By Bandu de Silva –
To those who were looking forward enthusiastically to the Sri Lankan President’s first official visit to China to produce something sensational in the context of growing international interest in the Indian Ocean island as an important link in East –West relations, and it developing into a potential hub over which competitive interests by two big Asian powers are looming – that includes China’s much vaunted 21st Maritime Silk Route Project and India’s re-invigorated assertion in developing strategic links with key Indian Ocean nations like Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives and Sri Lanka – the outcome of the deliberations between the two Asian leaders may appear disappointing if not a damp squib.
Nothing sensational that would have made headlines or attracted international attention by way of open support by Sri Lanka for China’s ambitious project of the Maritime Silk Route which occupied much space in the Chinese President’s address to the BOAO Forum in Hainan Island, seemed forthcoming from the Sri Lankan President during his first official discussions with the Chinese President except, according to Chinese media sources (Xinhua) [a mere courtesy] show of “willingness to work with China within the framework of the 21st century Silk Road concept ….” Reference to the Silk Road project or the Maritime Silk Route Project (MSR) was totally absent in the President’s speech two days later to the BOAO Forum.
Other much vaunted phrases like “strategic partnership” which the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo emphasized and to which the Chinese President had referred to in his opening remarks (according to The Hindu report) was not taken up by the Sri Lankan side. In a sense, this guarded response on the part of the Sri Lankan President may be seen as a triumph for Sri Lankan diplomacy which was reacting with discomfort over the extended implications attached by other interested international players particularly in India to Chinese intensions, notably, about China’s increasing blue water ambitions.
Consequently, it would appear that Sri Lanka wished to avoid giving further cause for such fears, if not an indication of coming altogether under the spell of India whose maritime interest in the entire Indian Ocean region was amply demonstrated recently by Prime Minister Modi’s visits to three Indian Ocean islands skipping a projected visit to Maldives.
That there was no joint communique issued after the talks between the two leaders but separate statements were issued by each side, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry issuing such a statement (but not picked up by the local media except The Sunday Leader without acknowledgement), itself points to divergent interpretations of the fallout of talks, each side interpreting what it pleases. The Acting Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka even went to town contradicting what was reportedly said by the Chinese side on the vexed issue of the Colombo Port City Project.
One should, however, not be dissuaded by the overt expectations for the talks to produce the controversy-creating results. The new rulers in Colombo are facing many problems arising from contradictions within the broad coalition of forces that got together to oust the former regime, some arising from respective political agendas each sought to achieve. The external ramifications of these internal developments on bilateral and international situations cannot be overlooked. The way the Chinese infrastructural development projects came to be looked at by the new government is one such, despite the ostensible calls for the need for transparency et al, and suspending work on the major investment project of Colombo Port City Development, smackng of an attempt at exposure of the deeds of the previous government as much a wish to be transparent on investment projects.
The height of the Chinese reaction both officially and otherwise, to the new government’s outlook on Chinese Investments was reached by the way the Chinese President decided to throw aside customary protocol not taking up controversial issues during top level state visits, to surface this issue during bi-lateral talks with his Sri Lankan counterpart. From the way the Chinese media interpreted the outcome, the Sri Lankan side was seen being compelled to make quick amends by way of a damage controlling move. The trumps in China’s hand like support for Sri Lanka in international fora and the warnings about future Chinese investment and aid projects which were seen reverberating round the discussion table were, perhaps, it too strong for Sri Lanka to remain without making amends. These attempts on the part of Sri Lanka were manifest in the overtures made during President’s official discussions with the Chinese President, as seen from the Chinese angle.
As I observed in my recent article entitled “Why better circumstances evaded President’s first official visit to China” (Colombo Telegraph), the President’s visit took place in a climate which was not the most congenial circumstance for such a visit. That it was the new Sri Lankan government’s own creation was admitted by the visiting President himself when accordibg to Xinhua report, he stated in response to the Chinese President’s remonstration during discussions at the Great Hall of China that the issues which had arisen over Chinese investment in Sri Lanka were “temporary”, and “problems do not lie with China.” If this were the case, he was virtually disowning what his own Finance Minister, Ravi Karunanayake said when he announced that Chinese investment had introduced corruption. That was what the new Sri Lankan government’s stance on Chinese infrastructural development projects, which one might say, was allowed to blow up into unnecessary proportions especially exacerbated through bad-mouthing by the Finance Minister which added to the dissatisfaction in Chinese official and non-official circles. That bad-mouthing itself, not once but twice over, showed a lack of collective responsibility and lack of cohesiveness in the pursuit of goals within the new government, if not its inherent internal weakness.
In the expanded version of my article sent to the printed media I observed:
“It is in this context that I say that better circumstances which should pervade the scenario during a state visit at a head of State level from a friendly country, has evaded Sri Lankan President’s first official visit to China. Though it is customary to evade discussion of contentious issues during a State visit at head of the State level, the prospects are that such issues would engage the two sides during this visit. That is primarily due to the doings of the Sri Lankan side. Issues which should have been handled with care and circumspection have been allowed to blow up into unnecessary proportions and the bad-mouthing by the Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake has added to the dissatisfaction on the part of China.
“The big question then is will President Sirisena carry an important message to Beijing which will neutralize fears of an overt pro-Indian attitude on the part of his government which would have adverse repercussions on Sino-Sri Lankan relations? That is the bigger issue. Would Sri Lanka be ready to forgo the opportunity of advantages offered by friendship towards China at a time when China has emerged as the economic giant of Asia and is going as far as establishing a new financial institution in the form of a new infrastructural support and development bank which is gaining momentum?”
The way things unfolded during the President’s first day’s discussions with the Chinese leader (as reported in the Chinese media) with the Chinese President which saw several bilateral Agreements being signed in their presence has vindicated the above observations I made earlier tentatively. Going by the day’s proceedings as reported in Xinhua news of same day (26 March), the contentious issue of Chinese investments in Sri Lanka, which was accompanied by the Chinese President’s emphasis on phrases like the need for “friendly cooperation” and “trustworthiness” and “reliable friendship” summed up not only what one may see as an expression of Chinese apprehension over the new Sri Lankan government’s attitudes towards Chinese investments, but also as a veiled expression of indignation over creating a “loss of face” situation for China, which the Chinese traditionally find difficult to stomach. One who has studied Chinese culture deeply will understand what a forceful factor the latter is, though Sri Lanka’s present ruling elite may have missed it. Wilmot Perera understood it within a few weeks of his assuming duties as first Ambassador in China.
What was the net result of blowing hot over Chinese investments in Sri Lanka? Wasn’t it a case of the Si Lankan President bending over his back to thank China for infrastructural support, ironically, including the much-maligned Hambantota port project and promising that a “more robust relationship would continue with China’ in future”.(Xinhua). He was even reported to have indicated willingness to work with China within the framework of the 21st century Silk Road concept of China.
As the Chinese side presented it, these looked as if they were words of surrender by Sri Lanka in the face of an uncompromising stance on the part of the Chinese for touching on the sensitive nerve of China’s pride – the ‘loss-of-face’ syndrome. Yes, China had other trumps in her hand too like the support given to Sri Lanka in international fora in the latter’s difficult situation which the President of Sri Lanka rushed to acknowledge. Besides, the reminder that Sri Lankan side that its government was at a juncture needing infrastructural support and investment most, was a mild warning about repercussions that could follow if bilaterally negotiated investment agreements with China were ruffled.
Of course, the Chinese did not want the Sri Lankan President to go empty-handed. Even before agreements to expand cooperation in health, agriculture, science, tourism and human resources development, they offered to establish a hospital for cancer treatment at Polonnaruwa with a laboratory for research in water treatment methods and developing technologies for treatment of kidney diseases. In the eyes of the Sri Lankan public, that should add to the other symbolic infrastructures like the Bandaranaike Memorial Conference Hall, the Supreme Court complex, the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, such a gift would remain for a long time to remind the Sri Lankan public of gestures by China. The Chinese know how to pick up and choose symbolic representations as much as they know where to make other big investments which will bring advantage to China. In this case, they have responded to an issue on which the Sri Lankan had shown a personal interest.
Media sources have given their own interpretation on exchange of views. It was rather the Chinese President’s remarks addressing the Sri Lankan Presidential team which was the starting point. If the news reports emanating from China are a guide, it looks as if the Chinese leader was emphasizing a few hard-driving points like the need for ‘’trustworthiness” and “reliable friendship” which are but very cutting references in the circumstances which could be construed as a direct response to the new Sri Lankan government’s handling of issue involving Chinese investments.
Curiously, in Colombo, the Foreign Ministry issued its own tempered version of what the Sri Lankan side presented in Beijing without any reference to the points that the Chinese side were raising. The acting Minister of Foreign Affairs was even placing a different emphasis to those reports coming from China on the major infrastructural project of the Colombo Port City Development.
Was there a deliberate decision to play down the visit so that in order to present Sri Lanka as having remained neutral in the face of competing interest of the two contending Asian giants, China and India, to assert a dominating role in the Indian Ocean region?
In conclusion, taking the versions of the two sides separately presented over the outcome of the visit, if one is inclined to take the Chinese version, it could be seen as a diplomatic victory for the Chinese to find the Sri Lankan President almost agreeing and assuring the Chinese of the significance and relevance of past Chinese investments in infrastructure development Sri Lanka while according to the Sri Lankan version, it provided the opportunity to play down on much misunderstood terminology used in the past which could further embarrass her vis-a- vis her recently resurrected cordial relations with neighbouring India. In short, despite assurances of friendship with China and a “robust relationship” with regard to Chinese investment, there were no manifestations of any conclusions which went contrary to India’s newly manifested security interests in the Indian Ocean region in which Sri Lanka was one of the most important links. The Sri Lankan version should provide a sense of relief to India that her neighbouring small nation did not ruffle her feathers. Curiously, how interesting it is to find that two Indian naval ships were timed to visit Trincomalee harbor though ostensibly to provide naval training to the Sri Lankan navy personnel, was timed for the Sri Lankan President’s visit to China.
*The writer was a former senior career diplomat of Sri Lanka who had his first diplomatic posting in China and later as Ambassador to several European countries including France.