka is a small country, you don’t need such development projects.”
Hambantota and the Colombo Port City project (which the former regime unilaterally offered to end if it was returned to power) are not the only contentious issues. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party leader and former minister, Tissa Vitharana, was not disclosing any state secret when he confirmed US interest in setting up a naval base in Trincomalee.
China’s rise, its stridency over the South China and East China Seas, the recent spat with the US president-elect Donald Trump over his telephonic conversation with Taiwan’s president, and the Chinese seizure of an American drone (which was later released), have all helped to increase US interest in Trincomalee.
But given their improved relations with India, the Americans are unlikely to openly court Sri Lanka at the expense of relations with the region’s biggest power, and the only one seen as a counter-balance to China.
Visiting Colombo recently, Admiral Binkley Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, said after talks with the president, Maithripala Sirisena, and prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and others, that Sri Lanka could be the facilitator and convenor for talks to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. The media reported him as welcoming Colombo’s “contribution to security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region” and stressing “the importance of expanding cooperation between like-minded countries to uphold the rules-based global operating system”.
Some interpret this to suggest Sri Lankan participation in the 2017 Malabar exercise involving the Indian, US and Japanese navies. Australia’s inclusion is not ruled out either.
“We want to make the 21st Malabar exercise … bigger and more complex,” Vice-Admiral, Joseph P Aucoin, US Seventh Fleet Commander, was quoted as saying, after meeting India’s naval chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba who recently paid Sri Lanka a five-day visit.
“Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is one area I think would be very beneficial” he said, noting that with the US P-81 Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft now in operation with the Indian navy, the two sides “can hunt submarines together”.
With Chinese submarines regularly sighted in regional waters, there is no mystery about Admiral Harris’s stress on a “renewed thrust on anti-submarine warfare operations”.
Before he became secretary of state in Barack Obama’s second presidency, John Kerry, as joint author of a senate foreign relations committee report, stressed Sri Lanka’s importance to the US in “geo-strategic terms”. If the incoming Trump administration finds that report of interest, Sri Lanka could be the next pivot to Asia.
True, Wickremesinghe called the US the “elephant in the room” in the context of the Indian Ocean and again when discussing the Trump administration, but he probably meant that the reality of the Lone Superpower must be acknowledged and accommodated.
In any case, the complex small country-big country relationship between India and Sri Lanka ensures the latter will never voluntarily spurn any opportunity of affirming its sovereignty.
Some reports indicate Sri Lanka has always nursed visions of a blue water capability. Others claim it did not relish its limited capability being exposed by the long drawn-out civil war with the Tamil Eelam movement. Sri Lankans denounced India’s Operation Poomalai (dropping food packets over Jaffna) as “naked violation” of their “sovereignty and integrity.” Operation Cactus (rescuing Abdul Gayoom from a gang of armed Jaffna Tamils) elicited the gratitude of the Maldives, not Sri Lanka.
The tragedy of Operation Pawan (the Indian Peace Keeping Force) cannot have failed to bring some cheer to even the most fervent Buddhist Sinhala chauvinist.
The government does want to sell an 80 per cent stake in the southern port but for economic, not political, reasons. As for the threat by a former leftist minister in the erstwhile Rajapaksa government to move the Supreme Court against the Hambantota deal, it’s a repeat of the domestic political rivalry that long ago prevented Sri Lanka from accepting the invitation to join the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a founder member.
As an ASEAN member, Sri Lanka might have aspired to a clearly defined Asian identity. Instead, it feels forced to remain in India’s shadow, still a small nation yearning for a global destiny.
(Sunanda K.Datta-Ray is a former editor of the Kolkata-based The Statesman, author of Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, and a leading columnist)