Friday, January 23, 2015
Rajaspksa played for China, ignored India
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On September 25, when asked about the docking of one Chinese submarine in Colombo, Col. Geng Yansheng, the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said that it was a 'routine' affair.
Defending the move, Geng explained that the sub had visited Colombo Port on September 15 for ‘a regular port call for replenishment of supplies’. He added that it was ‘an escort mission to the Gulf of Aden and Somalia’.
This was nonetheless the first time that a Chinese submarine ‘openly’ visited a foreign port.
Ecns.cn, a Chinese English-language website admitted that the visit had triggered speculation (in Delhi) that the Chinese Navy wanted to boost its strength in the Indian Ocean.
On January 8, the situation drastically changed with the results of the presidential elections which saw the end of the nine-year rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa over the Island. Before the fateful day, Rajapaksa was widely seen as the great favorite for his own succession. But following a record turnout of 81.5%, the people of Sri Lanka elected Maithripala Sirisena with 51.3% of the votes; he had earlier served as health minister in the Rajapasksa Cabinet.
Amid the rumor of a coup attempt by Rajapaksa’s clan (who denied any foul play), Sirisena was hastily sworn-in as the new head of the state on January 9. He immediately appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister.
Rajapaksa had no choice but to ‘bow down to the people’s verdict’.
The great looser of the elections was Communist China which ironically does not believe in democracy.
Prime Minister Wickremasinghe soon declared that the new government “will take an even-handed approach and balance its relations with the two friendly neighbors China and India.”
In an interview with NDTV, he stated that his government will redress the pro-China tilt of the previous regime, admitting: “President Rajapaksa's regime tried to play China against India and India against China but it came a cropper."
Beijing had invested some $6 billion in Sri Lanka, mostly in strategic infrastructure projects such as ports and airports. Wickremesinghe announced that his government would particularly review the Colombo Port City project, launched during last year’s visit of President Xi Jinping to the Island: “Because we have not yet seen the feasibility study and the environment impact assessment. I asked when I was with the opposition, in Parliament, but the government didn't help. Therefore we will have to look into the environmental and feasibility aspects," he stated.
In the meantime, Reuters reported that in December 2014, Sri Lanka had expelled the Colombo station chief of India's intelligence agency, accusing him of organizing the opposition to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was alleged that Delhi would have helped convincing Maithripala Sirisena to quit the cabinet and run against Rajapaksa, resulting in the present political swing (which sends China out of orbit).
The rumor of India’s ‘help’ was denied by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman. Whether it is true or not, the result of the elections is good for India, and specially for the Tamil population who sees some hope of fresh dialogue on the various issues plaguing the relations with Sri Lanka.
Reuters rightly analyzed: “[India’s] concern turned to alarm late last year when Rajapaksa allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Sri Lanka without warning New Delhi as he should have under a standing agreement.”
It was undoubtedly the turning point.
Beijing was quick to put up a brave face. The Global Times reported: “Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has promised continued cooperation with China during his meeting with the Chinese ambassador. …Sri Lanka is willing to further strengthen bilateral pragmatic cooperation in various fields for mutual benefits and win-win results.”
The friendly relations between China and Sri Lanka have withstood the test of time, would have added Wickremesinghe. There is no doubt about that, but things will not be as easy as before for China and Beijing is aware of this.
On January 20, the same Global Times commented: “Observers say this [the result of the elections] poses challenges to the Sino-Sri Lankan ties and particularly to the mega projects planned by the two sides,” admitting: “The Chinese side will suffer heavy losses if the $1.5 billion project that started in September is halted. Given similar cases in Myanmar, this has triggered many concerns domestically.”
Beijing’s mouthpiece concluded: “These uncertainties may prove true …but they are not necessarily subversive for a China-Sri Lanka relationship that is built on a sound practical basis and can transcend the power shift.”
The large number of articles carried by Beijing during the last few days shows China’s nervousness; another piece argues: “Competition between China and India in Sri Lanka is not exclusive or confrontational.”
But the real issue is China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) for which Beijing had planned to make Sri Lanka “a shipping hub on the Indian Ocean”.
During a visit to Delhi in February 2013, Chinese Special Representative Yang Jiechi had conveyed to his Indian counterpart, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon an invitation for India to join the MSR, Xi Jinping’s new baby.
Officially, the objective of the MSR and its sister project, the New Silk Road were: “To integrate all kinds of ongoing cooperation especially cooperation on connectivity in the spirit of (ancient) silk road.”
Though it was not said openly, the MSR was clearly a tool to counter the influence of India and the United States in Asia.
For Delhi, the MSR was a ‘soft’ scheme hiding a far more assertive action: the establishment of a broad network of Chinese military bases and commercial facilities along important sea lines of communication extending from the Chinese mainland to Africa. India was (and is) seriously concerned by the strategic bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Maldives.
Interestingly, The Global Times commented: “As to whether China has been too aggressive in pushing investment in Sri Lanka, the answer will lie in the development of the bilateral relationship in future years. As long as political development in Colombo is logical, China's investment will not be in vain.”
Beijing is aware of the new tilt towards Delhi; yet in another article, The Global Times asserts: “India is a proud nation, competitive and unwilling to lag behind. So it is eager to challenge China in every aspect, from aerospace, military force, to economic strength,” adding that “democracy, which the nation is so proud of, has become a burden for development. For example, building a railway in India takes much more time than it does in China.”
It may be true, but democracy has spoken in Sri Lanka, and the years to come will hopefully witness a more balanced approach from Colombo towards India.
Though it may take time, let us hope that a similar outcome will one day happen in Nepal.