By Izeth Hussain –
One of the most momentous developments of recent times, perhaps the most fateful in the long run, has been passed over with scant attention paid to it by the Sri Lankan public. It could be the most fateful because it carries the potential to lead not just to the breakup of Sri Lanka but to its extinction as habitable territory. I refer to India’s expressed serious concerns over China’s nuclear submarines being allowed to dock at Colombo Port. In this article I want to focus on certain points. Firstly a successful foreign policy has to be based on an accurate perception of the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and the success of that policy has to depend on its proper application in practice. Secondly, there is a distinct possibility of nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Thirdly we must work out a foreign policy that takes that possibility into account, and see how best we can secure our legitimate interests against that possibility. I believe that the answer will be found in rejecting traditional notions of “spheres of influence”, which would lead to what I choose to call the Sirimavo Doctrine.
But first I must put down some of the relevant facts that are in the public domain – only those facts because what went on in the area of secret diplomacy is not known to the public. On the face of it, the positions of both Sri Lanka and China seem to be unexceptionable. Sri Lanka holds that since 2010 as many as 230 warships have docked at Colombo port. It is customary and well-established international practice for warships to dock in foreign ports for refueling and crew refreshment. China’s position is the same but emphasizes in addition that submarines are used around the Gulf of Aden in the war against piracy. India does not seem to believe that submarines are required for that purpose.
On India’s position I take as authoritative the report in the Island of November 5 under the heading ‘Docking of Chinese nuclear subs in SL worries India’ by its special correspondent in Delhi S.Venkat Narayan. I take it as authoritative because it is known that the Indian Foreign Office makes shrewd use of Indian newspapers for its diplomacy: it makes its positions known to the public without being committed to them, and encourages thinking along certain lines. I will therefore quote from that report very substantially. It stated that the docking of a nuclear powered submarine at Colombo port at the end of October was causing “enormous concern” in the Indian Government. The Sri Lanka Government had allowed that docking despite the Indian National Security Adviser having warned the Sri Lankan Defense Secretary that the presence of a Chinese submarine in Sri Lanka was unacceptable to India. The report at that point cites the Times of India as stating that the Indian Government had no option but to regard Sri Lanka’s defiance as “inimical” to India’s interests. The quote “inimical” was not attributed to any official but it was clear that it had an official provenance.
This is the second of two visits by Chinese submarines to Colombo. The report clearly attributes a political significance to the visits. The first coincided with the visit of the Indian President to Vietnam and the Chinese President’s visits to Sri Lanka and India in September. The implication seems to be that the submarine visits were a form of muscle-flexing by China with the connivance of the Sri Lankan Government. According to the report India sees the submarine visits as a violation of the 1987 Agreement which states: “Trincomalee or any other port in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests”. The Agreement also calls upon the two countries not to allow their territories to be used for “activities prejudicial to each other’s unity, integrity and security”. Let me add at this point that the Peace Accords of 1987 have not been officially denounced as invalid on the ground that they were concluded under duress, or on any other ground. They therefore remain valid under international law.
Some of the contents of Venkat Narayan’s report seem quite alarming. He writes, “The Chinese fleet of submarines, both diesel and nuclear-powered (of which three can fire ballistic missiles), represent some of Beijing’s most offensive military capabilities and have been the focus of international media when one of them propelled through the Indian Ocean waters for the first time earlier this year making its way to the Persian Gulf.” It appears that there is some amount of international disquiet over manifestations of Chinese naval power, and therefore what has been going on at Colombo port should be viewed in that context. A powerful segment of the international community could be sympathetic to India’s concern over the Chinese submarines.
Particularly alarming are statements made by the Indian strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney. True, they are not official views but they could reflect some amount of official thinking. He claimed that Sri Lanka’s disregard of India’s protests after the first docking as a hostile action with long-term implications. I quote: “At a time when India is facing increasing Chinese strategic pressure from the north, a new military challenge is opening from the south. The weakening of India’s strategic clout over the past decade has emboldened President Rajapaksa’s hostile action in granting access to Chinese submarines”. He thought that Rajapaksa could have made a serious miscalculation in challenging India’s interests without taking into account the fact that India is no longer led by a “clueless Prime Minister with no vision”. He claimed that President Rajapaksa is now increasingly seen as “willfully promoting not just China’s commercial interests but also Beijing’s penetration of India’s southern flank”.
Something seems to have gone terribly amiss in our relations with India. Both Sri Lanka and China seem to have acted with a strange irresponsibly in being gratuitously provocative towards India. What might be the reasons? I think I have a possibly plausible reason for China’s strange behavior, which I will give later in the course of this article. As for Sri Lanka, what must readily spring to the minds of most readers is that elections are around the corner, which means that the Government will do practically anything to increase its vote bank. Since 2009 President Rajapaksa and his Government have been unbeatable at elections mainly because of his Dutugemunu image. But the Government had a torrid time at the Uva provincial Council elections and it could therefore sense a need to refurbish that Dutugemunu image. A threat to the nation from a very powerful country, namely India, could serve that purpose. The President once saved Sri Lanka from disintegration, and he could therefore be seen as having the best credentials to save it from further mortal perils.
In my view that could turn out to be a dangerously counter=productive strategy. It is quite true that in general nothing serves to bind a nation together than an external threat. In the early ‘sixties the Sino-Indian border war spectacularly bound the Indian nation together in a way that nobody imagined would be possible. During that period there was a widespread expectation that India would break up sooner or later. What we must bear in mind is that behind that spectacular display of unity was the fact that every Indian Government since 1947 showed a relentless drive to forge a unified Indian nation. In Sri Lanka, on the contrary, since 1948 our Governments have shown not a relentless drive towards unity but towards division and hierarchy, and that drive has been more powerful under the present Government than ever before. Anyway, I believe that it was that drive to division that led, after the IPKF troops came here, not to the Sinhalese fighting the Indian troops but to butchering each other in the form of the JVP rebellion. Trying to conjure up an external threat, for whatever reason, could be dangerously counter-productive for Sri Lanka.
(To be continued)