Sri Lanka’s attempt to appease China is threatening the bilateral relations it shares with India
Fresh hopes marking a new turn in the bilateral relations, kicked off by the positive Indian media reports on the Sri Lankan Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa’s recent visit to New Delhi seem to have been dashed once again. The unprecedented visit by Qi Zhenhong, China’s Sri Lanka envoy, to the ethnically-sensitive Tamil-majority Jaffna Peninsula from across the Indian shores have flagged a greater Indian strategic concern than any in the past.
The Indian media argued that Sri Lanka had little option but to accept New Delhi’s conditions flowing from the increasing Chinese presence in return for the much-needed economic bail-out. They treated the critical economic situation in Sri Lanka independent of the US-initiated, UNHRC-centric political realities, where Colombo would require Beijing’s veto-vote along with that of Russia at the UN Security Council (UNSC), as and when it came to that. If nothing else, the Sri Lankan state and political establishment consider the expanded UNHRC mandate on human rights violations dating back to the successful Eelam War-IV that ended in 2009 as a threat to the nation’s existence as is known today. In comparison, the economic crisis is passé though not to be trivialised.
The Indian media argued that Sri Lanka had little option but to accept New Delhi’s conditions flowing from the increasing Chinese presence in return for the much-needed economic bail-out.
Basil Rajapaksa is the third senior-most member in the Sri Lankan Cabinet, headed by his brothers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa . He is also the chief strategist of the ruling SLPP. In Delhi, India presented a uniquely packaged host-list comprising counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar. It indicated that India saw economic and strategic aid for Sri Lanka together, at least from now on.
In an uncommon instance for a visiting Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa also met with India’s National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, who crafts India’s geo-strategic and geo-political policies, with an inevitable element of geo-economics infused within. If the previous discussions considered an earlier Sri Lankan proposal for India helping to pay up the nation’s China debt through long-term credit, no details were mentioned in public A Sri Lankan statement only mentioned ‘four pillars’ of bilateral cooperation, all of which were in the economic realm. India did not state anything in public. Nor did either side talk about his media-speculated meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which did not take place.
The ever-busy Sri Lankan media played down Basil’s India visit as also the possibly unconnected two-day Jaffna visit of Amb Zhenhong that followed. There was no clarity if the Jaffna visit had been proposed and approved beforehand, or if it was an afterthought. But two aspects of Amb Zhenhong’s charm offensive on the Tamil North are clear. According to reports, his itinerary aimed at provoking New Delhi, in strategic terms and political terms, given the Indian sensitivities to the ‘ethnic issue’, were drawn up by some non-governmental Tamils in Jaffna. Two, the itinerary had Colombo’s approval.
A Sri Lankan Tamil media report also said that the envoy and the military official made a secret, second trip around an islet, linked by a land-corridor to a bigger one.
The Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) would have made speed boats available for the Chinese delegation, which included a military official, for a mid-sea sail up to the Adam’s Bridge IMBL area delineating the Indian territory, only after clearance from the higher-ups. In a significant add-on, Amb Zhenhong reportedly shot off drones into the Jaffna skies, which local civilians cutting across ethnicities are barred from. A Sri Lankan Tamil media report also said that the envoy and the military official made a secret, second trip around an islet, linked by a land-corridor to a bigger one.
Together, the message is clear. That no strategic space that Sri Lanka shares with India, in the ocean or the skies, which is out of bounds for China. Already, Sri Lankan land territory is in Chinese possession, in the form of the 99-year lease on Hambantota Port, is in Chinese possession, on the purported premise against strategic misuse.
On the political front, Amb Zhenhong and team offered prayers at Nallur Kandaswami Temple, which attracts a large number of Tamil-Hindu diaspora pilgrims, especially during the annual festival falling in August-September. In doing so, he followed the local Hindu tradition, wore a veshti and went bare-chested, thus seeking to impress the faceless Jaffna cultural czars, who have arrogated to themselves the guardianship of Tamil social life and ethnic politics from inside the country and outside.
On the socio-political front equally, the Chinese envoy paid a visit to the iconic Jaffna Public Library, considered the Tamil symbol of linguistic and social identity, bordering on ethnic supremacy. With security forces in attendance, Sinhala mobsters sent from Colombo had burnt down the library with its treasure trove of palm-leaf manuscripts and other rare literary works in 1981, with the intent to teach the Tamils a lesson.
In an even more significant initiative in the contemporary bilateral context involving India and Sri Lanka, Amb Zhenhong interacted with Sri Lankan Tamil fishers in the North, who have been constantly complaining about ‘Indian brethren destroying their boats, nets and livelihoods. The envoy donated US $100,000-worth fishing gear to local fishers. Though Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda with his committed fishers’ constituency waited on the Chinese envoy, the Chinese Embassy had finalised the beneficiaries’ list.
With security forces in attendance, Sinhala mobsters sent from Colombo had burnt down the library with its treasure trove of palm-leaf manuscripts and other rare literary works in 1981, with the intent to teach the Tamils a lesson.
In a coincidence, days after the Basil/ Zhenhong visits, the Sri Lanka Navy arrested 55 Tamil Nadu fishers from India, in two separate incidents. If earlier, there were complaints of Minister Devananda ‘internationalising’ the bilateral fishers’ issue with India, by taking it up with Martin T Kelly, the American Chargé dˈAffaires in Colombo, the Chinese envoy’s direct dealings with the northern Tamil fishers may have opened worse possibilities. It also remains to be known if the ministerial meeting with the American official was an innocent initiative compared to the later-day Chinese engagement with the Jaffna fishers.
In the immediate context, Amb Zhenhong’s Jaffna visit is not unlikely to cast its shadow over the proposed revival of India-Sri Lanka fishers’ level talks, and also the official-level meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG). In November, Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay in Colombo had met with Sri Lankan Tamil fishers, and followed it up with a rare meeting with Tamil Nadu fishers in Rameswaram and also Chief Minister M K Stalin. New Delhi is awaiting Colombo’s response for reviving the twin-layered talks.
Apart from Jaffna, the Chinese delegation also visited Mannar, also in the Tamil North, not long after India’s Adani Group chairman, Gautam Adani, had visited the place, to explore the possibilities of setting up renewable energy projects. China is already in competition on this front. All of it should also be viewed in the context of the Rajapaksa regime reneging on the tri-nation government-centric MoU on joint development of Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) along with Japan, which was initialled when the predecessor anti-Rajapaksa government was in power (2015-19). Colombo has since cleared the port’s Western Container Terminal (WCT), to be developed by the Adani Group, instead.
The Chinese envoy’s Jaffna visit comes a fortnight after his embassy in Colombo tweeted the suspension of three ADB-funded wind and solar power projects on islands off Jaffna Peninsula, owing to ‘third-party’ security concerns. The unsaid reference was to India. The confusion caused by the subsequent statement from the Chinese firm engaged to execute the projects that they were still at it, remains to be clarified. Indications were that Colombo would accept the earlier Indian counter-offer of US $10-million line of credit for those security-sensitive projects.
Apart from Jaffna, the Chinese delegation also visited Mannar, also in the Tamil North, not long after India’s Adani Group chairman, Gautam Adani, had visited the place, to explore the possibilities of setting up renewable energy projects.
It remains questionable whether the Chinese envoy’s Jaffna visit was in direct retaliation to the purported Indian meddling in Sri Lankan preferences in commercial matters, like the ADB-funded project but the Indian security concerns viz China in the neighbourhood is for real. Even more so is the Chinese envoy’s new overdrive, which seems to have the blessings of Colombo. New Delhi would now be watching for signs of a sudden Chinese interest in eastern Trincomalee oil tank farms, which India is keen on developing and which also found a mention in the Appendix to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987.
“This is the end, but this is also the beginning,” Amb Zhenhong said in a strategically-loaded statement, after the Adam’s Bridge sail-up. It is also known as ‘Ram Sethu’ on the Indian side, in reverence to the Hindu god who had laid a bridge with the help of monkey-god Hanuman and his tribe, to reach Lanka and slay demon-King Ravana in a mythological battle.
Clearly, the ‘beginning’ holds out a strategic threat to India than possibly Hambantota. It is more so in politico-diplomatic terms, given the possibilities that the ethnic issue and fishers’ dispute entail. The divided Tamil polity in the North is too busy fighting its fraternal battle of supremacy and has not ignored Amb Zhenhong’s visit so far. All the same, Colombo playing China against India has become increasingly real with this one visit. The consequences are not far to seek. It’s no more India gaining Sri Lanka now and losing it later. Instead, it’s about Sri Lanka losing India—and possibly for good with all the attendant fallouts.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.Read More +