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India & Sri Lanka: China Ship Row Is Just Another Sign of ‘Mutual Suspicions’

Half-baked and motivated understanding of Sri Lanka’s history and politics has long caused 'perception blues'.

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Indians, starting with members of the strategic community, are peeved at Sri Lanka granting permission for the dual-purpose Chinese naval research vessel, Yuan Wang 5, to dock at Hambantota Port despite continuing efforts by New Delhi to mitigate the hardships caused by the continuing economic crisis in the island-nation. But were they alive to the realities of bilateral strategic relations – both in the distant past and the present – they would not have as much cause for complaint.

It is thus that the majority Sinhala-Buddhists have not forgiven the Chola rulers for allegedly plundering and ravaging their kingdoms a thousand-plus years ago. In more recent times, they feared in the midst of the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971) that they would be the next target of the ‘hegemonic India’; a decade later, India did begin supporting and training Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE.

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India harbours no such negativity from a historic past, but the Indian strategic community has not forgotten how Colombo had offered a re-fuelling facility to the Pakistan Air Force at the height of the 1971 war, only months after New Delhi had rushed Indian Air Force (IAF) choppers to help tackle the ‘First JVP insurgency’. The mutual suspicions began there but did not end there, as no serious effort was made in this regard.

The Complicated Truth of Hambantota

Indian and western analysts and strategic experts have got an even more recent piece of contemporary Sri Lankan history wrong. It relates to China, yes, and the resultant perception is that the Rajapaksas, during their first innings in office (2005-15), handed over the Hambantota Port to Beijing.

The truth is more complicated. First, the port was not offered to China directly. Instead, it was offered to India, and more than once. Two, the blame, if any, for this should fall not on the Rajapaksas when Mahinda was President during said the period, but on his predecessor and party boss, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK), considered the West’s blue-eyed person in Sri Lankan politics at the time.

Truth be told, President Kumaratunga offered the Hambantota project only to India, first. It made political, economic and strategic sense. Even now, 70% of the Colombo Port’s business is centred on south India, whose ports act as feeders to Colombo for international shipping for goods originating or destined for India. The Chandrika government signed an MoU with Chinese firms only after India declined the offer – on sound economic principles that are proving true since.

After Chandrika’s term, President Mahinda Rajapaksa even suspended the China MoU to offer the project to India, all over again. India declined one more time, for the same reasons. That was when China finally got the contract. To blame it on either the Rajapaksas or Sri Lanka as a government would be wrong, as they were possibly ready to make the ‘sacrifices’ that the project entailed, and which have proved true. It is another matter whether China’s cheque-book diplomacy was a debt trap or not.

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Third Hub, But…

The issue was simple. Post-independence, Sri Lanka aspired to revive the historic ocean linkages with the rest of Asia and Europe, as had happened during the Greek and Roman empires, when Hambantota was a busy port. In the contemporary context and given the limited national resources for economic upliftment, political parties, independent of their ideological differences, had dreamt of making Sri Lanka a third Indian Ocean hub after Singapore and Dubai, which were getting over-crowded.

Even the idea of a Colombo Port City (CPC), kind of an international finance SEZ (Special economic zone), was part of this plan, though ultimately that, too, fell on China’s lap to fund and run, as with the Hambantota Port development.

Incidentally, most of India’s strategic community – like their western counterparts – looked the other way when the anti-Rajapaksa, dual leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (the latter is the President now) converted the construction-cum-concession contract for China into a lease and handed over Hambantota to China for 99 long years. Like with the Norway-facilitated ‘ceasefire agreement’ (CFA) with the dreaded LTTE in 2002, when he side-stepped President Chandrika so very completely, Wickremesinghe tried to ignore the reservations of President Sirisena. But the latter was made of sterner step.

Whatever the other compromises, Sirisena, considered a Sinhala-Buddhist hardliner even more than the Rajapaksas, would not relent until the draft lease agreement was amended to ensure that the Sri Lanka Navy, and not the Chinese lessees, would be in charge of the port security. Soon, Sirisena, who as President was also in charge of the Defence Ministry apart from being the supreme commander, ensured that the Sri Lanka Navy’s (SLN) southern headquarters was shifted from Galle to Hambantota. In the process, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe moved out Arjuna Ranatunga, who had captained the Sri Lankan team that won the cricket World Cup for the first time in 1996, as Cabinet Minister for Ports & Shipping, for not being cooperative.

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Perception Blues Among Analysts & 'Experts'

It is this half-baked and motivated understanding of Sri Lanka’s history and politics by external analysts, starting with those from India, that has caused perception blues through the past several decades. They have either not noticed it or they have wantonly ignored it, but there is seldom any opposition to China-centric initiatives of the kind from the majority Sinhala community or the larger society, or, more so, the Sri Lankan State.

Indian analysts have failed to understand that Sri Lanka has no cause to be concerned about China in the strategic sphere, unlike in the case of the immediate Indian neighbour, where proximity has cut both ways. Despite Wickremesinghe attributing the Hambantota land/territorial transfer of 2017 to the ‘debt trap’ purportedly set by China, the Sinhala majority and the Sri Lankan nation willingly gave in, as their aspirational generations wanted change in form and content as far as the nation’s economic development plans went.

In the final analysis, Indians need to acknowledge that as a sovereign nation, Sri Lanka, as also the rest of India’s South-Asian neighbours, has the right and the freedom to choose its friends, allies and the extent of cooperation with each one of them.

If they have confused it all as a quid pro quo for the Indian willingness to rush food, fuel and pharma aid to a nation in the midst of an economic and forex crisis, it’s not Sri Lanka’s mistake. Or, that seems to be the unmentioned argument in Sri Lanka, which could soon begin getting expression on the local social media.

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Questions About Sri Lanka's 'Non-Aligned' Policy

Likewise, India’s strategic compulsions, both on the land and across the ocean, are external. For Sri Lanka, apart from the indefensible apprehensions viz India, aggravated by historic and contemporary memories, there is the domestic compulsion, centred on the anti-India rhetoric of left-leaning, hardliner parties, such as the JVP, and the more recent breakaway Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), which is said to be at the centre of the recent ‘Aragalaya’ struggle against the Rajapaksa clan.

Already, the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) has questioned the government’s non-aligned policy after the Wickremesinghe government asked China to put off the research ship’s visit under ‘pressure’ from India. Decades after being mainstreamed, the once-militant-insurgent party has not struck down founder Rohana Wijeweera’s third of five ‘classes’ that dealt with ‘Indian hegemony’.

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A Scar on the National Psyche

Though the ruling Rajapaksas of the time did do mischief in cancelling the tri-nation ‘ECT contract’ in Colombo Port, also involving Japan, there is no denying the protests held by powerful, left-leaning trade unions, attached to one of the two parties, who have been silent over each and every one of China-funded projects, the Colombo Port City being the latest. It is all in the distant past, but the Sri Lankan state as an institution and Sinhala majority parties have not forgotten memories of the two JVP insurgencies, respectively, in 1971 and 1987-89.

According to independent studies, compiled in the face of the Emergency regulations then in force, the Sri Lankan armed forces massacred a minimum of 60,000 Sinhala youth in two years before putting down the second insurgency so very completely.

In the perception of the Sri Lankan state and the nation, this was much different from the latter-day annihilation of Tamil civilians in the nation’s war with LTTE terrorism. This has left a deep scar on the national psyche and that of the Sri Lankan state, with the result that they are not comfortable dealing with the Sinhala left even decades down the line. This much was evident in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s nervousness and inability to handle the ‘Aragalaya’ struggle that ultimately led to his fleeing the nation and quitting as President, and which his accidental successor, Wickremesinghe, had no difficulty in controlling without as much use of force as was feared earlier.

(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & commentator. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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