Originally Published 2017-08-16 11:01:50 Published on Aug 16, 2017
Sri Lankans still hope to get jobs and incomes from Trinco development plans — it has not happened in the case of Hambantota.
Sri Lanka, China and Hambantota

In signing off around 70 per cent of the Hambantota Port holdings to a front company of the Chinese Government, as against the originally proposed 80 per cent, the Maithiri-Ranil leadership has done more than what predecessor President Mahinda Rajapaksa had done in his time. Whatever little might have been left open then have been sealed, and for good, and in China’s favour.

Incumbent Ministers defending the present ‘split-agreement’, with one company with controlling stakes for Sri Lanka in port administration and security continue to talk to and in the air as the Rajapaksa aides, if at all, did in their long years in office. The fact is that successive governments have surrendered before the emerging Chinese hegemony (?) in the region, replacing what India-baiters in Sri Lanka loved to call as ‘Indian hegemony’.

After presiding over the Cabinet meeting that cleared the twin-pacts, President Sirisena’s camp has claimed that he got a new, enabling clause for future amendment(s) incorporated and got it accepted by the Chinese side. He has also since claimed that the government will do nothing that would compromise the nation’s ‘sovereignty and dignity’.

Well meant and well said, but not intended to be taken seriously. Nothing can be more farcical than the Sirisena claiming credit for the new ‘enabling clause’ for future amendments. Leave aside legal technicalities, even the lowest IQ-bearing common sense dictates that no such amendment can be included in any agreement of any kind unless and until the other side agrees to it.

At best, all agreements of every such kind provide for arbitration and legal proceedings, and Sri Lanka can go in for either or both, if and when China contests future claims to include new amendments. But then common sense again dictates that countries like China are not going to compromise commercial deals of the kind at the drop of a Sri Lankan hat or a feather thereof. Either they too do not mean the written word, or they may have other demands, possibly of a political and strategic kind to put on the table, for mutual consideration and possible acceptance.

Worse still are post-pact claims of senior Cabinet Ministers like Wijedasa Rajapakshe, who as a lawyer in his own right should know that he and he alone cannot reverse the pacts and ‘return Hambantota to the people’ at will. Leave aside the legalities and financial costs involved, he knows better than his audience(s) that Cabinet decisions are taken on consensus basis, and he, like his President and other emerging critics in the government, can do simply nothing about it.

Ironically, the JVP, among others, who used to criticise the ‘Indian hegemony’ for decades now are again at it, this time against China. This surrender of Sri Lankan ‘territory’ to a third nation, and legitimising it so very casually, has all the ingredients of a Ludlum thriller, but with an anti-hero playing the lead.

There can be no denying that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity have been compromised through this deal even more than Rajapaksa’s original deal on Hambantota. All those in Sri Lanka who continue to talk of Indian fishers compromising Sri Lankan sovereignty and territorial integrity, for instance, should look at their own faces in their own mirrors.

President Maithiripala Sirisena, who says that Rajapaksa’s final plans for Hambantota land-sale to China was a worse deal than the one he has now presided over, too have questions to answer. In every issue of the kind, he has always been saying that as a senior Minister in the Rajapaksa Government he knew more, but has never ever said what he did to stall what was patently ‘anti-national’ deal and an ‘anti-national’ act, wholesale.

Strategic storage

The Sri Lankan state and the people, as different from governments and leaderships, have questions to ask themselves and answer themselves. It’s not just about Hambantota, but includes Hambantota all the same. It’s about larger issues of Sri Lanka off-loading development work across the nation and more especially in ports and port-cities to outside nations, acting through their public or private sector investors.

After Hambantota, there is now talk of an India-Japan consortium or some such thing being offered eastern Trincomalee port for similar development, but going on to include the development of urban infrastructure, too. There is of course a difference, but a positive one at that. There is also talk of the Second World War vintage oil tanks farms in Trincomalee going to India for developing storage capacity for possible shared, strategic storage.

Sri Lankans can still hope to get jobs and incomes from the Trinco development plans, whether written in or not. It just has not happened in the case of Hambantota. Nor can it be expected to happen under the new, 70:30 twin agreements. If anything, there is already the Joint Opposition charge of huge underhand dealings of the ‘Central Bank bonds scam kind’. If found true even remotely there is no knowing what credibility the government leadership would have inside the nation and outside. The Rajapaksa leadership too suffered from such image issues while dealing with China.

The original Rajapaksa pact thus remains. Better or worse still, there will be more Chinese on land, and not with the idea of returning home for good as with the earlier construction phase. At best, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans can hope for one group of Chinese being replaced with another, and yet another.

Whether the Chinese are prisoners and would get paid or not, no Sri Lankan is going to be employed by the Chinese and offered the Rajapaksa-promised jobs and incomes long after he had left office. This aspect of the old pact and the new pacts is trivia compared to the huge moneys owed to China, for which Sri Lanka is selling its ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ in effect, and Hambantota stakes on paper.

Credit or responsibility?

The government has now promised to place the two agreements before Parliament, and people, post facto. It had promised to do it a day ahead of the Saturday signing ceremony, but could not do so amidst pandemonium in Parliament. It’s anybody’s guess as to why and how the government invited the Chinese delegation to the country for what was a formal ceremony without going through the required domestic processes.

In context, Ports Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who replaced World Cup-winning cricket captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, as the head, has steered the new China deals, as against the one the latter had stalled in his time. Ranatunga belongs to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP while incumbent Samarasinghe comes from President Maithiripala Sirisena’s SLFP.

President Sirisena presided over the Cabinet meeting that approved the China deals. He was a senior-member of the Cabinet when President Rajapaksa chaired a session that cleared the original proposal for a Chinese firm developing the port in the first place. Today, another SLFP member is presiding over the ministry.

Ironically, from the start, Rajapaksa has been opposed to the new government’s Hambantota deals on the question of sovereignty, et al, as against what he had to offer China in his time. Through the week of signing the agreement and afterwards, UNP Prime Minister Ranil has defended the agreement. The party did not oppose the original deal in any serious way, implying more than meets the eye.

It’s thus clear that through the relatively short but chequered history of the Hambantota deals, there seems to be bipartisan agreement of some kind or the other, some way or the other. So, if it’s a sell-out, it’s bipartisan. If not, no one can claim credit for out-doing the wrongs of others.

Shared sovereignty

It is thus a shared credit or responsibility, as the case may be. It is unclear which of it is staring at Sri Lanka, however. Even granting that the new deals bring in economic prosperity to the nation, the question of sovereignty still remains to be addressed. It is unlike any shared sovereignty, as in the case of the nation signing international conventions and agreements of the UN variety and the like.

If the nation’s armed forces and strategic experts have any view in the matter, they have not come out in the open, as used to be the case in the past. Serving naval officers are a disciplined lot so as not to express their views in public. But if veterans too share the government’s perspective now, the forces cannot complain later if sovereignty and territorial integrity in the seas, or land, are compromised, either by China in Hambantota, or Indian fishers in the neighbourhood waters.

Indian fishers are nothing compared to the possibilities staring on Sri Lanka vis-à-vis Hambantota and sovereignty-security issues. It remains to be seen if any citizen or political party or group intends moving the Supreme Court on the agreements, especially on matters of sovereignty and territorial integrity vis-à-vis Hambantota, in ways that could govern future agreements of the kind.

No one can complain if the Supreme Court were to take a view in the matter, though a lot would also depend upon how the government presents it to Parliament.

In the case of Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, the Supreme Court did uphold the operational part when approached, and de-merged the North and East, years later, in 2006. It was a third-nation agreement, where Third World governments generally reserve the right against parliamentary or judicial interventions. It’s so in India, too, but what the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled was over local laws that flowed from the 1987 Accord.

The fact still remains that no accord of the Hambantota kind now has ever been signed by or in Sri Lanka. There is always a precedent in such matters for judicial intervention, and who knows the court might decide to intervene in the matter, if approached especially. Whether that could lead to the court ruling against the China pacts or parts thereof would also have to wait for such intervention, if at all any.

For now however, the government side has said that it was willing to incorporate any suggestions/recommendations coming from Parliament or through public debate. International agreements of the kind seldom provide such flexibility, and this one may not be an exception at this stage. The alternative may involve arbitration and the like, but again this is also a part of the mystery that the government can be expected to unravel in Parliament.

If it so happened, there can also be the question of the government conceding court rulings, if any, on the deals, suggesting amendments of its own. Better or worse still, in the case of the incumbent government, the course that the Central Bank bonds scam has been taking through the past weeks and months should make any Sri Lankan wary.

It’s more so in the case of any political party or leader aspiring to come to power over the immediate future — if not stay through all 88 years life of the two agreements, down from the original 99, not that it makes any difference. After all, critics of the Rajapaksa regime did say that the leadership did not care as to the future of his Hambantota pact, or who was going to repay China the moneys that Sri Lanka owed on that score, when and how.

The situation is no different just now, as even with Sri Lanka selling stakes to China, there is no way that Hambantota port can do business. As reported, the new pact also bars Sri Lanka from undertaking lumbering work in the near seas of the nation. JVP critics say that the nation stands to lose more money owing to this.

Strategic security

The question to the bipartisan leadership is also this: If China hopes to make money out of Hambantota even now, how come Sri Lanka did not explore the possibility through third-party funding to buy off China? If not, what is China’s real intention and purpose in first funding Hambantota, and now owning it, too?

It is no more the security concern of Indian neighbour alone. Even Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans have to be wary of the real Chinese motives and intentions, as it does not make sense for China to be investing more and more money on an uneconomic project of the Hambantota kind. Media reports at the time had indicated that the non-existent Indian interests in the project from day one owed to its non-viability of the port and even lumbering works on a meaningful economic basis.

India did not want to invest in a project that was aimed only at bolstering the ego of the Rajapaksas at the time. China is not bolstering the Maithiri-Ranil duo’s ego just now, nor did it do so when Rajapaksa was in power. If there is any Sri Lankan whom the Chinese have taken into confidence about their long-term plans for Hambantota, he or she has not spoken yet.

But then, China also knows that despite all the hopes, if any, it cannot hope to have a naval or any other military facility in Sri Lanka or in most other nations of the world, where it is seen as throwing good money after bad — and in tons and over the past so many years now.

What then is China’s real game-plan? Call it ‘String of Pearls’ or ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ or whatever, even India that is feeling pressure already on land border with China, is firing in the air, all the same. If that is the case, why Sri Lanka, and why should Sri Lanka take the risk in matters where it stands to understand less and defend even less?

This commentary originally appeared in The Sunday Leader.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

Read More +