20 April, 2024


Delhi’s Choice & Colombo’s Highway To Beijing    

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

Is Indian Ocean Indian?

Post-war Sri Lanka has turned into a contestable terrain for a new Great Game played chiefly between two regional powers, India and China with their respective allies. Although India’s presumption of control over the Indian Ocean remained uncontested once the former colonial masters started leaving the region one by one, and when Indian historians and political strategists like K. M. Panikkar warned Independent India of economic and security perils of surrendering control over Indian Ocean, the end of the Cold War in 1980s, rise of a new imperial order cemented by economic globalization, and challenge to that order by China after Mao dramatically transformed the global significance of that ocean.

Indian Ocean touches the shores of forty independent nation states that house 40 percent of world’s population. Two-thirds of world’s oil shipment, one-third of its bulk cargo and one-half of container traffic travels through this ocean. In short, 80 percent of global seaborne trade passes through this arterial waterway. What is even more crucial in the context of present discussion is that China’s export of goods reaches the Persian Gulf, East Africa, Western Europe and North America by set sailing towards the Cape of Good Hope via the Indian Ocean route. Hence, freedom of navigation through the Indian Ocean or at least some control over that volume of water is extremely vital for the global aspirations of this awakened giant. Two centuries ago, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who said this with one hundred percent accuracy: “China is a sleeping giant, let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”.  She is shaking now.  Indian Ocean is no more Indian just as the Persian Gulf is no more Persian.

China in Sri Lanka

Apart from a fourteenth century brief foray into Sri Lanka’s Kotte Kingdom by the Chinese Eunuch Muslim Admiral, Zheng He, the signing of the Rubber-Rice Pact in 1952, opening of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1957, China’s gift of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in 1973, and the visit to Beijing by SL President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) at the invitation of her Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin in 1996, China’s presence in Sri Lanka was nothing more than ordinary. It was the civil war that really tied together the two nations into what now looks like an inseparable economic, diplomatic and even security relationship. Sri Lanka’s former president CBK expressed publicly that the country has become almost a colony of China. Certain developments as will be shown below would vouch for her contention.

Delhi’s Dilemma & China’s Opportunity 

India’s pretended neutrality but covert support to Rajapaksa regime’s war efforts, and Delhi’s dilemma over aiding post-war reconstruction efforts by the same regime should bear some responsibility for pushing Sri Lanka more and more into the fold of China. US’s and her Western allies’ withdrawal of support to the regime over its condemnable record of human rights violations and tardiness in effecting post-war reconciliation made that push stronger and speedier. 

Shivshankar Menon, India’s former Ambassador to Sri Lanka (1997-2000), candidly explains Delhi’s predicament as, “an impossible choice between reasons of state and humanitarian instincts, between idealism and self-interest, between intervention and allowing a war to run its course. As a democracy, India chose to find a middle way between them, to try to satisfy both, in the event not fully satisfying either” (Shivshankar Menon, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Washington D. C, Brooking Institution Press, 2016, p. 103). He also states that had “India … stood aside … defending the killers of an Indian prime minister, we would have effectively written ourselves out of Sri Lanka for the next decade or more, sacrificing our maritime and other interests in Sri Lanka and abdicating a geopolitically strategic neighbor to other powers (p. 96). However, when one looks at developments in the island since Menon published his analysis his fears seem to have almost come true. 

Delhi’s hard choice and the West’s reluctance to help Rajapaksa Government left a huge gap which came as manna from heaven for China to capitalize. An awaken China with aspirations for economic dominance globally and to counter the unipolar world order embarked on her string of pearls strategy with the construction of her One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) new maritime silk road, through the Indian Ocean.  Acquiring at least semi-permanent halting stations along that route would clear the way for her final objective. A war ravaged and debt burdened Sri Lanka, right on the door step of China’s regional rival, India, offered a golden opportunity that was too good to miss. From the point of view of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka, China’s OBOR with its latest subway, China-Pakistan-Sri Lanka-Economic Corridor became Colombo’s highway to Beijing. Even a regime change in 2015 by the West-oriented UNP could not change that direction. In fact, the ninety-nine years lease of Hambantota Harbor signed by the new regime reinforced China’s long-term foothold in Sri Lanka.

China’s Consolidation & Delhi’s Retraction

With the return of Rajapaksa regime in 2019, Delhi’s relations with Colombo became even more precarious. Once again, the Tamil issue in the shape of the 13th Amendment, a legacy of the slain Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has become a sore point. When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited Delhi soon after he was elected, Prime Minister Narendra Modi insisted that Sri Lanka implements that amendment in return for economic assistance. Although the visitor agreed to do so in Delhi, he reneged on his word after returning to Colombo, which was virtually a slap on Modi’s face.  As if to redress the situation, the Rajapaksa regime signed a deal with India and Japan to build and operate the East Container Terminal in Colombo Harbor. That deal was forced to be withdrawn by Sri Lanka unilaterally due to non-stop protests from trade unions and Buddhist monks, apparently instigated by China. Even before reneging on that deal the Rajapaksa cabinet provocatively approved to allow Sinosoar-Etechwin Joint Venture in China to install hybrid renewable energy systems in three of Sri Lanka’s small islands, Nainativu, Neduntivu and Analaitivu – all three situated in Palk Strait and less than 50 km away from Tamil Nadu.  India raised its concerns without any response from Sri Lanka.

The completion of the celebrated Colombo Port City, built entirely at China’s expense of $15 billion, on a 269-hectare reclaimed land, is the crowning achievement of China’s consolidation of her foothold in Sri Lanka. This Port City has been technically handed over to an independent Commission whose members have been appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A Bill to that effect was hastily presented in the rubber stamp parliament and was rushed through in spite of serious criticisms from the opposition.

This Port City has been advertised to the world, including India, as a one stop destination for foreign and local investors and is described as marking a turning point in the country’s economic development. State Minister Cabraal invited investors to capitalize on the “awesomeness” of Sri Lanka. (He must have actually meant the Port City’s awesomeness, because there is a lot of awfulness outside that fantasyland engulfed by the pandemic, which would distract global fortune hunters). Yet, how much of control will China exert over this financial and entertainment megalopolis and how much of the revenue earned there would trickle down to historic Sri Lanka, are questions to which only time will provide answers.

New Great Game

However, the $64k question is how does India view this rapidly changing Sri Lankan scenario? Historically, India’s security had been threatened always from her northern borders and that threat is kept alive by China’s capture of Tibet and aiding Pakistan over anti-Indian resistance in Kashmir. The southern coast until now had always been safe, and that was one reason why India considered Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue as one to be settled internally. That assumption has now been shattered with the aggressive penetration of China into Sri Lanka. Menon’s fear of sacrificing India’s maritime and other interests in Sri Lanka has come almost close to reality. Did Delhi miscalculate? And, has Delhi got a counter strategy to redeem its losses?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is warning world leaders to act in removing China’s rising threat to the region. That region includes even the Indian Ocean through which Australia trades with the Middle East and Europe. Morrison’s call would be music to Delhi’s ears. Delhi also would be pushing hard on US and European policy makers to confront China’s threat to keep the Indian Ocean safe for navigation and commerce. Sri Lanka cannot escape from that confrontation and is destined to become a main theatre of action for the new Great Game. Are the current rulers of Sri Lanka aware of what is going to come? Ignorance is always bliss.      

*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 2

    Please stop fear mongering. There are over 7 billion people on earth and at 21-22 million SL constitutes less than 1% of the world population. Sri Lankans are delusional if they think anybody cares about us. Most Americans have never heard of SL. As far as Yanks are concerned we are a notch above the tribal people of Africa and the world. The writers on CT like Ali imply that we play an important part in the scene of thing. We don’t. The writers on CT also appear to be operating from Australia,, Noway, Singapore etc. . Ali , and others like Ratnajeevan Hoole, Kumar David and Jehan Perera know jack about what’s happening right now as far as US foreign policy goes.

    • 2

      Do you think that those in power in the US have much of a clue about what is happening even in the backyard of the US.
      Like Columbia, Peru…?

    • 0

      It is https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
      8 billions.
      And 2 billions are from south asian region. No doubt, most of them bear the mentality of MODI and MAFIA BOSS of srilanka.

      Srilanka s population is 22.5 millions
      Meaning we are just 1 % by population.

      Even our social indicators such as life expectancy, Literacy rate and infant mortality etc are we sound to be a literate nation,.. but the truth is our average is much similar to that of far illiterate indians and other south asians. : If people would have been asked to EAT cow dung three times a day, they would not reject it, but would rush to continue…. meaning their thinking patterns are pre-programmed.
      If anyone would say – BUDUSARNAYI… the bystander would go on saying the same.. not thinking twice… even HIGH criminals get caught by POLICE are seen to be wearing ” pirith noole” around their wrists.

      If MODI would have been intelligent, millions caught by COVID deaths in INDIA could have been minimised.

  • 4

    India’s pretended neutrality but covert support to Rajapaksa regime’s war efforts, added to Delhi’s dilemma over aiding post-war reconstruction efforts by the regime pushed Sri Lanka more and more into the fold of China, pretty much sums up the turbulence in the Indian Ocean, an otherwise passive waters.
    Lethargy is always hell!

  • 3

    Author says :
    “In fact, the ninety-nine years lease of Hambantota Harbor signed by the new regime reinforced China’s long-term foothold in Sri Lanka.”
    The real status:
    “In August 2017, Sri Lanka’s cabinet of ministers took a decision to sign a concession agreement with CM Port to operate the Hambantota Port as a Private Public Partnership (PPP) project under which a 70 percent stake of the port is leased to CM Port. The remaining 30 percent of the stake is owned by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and the commercial operations of the port are handled by the CM Port and the SLPA jointly while the government of Sri Lanka still owns the port. At the time of entering into the lease agreement, Hambantota Port was valued at $1.4 billion and CM Port invested $1.12 billion as per the terms of the agreement.”
    “Little details” are important I guess for serious narratives.

  • 0

    “Did Delhi miscalculate? And, has Delhi got a counter strategy to redeem its losses?”

    The South Block has had people who think highly of themselves but are just bumbling bureaucrats.
    Those who thought that Modi, despite his lack of education and his involvement in mishandling the Muslims in Gujarat, would be a competent PM, have been disillusioned. It takes some crises like Covid to expose the hollowness of some politicians. Exaggerated visions of India rising to become a major superpower that raised people out of poverty quickly, which started when Abdul Kalam was the President, have given way to a gloomy feeling among Indians of their country’s listless course.

    • 0

      Have you considered the possibility hat regardless of government and bureaucrats, there is a certain political mindset of Indian political thinking that stands in the way of healthy diplomatic relationship based on friendship and equality of nations.
      The President of India is only a figurehead, and has seldom asserted the limited power the post holds at moments of crisis. I think that Narayan and even Zail Singh showed more independence than Abdul Kalam.
      Modi was already having trouble before the COVID-19 second wave crisis.
      He was boosted by the media and backed by Big Business. He delivered on their expectations as much as he could. They defended him even through economic blunders.
      It is not him but policy and ideology.

  • 0

    99 years is for the initial lease, and in reality it will be perpetual at the point of lease extension or lease expiry.

    The management and extension is left to one the companies in the deal structure, one company for security and other company for management of the lease.

    Majority shares of the management company are owned by Chinese company via SLPA. So, at the point of extension the Chinese company has the discretion to completely influence extension or termination of the lease.

    For all trumpeted fairness of the deal by Sori Sinhala Lanka, why Sori Sinhala Lanka is cagey when it comes to publish the details of whole deal and the lease?

    There is no one authoritative source for information about the Ambaanthotai deal and the lease. Details are / were deliberately drip fed by the Sori Lanka State here and there by all sorts of media hearsay.

  • 0

    The South Bloc at one-time was dominated by Keralites, ShivaShankar Menon, Narayanan etc. Tamil Nadu politicians blamed them for their inimical stance with respect to the Srilankan North-East issue. In fact, I have heard from reliable sources that Narayanan was v.hard towards TNA Leader Sampanthan.

    The Sinhala Language evolved from the Malayalam script. Is there a rapport on this score?

    Anyway, China is cruising in the Indian ocean on the back of the Covid-19!
    Whereas India is feeling its way through, burdened with the Corona!

    • 3


      “Whereas India is feeling its way through, burdened with the Corona!”

      Don’t you think there is a limit to Hindian stupidity?
      If the Hindians didn’t learn anything from recent election results what is stopping Chinese from taking over New Delhi?
      Let the Chinese take over Sultanate of New Delhi and make Aiyoooo SJ very very happy. .

      • 3

        Aiyoo, have you been watching this lady?


        • 2

          old codger


          • 0

            I thought so too. Will we ever catch up?

      • 0

        “Don’t you think there is a limit to Hindian stupidity?”

        It is not stupidity.

        It is pathological hatred and abomination of anything being Tamil by Hindians and of course Kerala Mafia.

        All public utterances about China bogey, Ragiv Ghanthi etc. are for appearance of self interest and sway public opinion.

    • 0

      “In fact, I have heard from reliable sources that Narayanan was v.hard towards TNA Leader Sampanthan.”

      This happened even in public when Narayanan and S. Menon (considered bald by Sinhalese) when they visited Paksas around end of May 2009.

      Narayanan admonished and reprimanded elected leader Sampanthan to the effect of mind your own business and ‘we know what Tamils must be given’, only meaning at that time (May 2009) could be massacre and destruction must be given to Tamils.

      Even when Tamil Nadu chief minister Ms. Jayalallitha demanded Shiva Shankar Menon reprimand and make Gota apologise when he published the images sexually vulgar caricature of Ms. Jayalallitha, Shiva Shankar Menon was initially unresponsive, reluctant and only after Congress seeing political ramification of Tamil Nadu, Shiva Shankar Menon politely requested Gota to withdraw the publication.
      Then Ms. Jayalalitha had forced Shiva Shankar Menon force fully reprimand Gota and made Gota to apologise.

    • 0

      The US had realised Hindia’s pathological hatred and abomination of Tamils only after it was deeply drawn into the war which is at the point of no return.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.