By Ameer Ali –
Shiploads of relief supplies coming at first from India immediately followed by China is a much wanted and timely help to the Sri Lankan victims of the latest natural disaster. However, the question must be raised whether the help is entirely altruistically motivated or tinged with a hidden price.
In the geopolitics surrounding the Indian Ocean Sri Lanka is caught in a painful dilemma. Before the 1970s when India and China were not openly engaged in any regional power contest Sri Lanka was able to navigate its diplomatic ship quite smoothly through the turbulent waters of the Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s India’s and Sri Lanka’s diplomatic and economic alignment with the Soviet regime, in spite of Nehruvian non-alignment and widening rift between Moscow and Peking, did not create any special problem.
The 1980s however proved a dramatic turning point. The disappearance of the Soviet super power, Jayawardena’s total surrender to U.S’ economic regimen and global hegemony, the rapid emergence of China and India as the two rivalling regional economic giants, and because of these developments the transformation of the Indian Ocean into the main theatre of geopolitical contest between the U.S-India alliance on the one hand and China on the other have made Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the ocean more crucial than ever. All three contestants who wanted to dominate the Indian Ocean want to have a strong foothold in Sri Lanka. Robert Kaplan, a Washington based security analyst, has delved into this emerging contest* quite perceptively.
Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean provides a golden opportunity to play one power against the other and maximize the pay-off. But such a game also carries a potential danger of antagonising both players and losing everything. Until now, may be because the geopolitical temperature in the Indian Ocean is cool, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime appears to be managing the balancing act fairly successfully. India’s and China’s competitive rush to aid the national effort in healing the wounds inflicted by the natural disaster is a reflection of this success. However, it is a very delicate game. When the temperature gets heated Sri Lanka’s position will be quite problematic.
Sri Lanka’s close proximity to India, the cultural affinity between the two countries, and the presence of a significant naturalized Indian-Tamil enclave in the island are factors that compel a close friendship with India. The covert support that Delhi lent to the Sri Lankan government in the war against LTTE amidst a strong pro-LTTE political lobby in Tamil Nadu further strengthened this friendly relationship.
On the other hand, China is thousands of miles away from Sri Lanka. Although distance is not a significant barrier in today’s world of ultra-rapid transport and communication’ yet, when relations turn from cool to hot between the two rivalling regional powers, India will certainly have an edge over China in reaching the shores of the island. China’s entry into Hambantota as part of its ‘string of pearls’ strategy is partly to offset the disadvantage of distance and partly to protect China’s oceanic trade route that transports her resources and commodities.
Already, China’s flexing of muscle in the Asia Pacific region by creating and militarizing artificial islands together with her muted response to North Korea’s provocative launching of ballistic missiles has alarmed the U.S. and her Western allies. It is to counter the rise of China that U.S. has rushed to strengthen its friendship with India to the open disgust of her long term ally Pakistan. U.S. would wish India to play a crucial role in checkmating China in the Indian Ocean. Even with or without U.S’ friendship India will not surrender its dominance over the Indian Ocean at any cost. K. M. Panikkar, one of that country’s eminent historian and an essayist spelt out with great perspicacity the dictum in 1935 and said: “While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is the vital sea. Her life lines are concentrated in that area. Her future is dependent on the freedom of that vast water surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth, no stable political structure is possible for her unless the Indian Ocean is free and her two shores fully protected. The Indian Ocean must remain fully Indian.”** This fundamental philosophy has been assiduously followed by all successive Indian governments. It was developed later by some Indian nationalists in their imperialist to be part of a program of Indian colonisation of certain parts of Asia, notably Sri Lanka and Malaya***.
One of the critical assets that Sri Lanka possesses is the Trincomalee harbour. Oceanographic engineers have found that anything hidden by anyone beneath its waters whether it is a toy or a nuclear submarine is undetectable by another. This is why there is such a haste to get access to this harbour by rivalling outside powers. The triangular contest among U.S., India and China to have some access to this natural harbour foretells how Sri Lanka would become entangled in a geopolitical rivalry which will eventually jeopardise her national sovereignty. Any deal by any Sri Lankan government with any outside power that would compromise the neutrality of Trincomalee would be suicidal; but to maintain that neutrality under any pressure requires the diplomatic talent and skill of a super Kautilya.
Given these constraints it is legitimate to raise the question whether the current flow of aid from both India and China is a compassionate reward or a concealed warning by both contestants telling Sri Lanka not to get too close towards the other.
*Robert D. Kaplan, “Centre Stage for the Twenty-first Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean”, Foreign Affairs, 88:2, 2009; Monsoon, New York: Random House, 2010.
**Panikkar K. M., India and the Indian Ocean, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1945. Emphasis is mine.
***Keenleyside T. A., “Nationalist Indian Attitudes Towards Asia: A Troublesome Legacy for Post-Independence Indian Foreign Policy”, Pacific Affairs, vol. 55, no. 2, 1982.
Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia