Lanka In The Power Play Of India And China
Buddhism being a vital factor in Indo-Lanka relations for over two millennia is undeniable. In the post colonial era this link has not been openly played but at times when relations between the two countries have sagged or appeared to be heading for stormy seas Buddhist ties have been recalled and revived.
When the Indians stamped heavily on Sri Lanka’s delicate toes at Geneva in March this year and voted for the American sponsored resolution at the UNHRC to probe alleged Human rights violations by Sri Lanka’s armed forces, Indo-Lanka relations sank to the lowest levels since 1987.
The Kapilavasthu relics said to be that of the Buddha, when brought to Sri Lanka from New Delhi this month, perhaps came to the rescue. It evoked a massive wave of religious fervour with hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan devotees standing in queues for long hours to view and pay obeisance to the relics.
There was undoubtedly a political element whether it was intended or not. And whether the exposition resulted in the public expressing their gratitude through the ballot box to the government that made the exposition possible will not be known but the ruling party swept the provincial councils polls in the two predominantly Buddhist provinces.
Nonetheless, Indo-Lanka relations now seem to be in a process of resuscitation. Last week president Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited to Sanchi in India, another very sacred place of Buddhist worship to lay a foundation stone for the construction of a Centre for Buddhist studies at Sanchi.
Rajapaksa at Sanchi
President Rajapaksa’s visit to India is one of the most strongly opposed visits of a Sri Lankan head of state to India by Tamil Nadu politicians. Vaiko head of Tamil Nadu’s Maurmalarchi Dravida Munnetra Khazagam (MDMK), a virulently anti-Rajapaksa campaigner in South India, was scheduled to lead 1,000 black flag demonstrators to Sanchi to protest against Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa’s presence. At Salem a 26-year-old auto driver died after pouring kerosene oil and immolating himself. Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi evoked the most vociferous protest saying that ‘no person who was a Tamil by birth could approve Rajapaksa’s visit and the Indian government’s decision to welcome him.
Rajapaksa was scheduled to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Indian president Pranab Mukherjee.
New Delhi and Lanka talks
Even though Rajapaksa was invited to the function at Sanchi by the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chauhan of the main opposition party the BJP Indian Congress leaders have had no hesitation in holding talks with the Sri Lankan leader. No doubt substantial talks would not have been possible within a day or two but yet it was an opportunity to restart the dialogue in view of the regional environment.
China’s rise as a military and economic power in the region over the last two decades has resulted in notion that the South Asian nations on the borders of India were considered to be in the Indian sphere of influence and any intrusion into the region by an outside power was a matter of great concern to New Delhi.
China during the past few years has made its presence felt in Sri Lanka not only in the field of military cooperation but made strong intrusions into the Sri Lankan economy – particularly in infrastructure development with vigorous infusion of funds mostly in the form of loans. The biggest Chinese sponsored project is at Hambantota the total cost which is estimated at US$ 1.5 billion.
The Chinese have also come into tourism in a big way with two massive Shangri-la Hotels in Colombo and are also purchasing real estate in Colombo. Meanwhile an influx of Chinese tourists is expected to keep the tourist trade humming.
All these investments have come in within a period of five years or less and Indian attempts to lead Sri Lanka’s post ‘War’ developments seem to be swamped by the Chinese.
The visit of China’s Defence Minister Lian Guanglie to Sri Lanka two weeks ago, the first ever by a Chinese Defence Minister, put a stamp on China’s interests in Sri Lanka. This would have been of much concern to New Delhi strategists who see the expansion of Chinese military and financial power globally and now in the region
However, Defence Minister Liang was extremely careful not to tread on sensitive Indian toes. Yet he did say what smaller South Asian nations would like to hear. Liang said that among China’s ‘14 land neighbours’ 5 were in South Asia and China attached great importance to its relationships with these neighbours. He did not identify these 5 countries. That statement itself would have appeared to be a challenge to the Indian perception of a sphere of influence.
He went on to say that the tasks of China’s National Defence strategy is to curb separation, promote reunification guard against the resist aggression, protect state sovereignty, territorial integrity and maritime rights and safeguard national development interests. Most of these objectives are those that have been aggressively pushed forward by members of South Asian countries while western nations have been scoffing at concepts such as national sovereignty. India has of late been soft-pedalling these issues.
Gen Liang, a key decision maker in China’s Central Committee, had not included Pakistan in his tour of India and Sri Lanka even though Pakistan was China’s key ally. Indian analysts said that it was to avoid antagonising New Delhi.
According to an analysis in the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) dated Sept 11, China is beginning to fear ‘encirclement’ once again as it did in the 1950s. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has in a recent visit to India said that the US considers India to be the lynch pin in the new strategy of the Americans. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton is drumming up support for US strategy in South East Asia and is evident from her endeavours to establish a new military base in Australia. China’s present relations with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are very poor.
The visit of Liang to Sri Lanka, the analyst contends, is to show that China has other options in the region. China had helped develop at Hambantota with bunkering facilities, ship repairs and ship building with crew changing potential. The analyst contends that the potential of Hambantota Harbour is the underlying message in the Defence Minister’s statement that ‘China attaches great importance to maintaining regional security and stability and this is not targeted at any third country’. What China is worried the analyst contends is the Indo-US relationship would lead to the link up with other US allies – Japan, South Korea, Australia and Vietnam,
Apart from the United States no other country in the Asia-Pacific region can match Chinese military might but if all the small nations are taken together it would be different ball game like the Lilliputians against Gulliver, he contends.