By Bandu de Silva –
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first official visit to China: Should it be an opportunity for balancing economic and strategic relations?
Now one can speak firmly about the impending visit to China by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from April 6th 2016. According to Sunday Observer of March 27 2016 based on Prime Ministers statement in Parliament and other more recent news emanating from Beijing Foreign Office sources, this first visit by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremeasinghe is the sixth visit by Sri Lankan Prime Ministers /Presidents in the course of six decades since both countries established diplomatic relations in 1957.
The opening of relations with China was historically far more significant than that with our neighbouring big country, India, because it was with Revolutionary China, and not with India, that the small island nation entered into her first trade/payments agreement in 1952 since independence. That was in the year 1952. And this agreement, contemptuously termed the ‘’Rubber-Rice pact’’ in the West, which continued to be renewed and expanded into areas of broader cooperation leading to a long and lasting friendship between the two countries. As I wrote several times (in The Island) reminiscing my days as a young Sri Lankan diplomat who went to China with the pioneering diplomatic team in April 1957, just 59 years ago, (the only remaining one of that team), this bilateral relationship was an “exemplary” one between a small country (‘rat nations’ as Koreans call ) and big (an elephantine) country.
With my own experience, I can wish the Prime Minister, a very pleasant arrival time climatically, in the Spring in Beijing, with tree -lined streets bent down by remnant snow flakes, and little flag –waving children in creches with cheeks turned rosy by the Goby wind, which I reminisce, but the real reception that the Prime Minister would get, despite its exterior manifestations of warmth always shown to Sri Lankan leaders, will depend on how the Prime Minister and his team together conduct bilateral affairs during the visit. I saw this happening during the visit of President Maithripala Sirisena and commented on it. Things remained as I predicted. (My two articles in Colombo Telegraph refer).[Note: Receptions can sometimes be chilly in Beijing as I witnessed once at the Beijing airport one frosty early Winter morning when Nikita Kruschev left after a cold reception. As Third Secretary, I was the assigned representative for airport protocol duty when weather was too severe for the aging Ambassador].
As I see from Sunday Observer report of March 27 2016, nothing firm has been outlined for the Prime Minister to reach agreement except signing of a M.O.U for joint ventures to manage and operate the Hambantota sea port and the Mattala airport, according to Minister Samarawickrama) and the mention of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which has been under discussion, Colombo Port City project which was suspended under the present government, the Hambantota port project continuation, (signing of a M.O.U for joint ventures to manage and operate the Hambantota sea port and the Mattala airport). Sri Lanka is expected to take up also discussions on new joint venture projects including the Southern Highway Extension and Kandy and Ratnapura Highways. As Prime Minister had told Parliament “deals with China which will be finalised during this trip will be a follow up to the one undertaken by President Maithripala Sirisena last year”.
According to Central Bank sources Sri Lanka hopes to get 1.5 billion US dollars from China almost immediately through some of the development projects. Investment and funding opportunities have been identified with a Consortium of Chinese banks included Bank of China. How this is going to fit into the scheme of joint ventures is not disclosed.
Though the Sri Lankan government is said to have recently cleared the blocked the US $ 1.4 billion Port City project investment by China, the position is still not quite clear. Positive response by Sri Lanka to this vexed question could go a long way to rebuild relations with Beijing.
It could not be gain said that the new government’s stance towards the Port City project has not dampened prospects of future Chinese investments as much as damage the trustworthiness of Sri Lankan governments on investments when political changes take place. Prime Minister is now keen to reestablish this confidence as Chinese themselves assessed his remarks made at Davos.(Xinhua January 21,2016). The Chinese view of Prime Minister’s emphasis was on prospects of Chinese investment.
Reference to “strategic cooperation” and the idea of the “Maritime Silk Road Project” which on the part of the Chinese, dominated the Chinese infrastructural development during the Rajapaksa regime and even took central stage during the Hainan Summit last year which was attended by President Sirisena do not figure in the pre-meeting media thrust by the Chinese side while its total absence from the Sri Lankan side is to be expected. However, as I commented on discussions during President’s visit last year that if the news reports emanating from China were a guide, it looked as if the Chinese leader was emphasizing a few hard-driving points like the need for ‘’trustworthiness” and “reliable friendship” during that visit which were but very cutting references in the circumstances which could be construed as a direct response to the new Sri Lankan government’s handling of issues involving Chinese investments. These words are still reverberating by the Chinese at a lower key at the level of the Foreign Ministry spokes person, Hong Lei, when he used the less cutting terminology calling for China-Sri Lanka “strategic cooperative partnership” featuring “sincerity mutual assistance and long lasting friendship to new heights.” (Hiru News, Friday 02, April,2016) citing Xinhua. Here seems to be an advanced indication to the visiting Sri Lankan Prime Minister, what the expectations of the Chinese side are. As much as it is important to take note of these expectations, it is not to suggest that Sri Lanka should be expected to play a role lesser than that of a mutual partner. At the same time, it has to be admitted that China, fully utilizing the amenability of the Rajapaksa regime, went many steps forward in the direction of enveloping Sri Lanka in the in the expansion of her strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean region, jeopardizing her own ideal status of neutrality in the midst of big-power ambitions. I wrote last year that Sri Lanka, with a government in a hurry to develop infrastructure for whatever reasons, then offered an easy overall target for large scale infrastructure development investment. There was no questioning by China if the projects were feasible, or environmentally acceptable, or not, what political, social economic impact the projects would have. Those aspects were left to the Sri Lankan government to decide.”
It is time for China, as much as for other big powers, to rethink their strategies from the point of view of the situation of small countries like Sri Lanka also from the position of the latter; but this is a hard proposition in the Kautilyan world of survival of the fittest.(Matsaya Nyaya of Kautilya). Consequently, it is through diplomacy alone that a country like ours could survive in this complex situation.