By Bandu de Silva –
The Chinese government will certainly stretch full red carpet treatment to the new Sri Lankan President when he arrives in Beijing on his first state visit to China tomorrow which spreads over five days which in itself is a rarity as far as state visits go. The anticipated warmth of the reception has more to do with the long standing cordial relations which existed between the two countries since the entering into effect the Trade and Payments Agreement of 1952. Though that agreement came about under circumstances which were present at the time rather than due to any voluntary endeavor on the part of both countries, it forged a link between the two countries which were to stand in good stead and develop into a firm friendship full of warmth as time lapsed.
To state briefly, Sri Lanka ‘s rubber industry which supported the Allied war effort during World War II was in grave danger of collapsing resulting, on one hand, from injury caused by exhausting over-tapping to feed the demands of the war machine when other natural rubber producing countries progressively went out of control of British, French and Dutch hands; and on the other hand, the prospects of release of war stock piles by US to be followed by UK which depressed international market price.
In this situation, the willingness on the part of China to purchase our rubber at a premium price was something that fell from the skies. At the same time, the drop in world production of rice in traditional supply markets, created a big problem for Sri Lanka to sustain its subsidized programme of rice sales to the consumers. China had the ability to supply the entire need of Sri Lanka not because she had a surplus of grain but because she had contracted to procure the entire Burmese rice crop for five years to come through an arms – for – rice deal. What stands out to mark Sri Lanka’s offer of what was called strategic goods against the treat of application of sanctions by US, which actually did take place, as a sacrificial gesture on the part of the small nation, is a memory that the Chinese would not easily forget.
Since then Sino-Sri Lankan have grown very much under the foreign policy followed by Prime Minister SWARD Bandaranaike who took steps to open diplomatic relations with China in the Spring of 1957. Premier Zou en Lai’s official visit to Sri Lanka in 1956. I was privileged to be associated with that visit and to be in that first diplomatic mission to China and witness the developments which followed.
The successful implementation of the first agreement led to a second such agreement in 1957 at which I was present and Sri Lanka-China trade progressing smoothly for years to come. That year, the Chinese agreed to provide foreign aid assistance to upgrade Sri Lanka’s railway system in place of the premium paid on rubber. I still recall how in their modesty then China reluctantly stepped into this aid programme which is a big contrast from today.
A number of other Chines e support programmes were discussed but only the railway modernization project came to be implemented. Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s ascendancy as successor to her husband, and as a leading figure in the Non-Alignment Movement saw Sri Lanka playing a new role in China’s dispute over the border which saw an armed conflict between the two giant neighbours. Mrs Banadaranaike received a rousing welcome during her visit to Beijing with a call for a cease-fire and amicable solution to that dispute. In Sri Lanka’s internal problem caused by the JVP insurrection of 1970, China was, however, not among the countries to which Mrs.Bandaranaike appealed for military assistance. China responded by sending a very high powered delegation to reassure support for the Sri Lankan government with an offer of an aid package.
Later, during the northern insurgency it was China which came to assist Sri Lanka in the supply of arms and aircraft. This was followed by China becoming the number one partner in foreign aided investment during the post-war period in Sri Lanka.
After the emergence of Maithripala Sirisena as new President of Sri Lanka and the installation of a new government, and with the changed outlook of India towards the new government, the agenda followed by the new government has given rise to belief that the country’s foreign policy has tilted towards India at the expense of good relations with China. The somewhat abrasive manner in which the new government has been looking at Chinese investments in the island has provided succor to this belief. Dominant among them is the way the Colombo Port City Development project for which a leading Chinese company offered assistance after other foreign entrepreneurs showed no interest. The remonstrations by the Chinese company and the noises made by official spokespersons of the Chinese government including the new Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka are clear indications that the Chinese government views Sri Lanka’s actions – especially the abrasive manner of dealing with details of Chinese investment – with displeasure and threatening future cooperation.
It is in this context that I say that better circumstances evade Sri Lankan President’s first official visit to China. Though it is customary to evade discussion of contentious issues during state visit at head of the State level, the prospects are that such issues would engage the two sides during this visit. The big question is will President Sirisena carry an important message 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. No such indication has come from the Sri Lankan side so far. Nor has China indicated what would consist of the agenda of discussions during the Sri Lankan President’s visit. Of course, the new Chinese ambassador in Colombo has laid emphasis on the “new strategic relationship” which existed between the two countries. How he sees this strategic relationship is not disclosed. Those are very words which send ripples through the Indian administration. The outcome of the discussions in Beijing during this visit should show how the new Sri Lankan government will indulge in the tight rope walking balancing relations with New Delhi and Beijing.
*Bandu de Silva – Sri Lanka’s pioneering diplomat in China