If It’s Back To H’tota For China And Trinco For US, Is It Neo-Cold War For Sri Lanka?
- It’s heartening that Minister Ranatunga has clarified that the ‘framework agreement’ of December eighth was equivalent to a MoU and nothing more and Sri Lanka would have its way on issues of security and other concerns
- There could have been no two opinions that the $ 1.4-billion port deal was a drain on Sri Lankan economy, so was most of the host of other China-funded projects
by N. Sathiya Moorthy
The Cold War dictum that “there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, but only permanent national interests” seems to be working overtime in the case of Sri Lanka just now. No one disputes that the Government is keen on giving away a piece of sovereign real-estate to China even as a respectable Opposition veteran has claimed that the eastern Trincomalee naval base may go the US way.
Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, the celebrated captain of the World Cup winning national cricket team, seems to have bowled a googly at his own Government, by declaring that the Government was pushing for ‘better terms’ for the Hambantota property from China. But the same cannot be said of LSSP leader and former Minister Tissa Vitharana’s charge that the US was keen on seeking a naval base in Trinco.
It’s heartening that Minister Ranatunga has clarified that the ‘framework agreement’ of December eighth was equivalent to an MoU and nothing more, and on issues of security and other concerns, Sri Lanka would have its way. But days after Vitharana’s allegation, none in the Government has come up with a denial just as they have not confirmed anything, either. If nothing else, the likes of Leftist Vitharana are not known to make wholly irresponsible statements.
For now, however, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, another Leftist Minister in the erstwhile Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has threatened to move the Supreme Court against the H’tota deal. As is known, the Government is seeking to sell a high 80 per cent stake in the southern port, directly facing the geo-strategic sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean, to China Merchant Port Holdings (formerly China Merchants Holdings (International) Company Limited), for $ 1.12 b.
There could have been no two opinions that the $ 1.4-b port deal was a drain on Sri Lankan economy, so was most of the host of other China-funded projects that the Rajapaksa Government initiated, without much thought or consultation. They were set to bomb at least in the short and medium terms, and they have bombed. But the irony is that neither present-day President Maithiripala Sirisena (then a senior minister), nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, then the UNP Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, seemed to have come up with any criticism, leave alone an abundance of valid and valuable criticism that was anyway available to them.
Even at present, the Government and the Joint Opposition (JO) identified with the Rajapaksas seem to be talking overmuch on the existence/continuance of ‘political stability’ in the country than on the port-stakes’ sale in the Chinese context. Technically, yes, the stakes’ buyer may not be the Government of China, which going by general principles of bilateral relations, may not be encouraged to buy real-estate in another country other than for its diplomatic missions.
In the present context, Government Ministers have started reassuring China against any political instability that could make the stakes-sale unattractive to the buyer, whatever it meant. For the JO, ex-Foreign Minister, G L Peiris, has denied that he and Rajapaksa did not discuss ‘regime-change’ back home when they were in China recently. It’s another matter that not long after losing the 2015 presidential polls, Mahinda Rajapaksa did mention that the US and the rest of the West worked on ‘regime-change’ in Sri Lanka.
As always since the ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) came to power, President Sirisena has once again maintained stoic silence on the port deal, even though he would not have been unaware of the fact and negotiations of the December eighth agreement with China. Whether his later / later-day intervention could ‘save’ Sri Lankan ‘sovereignty’, which seems to be the ‘concern’ of the Rajapaksa camp, it could not avoid embarrassing the two countries and governments, nonetheless.
Should it happen, then it would be more than Sri Lanka losing credibility before the US and the rest of the West and also the UN in the case of UNHRC-centric war-crime and accountability probes. There, President Sirisena’s post facto intervention put the probe-promises of the Ranil Government on the back foot, more than once.
On more recent domestic issues, like the anti-graft police harassing former military commanders too, President Sirisena had maintained stoic/strategic silence until after PM Ranil and/or his UNP ministerial colleagues had taken a near-irreversible position in public, before making his position known. But the port deal, more than even the UNHRC probe, a presidential intervention at this late-hour could become a matter of Sri Lankan credibility just as it’s about the nation’s ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’. It’s no more domestic politics, of playing hide-and-seek, long after the game got over.
India in a ‘quandary’
Breaking his post-poll silence on the India front, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda, has said that the new Hambantota deal might put the Indian neighbour in a ‘quandary’. He was/is silent about the Rajapaksa regime’s early attempt of a similar kind on the Hambantota front, for the very same reason – economic distress – but given up afterward, only to be revived with the equally controversial ‘Colombo Port City’ project.
Local media reports have quoted Gota R to claim that India had opposed the Rajapaksa Government’s ‘relationship with China and thrown its weight behind the Opposition’ in the 2015 presidential polls. According to him, India had wanted the cancellation of the $ 1.4-b Port City project, and a Sri Lankan take-over of the Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), with 85 per cent Chinese involvement.
In this context, Gota Rajapaksa quoted India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) “as having told him that India wanted all Chinese funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port”. Rajapaksa quoted Doval as having said: “Sri Lanka is a small country, you don’t need such development projects.” True as Doval’s observations may have been in a larger context, neither of the Rajapaksa brothers seems to remember or wanting to recall Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s publicly wishing Mahinda Rajapaksa victory in the presidential polls, at the regional SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, only weeks earlier.
Yet, Gota R may have a point in the India-China context. Ahead of the presidential polls, PM Ranil as the then chief campaign manager of candidate Sirisena unilaterally offered to end the Colombo Port City project if they came to power. The new Government did so, though haltingly, and re-negotiated the project with China to remove the ‘real estate’ part of the deal.
The fact that PM Ranil did not mention Hambantota in the same vein should now mean that the new deal should not be held against his leadership, isn’t it? It’s another matter that the likes of him, then in the Opposition, had flagged the so-called ‘Indian concerns’ or their concerns for India, at the time of the original Hambantota deal with China, or the later-day negotiations for possible sale of stakes. Heading the list now should be the TNA Leader of the Opposition, R Sampanthan, and others in his party, who alone were open about their criticism of all the China deals, and more so in the Indian security context than even Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and security, internal and external.
To the extent that there seemed to have been a ‘national/Sinhala’ political consensus on not making the nation the new ‘battle-ground’ for extra-regional powers especially to fight their neo-cold wars centred on Sri Lanka, that’s now being tossed up in the winds. The Rajapaksas may have started the process by allowing Chinese submarines to visit Sri Lankan ports, if only to test and try the unique salinity and viscosity of the neighbourhood Indian Ocean waters, upsetting the Indian neighbour, the Hambantota deal now could be taking it all to the next and more critical next logical or illogical step, in geo-strategic terms and all in China’s favour.
Freedom of Navigation
Whether or not ex-Minister Vitharana is proved right on the Trincomalee front, there is no denying the growing American interests in Sri Lanka in terms of geo-strategic interests, linking both the Indian Ocean and an ever-growing China in the post-Cold War era, just as during the Cold War period. It was then that first talk of the US getting a strategic foothold in Sri Lanka, leading to increasing discomfort and concern in India, then in the Soviet camp.
In Colombo recently, where he called on President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe among others, Admiral Binkley Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, said that Sri Lanka could be the facilitator and convenor for talks to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. According to local news reports, Admiral Harris welcomed the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe government’s “contribution to security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, and stressed on the importance of expanding cooperation between like-minded countries to uphold the rules based global operating system”.
Coming in the context of the South China and East China Sea disputes, it’s anybody’s guess what ‘freedom of navigation’ means/implies from an all-American perspective. From the contemporary Sri Lankan perspective, it’s enough to recall that PM Wickremesinghe had referred to the US as the ‘elephant in the room’ in the Indian Ocean context. He reiterated the same view in the context of the upcoming Trump administration in the US, implying that none can wish away America in geo-strategic terms in the Indian Ocean.
With at least six Chinese submarine sightings off Indian waters with a turn-around in Pakistan’s Karachi Port, reports from New Delhi have said that the next edition of the trilateral ‘Malabar Exercise’ in 2017, involving the navies of India, Japan and the US, would lay a “renewed thrust on anti-submarine warfare operations”. Australia, which had been left out of a possible ‘Military Quartet’ earlier, is not unlikely to join this time.
“We want to make the 21st Malabar exercise, which will be held in the IOR next year, bigger and more complex,” the Vice-
Admiral, Joseph P Aucoin, US Seventh Fleet Commander, was quoted as saying, after meeting with Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba. “Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is one area I think would be very beneficial. So, I am looking forward to it in the Malabar,” he said, noting that with the US P-81 Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft now in the operation of the Indian Navy, the two sides “can hunt submarines together” as part of the ‘Malabar Exercise’.
Incidentally, Admiral Lanba was in Sri Lanka recently on a five-day visit, when he was also the key-note speaker at the post-war annual ‘Galle Dialogue-2016’. There were also independent reports that Sri Lanka was also considering the purchase of the Poseidon even while planning a military aircraft workshop-kind of unit at Kattanayake.
It’s anybody’s guess if Sri Lanka would be motivated to join the Malabar on a later date, in the light of repeated American references to the nation having to play a key role in the context of ‘freedom of navigation’ in the Indian Ocean and the like. It had begun months before the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’, but the Rajapaksa regime did not read it right – or, so it would seem, post facto.
Hunting with the hound…
At the time, a report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, co-authored by then Co-chair, John Kerry, identified Sri Lanka as being important to the US as in ‘geo-strategic terms’. Kerry left the Senate, to become the Secretary of State during President Barak Obama’s second term, which ends in January 2017. But the impact of the report would remain, independent of the party or President in power in the US.
The question is thus not about China, the US, or even the immediate Indian neighbour, or even the larger Indian Ocean, where from the days of the Rajapaksa regime to date, Sri Lanka has been dreaming of a ‘blue-water capability’, though put out in different terminologies. The question is about Sri Lanka, and its yet-to-be proved ability, or proven inability, to manage two, or in this case, three elephants, and especially after letting ‘em all into the Room, and not stopping with the Indian Ocean.
Of the three, India alone has some claims to nativity. In the case of China and the US, not necessarily in that order, the national consensus seemed to have been for Sri Lanka not to entertain ‘extra-regional’ powers in, lest it would face problems, along with neighbouring islands-nation of Maldives, in managing its ‘external security’ whatever be the ‘internal security’ situation or equations of ‘political stability’ be.
Over the years and decades, successive SLFP leaderships in power in the country have had tried to satisfy every global and regional player, but satisfied none in the end. A succession of UNP leaders in power had sought to hunt with the hound and run with the hare, assuming that they were the smartest of ‘em all. They went nowhere, either.
Today, Sri Lanka has a combined SLFP-UNP leadership at the helm. They are already double-timing each other, and now seem wanting to double-time the world at large. One of them could give away the other, yes, but in the process, together or separately, they should not end up giving away Sri Lanka, and on a platter!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)