Colombo Telegraph

Is China A Threat To Our Island & The Indian Ocean Region? 

By Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka

Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka

While two high level delegations from Beijing were visiting Colombo it was strange indeed to see a full page article in the Daily News of 22 Feb 2017 (“Tripartite Agreement with India, Japan Mooted”, p 4), suggesting that China might well be a threat to Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka would do well to align with India and Japan to counter this threat. That it was a state-run newspaper that published it while the Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister was visiting and a high level delegation from the ruling Communist Party of China had just arrived in the island, makes it all the more disconcerting.

The fact that it was a report of a talk by a Japanese scholar, Dr. Satoru Nagao, Research Fellow at the Tokyo Foundation and the views expressed were his, in no way makes it less serious, especially since the interview was published with a huge picture of an Indian warship running the width of the page and a smaller one of a Chinese submarine illustrating the perceived threat to the Indian Ocean region. Interestingly, the report itself was by a young American researcher based in Asia, Sam Bresnick. What was it doing so prominently featured in the Sri Lankan state’s English language flagship newspaper the Daily News on that particular day?

From where I am seated, as a citizen of Sri Lanka, China has been a friend for hundreds of years, and has never posed a threat to our country. In fact, in the face of the most dangerous of threat to the very existence of this island as one country, China came through for us when some of our other friends were unable to, probably due to valid electoral considerations of their own.

Furthermore, it doesn’t need me to reiterate that our post-war development would not have been possible without China’s generosity. Within the space of a few years, ours was one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, thanks to our political leadership of the day taking advantage of the development diplomacy of China. The infrastructure that all sectors of the economy had longed for became a magnificent reality and growth took a markedly upward turn.

It is worrying in the extreme, this manifest ambivalence on the part of the current government (or on the part of a part of this government) towards Chinese assistance to Sri Lanka, this article in the official Daily News being a symptom of it. It was during the general election campaign that the UNP swore to stop the Port City Project which soon put the new government and the gullible public in all sorts of economic difficulties having had to pay compensation for delaying the project. How is it that our representatives treat with such scant regard arguably the most economically indispensable country in the world, which has hundreds of projects of infrastructure development all over the globe and daily earns the gratitude of many countries and their citizens, while we who need it desperately, feel we can play fast and loose with China?

The fiasco with the Mattala airport is a case in point. Was it wise for our Prime Minister to stuff the newly completed international airport with paddy for all the world to see? Which airline would choose to schedule that particular airport for regular flights? It has now been proven invaluable during repairs to the Katunayake airport, so the paddy has been shifted to accommodate the diverted flights.

What is it with this government, that it treats our economy and our infrastructure as some joke? Whichever party completed the infrastructure projects, they are national assets and should at least be treated with more respect– and the new government’s task was to use them to bring in more revenue as quickly as possible.

For an ancient civilization with a well-known and finely developed sense of proper behavior forming part of their Confucian world-outlook, it must be bewildering for China to see one blunder after another in Sri Lanka’s recent dealings with it. One can only hope that the Chinese realize from their daily encounters with the general public that this government’s behavior does not represent either the attitude, the feelings, or the sense of gratitude of the vast majority of the country’s populace towards China which has been a firm and unstinting friend through the ages.

Sri Lanka also has a very warm relationship with Japan. The Japanese have been supportive throughout the war years, often intervening at our request to negotiate a peaceful settlement, being an honest negotiator without any hidden agenda or vested interest. They have been an economic partner and a supportive Asian power in multilateral fora, playing a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s affairs as a trusted friend for many decades. The Sri Lankan public is familiar with many projects of collaboration with Japan and value the Japanese notion of honor. However, to date, I cannot recall any kind of collaboration undertaken with Japan as a deterrent or bulwark against a third party. I am open to correction since I am not privy to the thinking behind government to government cooperation, but I can’t recall any report at all of such an alliance, specifically for the purpose of power-balancing allegedly to ensure the security of the region.

The prominent article in the Daily News says in its very first paragraph that the visiting scholar Dr. Satoru “urges Sri Lanka to forge stronger ties with India and regional powers like Japan to balance its relationship with the increasingly aggressive China.” While it may be perfectly understandable, if regrettable, for countries in the South China Sea region to regard each other with suspicion and caution, Sri Lanka does not regard, nor sees any reason to regard China in that light. Any effort to include Sri Lanka as some pawn in a regional power contestation is not in its national interest, since it has neither the size nor the riches to benefit from such a role.

It would be naïve not to acknowledge the threat perception of India as the article states: “If the ‘string of pearls’ does in fact come to fruition, India will find itself encircled.” However, each country has to deal with their own threat perceptions, whether imagined or real. Sri Lanka, as far as I know, doesn’t buy into this theory of a dangerous ‘string of pearls’, and instead hopes to benefit from the trade routes opened up as a result of China’s progress, building on our ancient and successful role as a crucial trading post, the most serendipitously located along that route.

India for her part doesn’t take much cognizance of our own threat perception about Tamil Nadu whose successive Chief Ministers repeatedly call for Tamil Eelam in the North, and has been busily negotiating with our Prime Minister to open up trade agreements with its Southern states including Tamil Nadu, in economic alliances and integration. This government feels no threat perception in such an alliance either. Is it then likely that it will regard distant China as a threat that calls for a “Japan-Sri Lanka-India strategic trilateral dialogue” (as the Daily News article suggests) against Beijing’s “increasing military might, shrewd tactics and aggression [that] threaten to change the balance of power in the Indian Ocean”? Despite this government’s dubious record, I dare to hope that it will not embrace such a project. From Sri Lanka’s point of view, uni-polarity is far less comfortable for small countries than multi-polarity, be it with regard to the world or the region.

In a significant suggestion the report quotes the visiting Japanese scholar’s view that “along with trilateral dialogues, it will be important to augment combinations between Sri Lanka, Japan and India to counter the Chinese threat…For example, if Japan and India collaborate to establish a maritime communications network system in Sri Lanka that would serve the entire Indian Ocean, it would be easy for the three countries to be aware of what occurs n the Indian Ocean.” Is Sri Lanka being urged to be a listening post? Is Trincomalee the perfect spot? We’ve had this suggestion before, many years ago. At the time, India objected.

Sri Lanka’s role should be of facilitator of friendly relations between all countries who have interests in the region, and to form whatever economic alliances that are necessary for the benefit of our country.

The fast intensifying regional power struggle for dominance in the Indian Ocean, and the various geopolitical realities and threat perceptions of those engaging in it, are not ours. We have other priorities, like catching up with the rest of Asia after a 30 year war. In this effort China poses no threat whatsoever to us. Instead, China’s policy of infrastructure development through OBOR has formed the engine of our postwar growth so far. This is true of many other regions of the world from Africa to Latin America.

Reiterating that China building a port in Sri Lanka is “creating new difficulties with India,” the Daily News feature claims that “closer ties to Japan and India would more than make up for any troubles caused by shunning the Chinese.” It helpfully goes on to suggests that “these collaborative projects are preferable to accepting China’s support, which would create strategic difficulties.” I’d say that Sri Lanka had decided that it was indeed preferable for its own National Interest to accept the development assistance offered by China, which in the case of the Hambantota port, was in fact in the aftermath of a refusal by India. “Shunning the Chinese” is not on the agenda, either for Sri Lanka or most parts of the world, including the US and Europe.

Surely there’s a storm brewing in the Indian Ocean. To be unaware of the compulsions of our friends and neighbors is not an option. However, neither is being dragged into being on one side or the other. The people of Sri Lanka have never allowed its leaders to do this. Any veering to one side at the expense of this country’s own national interest has been dealt with at elections.

This is an interesting time of the rise of several Asian Giants, all passing through this island of ours in their quest for economic growth. We have a role to play, and it is not to take sides. Strategic power balancing is what Sri Lanka’s diplomacy has always been good at, since it is an existential necessity. This is what should be deployed in full measure, to navigate us through the approaching stormy weather.

Sri Lanka’s location and size require it to be friendly to all countries. The last thing it needs is to be entangled in an alliance against a third party which poses no threat to it at all, and never has. The threat will surely be created if we let ourselves be foolishly manipulated into some fight to the death between big sharks in the Indian Ocean. The Big Powers will survive but we will lie bleeding on the beach at the end of it.

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