Lanka at the Verge of a Diplomatic Blunder

"India was a different power block at that time than today. Soviet power was directly backing India and India didn’t hesitate to do anything to punish any regional nation, except China. In fact India was relatively more powerful then than now."

By Thomas Johnpulle

(May 27, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) China over India or India over China? In simplified terms, this is the diplomatic and strategic challenge faced by Sri Lanka today. A sustainable choice must be made and it got to be made soon, if Lanka is to move forward with peace and prosperity. A blunder will be very costly, both politically and economically. Stuck-in-the-middle is another pitfall that will also prove costly as Indian demands are rapidly rising vis-a-vis Chinese demands.

Changing times and relative strengths and weakness of prioritising one over the other are vital considerations. Old fashioned thinking is no guide to the future as times have changed; so have the power games in the world and in the region. However, there is absolutely no indication of war between two peaceful neighbours – India and China. This is a great comfort for Sri Lanka as China and India are it’s closest neighbours regardless of geographical proximity which is a thing of the past and has no application in the Global Village.

Past Mistakes that Proved Very Costly

In 1962 when there was open war between India, China and Pakistan, Sri Lanka followed a strict neutral strategy. However, in the 1970s when troubles broke between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Sri Lanka blundered by allowing West Pakistani bombers to refuel in Sri Lanka. This angered India. Further blunders were made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With the adoption of the market economy ahead of both India and China, Sri Lanka developed closer ties with the West at a time when India was the staunchest ally of the Soviet Union in Asia. However, Sri Lanka could still have maintained good relations with India if it tried. To make matters worse, Sri Lanka’s move disturbed the ‘striped’ superpower balance in Asia. During the Cold War a strange phenomenon gripped Asia. Alternate countries aligned with alternate superpowers – US and SU. For instance Japan was pro-US while North Korea was pro-SU. In the south Asian region India was pro-SU and Pakistan was pro-US. Afghanistan government was pro-SU. Sri Lanka’s non-align and friendly approach changed in late 1970s much to the anger of India.

India was a different power block at that time than today. Soviet power was directly backing India and India didn’t hesitate to do anything to punish any regional nation, except China. In fact India was relatively more powerful then than now. And India’s ally, the Soviet Union had its way from North Korea to Cuba. In 1971 USA sent its largest ship USS Enterprise to support Pakistan while the Soviet Union sent ships and submarines heavily armed with nukes in support of India. Indian interests prevailed in the confrontation.

It was under these circumstances Sri Lanka defied India. LTTE was the Indian tool to destabilize Sri Lanka and LTTE did a tremendous job at that. India eventually got directly involved in Sri Lanka forcing the 13th Amendment which was severely disliked by locals. It is still seen as a symbol of Indian interference and expansionism by most Lankans.

The Change that Came with Cold War’s End

By late 1980s however, India slowly changed its stand on the US and SU. In 1991 SU collapsed leaving only USA as the main superpower. India lost its powerful position. Today India depends on both Russia and USA for its military survival. These relations by nature have brought a balance to US and Russian support for India. None supports India to the extent the Soviet Union supported it. Meanwhile China has emerged the de facto world economic superpower. In a world driven by market economy, economic power leads to strategic power. In the case of China it has steadily improved its defence arsenal and is undoubtedly the only Asian superpower. Its position is unconditionally accepted by almost all Asian nations, may be except for India.

For Sri Lanka, China today is what India was in the 1970s and early 1980s.

This is the hard and bitter truth Sri Lankan policy makers must appreciate. Get it wrong and it will be the past repeating itself. Superficial considerations without recognizing the change that has happened since the end of the Cold War is not wise. Awarding the same powerful position to India in the 21st century as it had in the 1970s is foolhardy.

Today China has already become the South Asian superpower. Sri Lanka and India cannot deny this. All South Asian states excluding Sri Lanka and India testify for this fact. Pakistan, Kashmir (which has been functioning as three de facto states), Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and Tibet are all examples of Chinese domination of the region and China being the preferred defence partner in the region. India is finding it difficult to handle expanding and increasing activity of Maoist rebels at home and has been unable to have defence pacts with any regional country. Essentially the Indian neighbourhood is all pro-Chinese, except Sri Lanka. China has become an indispensable ally of all the other military and economic superpowers. Even USA and Russia take extreme care not to antagonise Chinese interests even on what appears to be trivial matters.

No Friends in the Region?

Sri Lanka has true friends in the region including Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. Defence-wise, all Sri Lanka’s friends in the region are not pro-Indian, to say the least. By teaming up with India, Sri Lanka stands to lose all its long standing friends. Gaining India’s closer friendship at the expense of consistent friends is a completely unwise decision.

India didn’t support Sri Lanka handle the LTTE the way Sri Lanka wanted to handle it – annihilation. Three years ago India declared that Sri Lanka must come to India for weapons and India will decide what weapons Lanka should use. Lanka naturally ignored this threat and continued its war effort. India was compelled to supply ‘defensive’ weapons to maintain its relevance and felt its increasing irrelevance after Kilinochchi fell to security forces. That prompted India to supply a large quantity of weapons, both defensive and offensive, to Sri Lanka. This was no diplomatic cleverness on the part of President Rajapaksa but just giving into whatever that came in his way. It was a matter of convenience. This is a dangerous ‘method’ of setting diplomatic priorities.

China didn’t supply weapons for free and LTTE used mostly Chinese weapons. Apart from a batch of J-7 jets, Armoured Personnel Carriers (Type 56 vehicles) and consumables, there was no further defence co-operation with China. First batch of J-7s were purchased by Lanka way back in 1991 not in 2008. Therefore using their purchase as an example of growing military co-operation with China is erroneous. On the other hand Sri Lankan MiG jets and Mi-24 gunships were refurbished in India, pilots were trained in India, T-55 Main Battle Tanks were obtained from India and navies of both countries jointly patrolled the sea stretch. Indian military personnel were consultants to Sri Lanka military including Gen Satish Nambier. Indisputably Sri Lanka had closer military co-operation with India than China during the last phase of the war.

Annihilation of the LTTE was in the best interests of India too and that justified Indian help.

However, after the demise of the LTTE, India has resorted back to dictating terms to Lanka. This justifies Lankan’s perception of India as a friend with an inconsistent disposition and hence not very trustable. However, the same cannot be said about Pakistan and China. On top of it, the LTTE was India’s creation and India had a moral right to destroy it. Therefore helping Sri Lanka destroy the LTTE should not be considered a favour but an obligation of India. If India has not stepped into it, Sri Lanka could have easily got the same help from other regional powers as it did for over 25 years.

Internal Sentiment and Lankan National Interests

It is no secret most Sri Lankans simply adore China as much as they dislike India’s interferences. Diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and China dates back to the time of Christ when Fa-Hsein visited Lanka. Although good relations were always there with North India, relations with Tamil Nadu were mostly sour. Incessant illegal migration from Tamil Nadu and Tamil Nadu’s support for the LTTE aggravated the situation. But minority Tamils prefer closer relations with India and want India to interfere in Lanka. This hints at a very dangerous division in the Sri Lankan society if India is allowed to interfere. It will drive most Sri Lankans anti-Indian while Tamils will become pro-Indian. This can spill into a regional power struggle within Sri Lanka forcing to tear it apart.

In addition, Indian demands of race-based regionalisation and race-based power sharing are not found in most power sharing structures, except in India! For instance state powers in Australia, USA and Malaysia are not allocated along racial lines but in India states are demarcated strictly on racial lines. Racially demarcating the tiny Sri Lankan territory where people are anyway highly mixed throughout the island is disastrous. It will bring out healed old wounds and establish a racist identity throughout the island nation. All the methods of power sharing suggested by India are anti-Sri Lankan. In the context of a wide spread belief of unwarranted Indian interference, racial demarcations will be totally rejected by the people, if they are allowed an opportunity.

This is why Sri Lanka must say no to Indian pressure. It is for the good of ethnic harmony and coexistence.

Further, China has surpassed all others as Sri Lanka’s biggest donor. China is also involved in developing the Hambantota port which will be Sri Lanka’s future. It will be catastrophic not to have a pro-Chinese and pro-economic (pro-economic is invariably pro-Chinese in future) political structure to receive these benefits. A pro-Indian political structure to suit a pro-Chinese economic superstructure is absurd. One defeats the other instead of complimenting.

Sri Lanka must prioritise Chinese interests over Indian interests. There is no future for Sri Lanka as a prosperous undivided nation otherwise and this is what most Sri Lankans want. A blunder at this stage will cost not only territorial integrity but also future prosperity. On the other hand Indian interference will automatically reduce with closer defence co-operation with China and Sri Lanka’s other long standing friends. If the opposite cause of action is taken, Indian interference will increase. Ad hoc decisions, as made by Lankan leaders in the past, with long term implications must be best avoided. A politically and economically consistent policy is needed to steer clear of external interference.