Cash-Strapped Govt. Turns to China
Apr 3 2016 (The Sunday Times – Sri Lanka) – Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa once told the then Indian High Commissioner, who complained to him that the contract for the extension of the Colombo harbour had been given to China, not to worry too much as the next extension contract would be given to India. That was his simplistic ‘Non Aligned’ policy of balancing the competing geo-political interests in Sri Lanka between India and China.
His policy seemed to be to maximise Sri Lanka’s geographic location with these competing forces; give the North to India to develop and give the South to China. It was, ex facie, a simple solution that would also drive his economic development programme and to hell with the West which paid mere lip service to the economic development of the country and adopted an obstructionist posture of lecturing without putting their money where their mouth was, at least as far as President Rajapaksa was concerned. The Rajapaksa Administration eventually took a Sino-centric stance, even relying on China to bail Sri Lanka out of serious troubles orchestrated by Western powers at UN fora.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the present Government is adopting the Rajapaksa Doctrine. That doctrine backfired because India felt slighted that Sri Lanka was tilting more towards China that was able to provide quick money in the form of loans. The visit of two Chinese nuclear-powered submarines to Colombo port was the last straw. Already on bhai-bhai terms with the West, India ganged up with it to do Mr. Rajapaksa in. In the process, those in the present Government joined in the anti-China chorus.
A hue and cry was raised from every platform of ‘Chinese Imperialism’ and its state-run companies being in cohorts with the corrupt regime of yesteryear. Unsolicited projects from China, the Hambantota port, all such economic activity would make Sri Lanka a fiefdom, a puppet state of China in its quest for the ‘string of pearls’ linking Africa and Asia with China, the critics said. The new Government’s Foreign Minister even went to Beijing to announce that the multibillion dollar Colombo Port City project was to be reviewed, giving the impression that it was due to corruption factors.
That got the Chinese all huffed and hurt. But the Chinese are endowed with an abundance of patience. As US foreign policy czar Henry Kissinger said, “For millennia, Chinese sought to entice her adversaries more often than defeat them by military force”. Kissinger referred to the “Chinese people’s millennially tested capacity for endurance” (Henry Kissinger “World Order”). They knew that the new Sri Lankan political leadership would have to come to them despite the brouhaha for two reasons; one that the Rajapaksa Government had already signed an agreement with the Chinese for the Colombo Port City, and second, because Sri Lanka is in an economic downturn and needs foreign capital to fuel its development programme.
The Development Strategies and International Trade Minister who is directly handling the negotiations with the Chinese on this currently stalled project told this newspaper a fortnight ago that the Government would go ahead with the project by reducing the scale of the reclamation site to reduce the environmental damage.
It was conceding the fact that there was an element of environmental damage. Last week, this newspaper reported that the permit issued to the developers of the Port City by the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resources Management Department has identified as many as 70 tough environmental stipulations attached to the go-ahead. It is also agreed that these negotiations have resulted in the fact that the Chinese will not get any freehold land in this area and that the development work will be a joint venture of the two countries. This newspaper reports today that the Chinese developer wants the land area extended as compensation for the delays in the project.
There is still a lot of secrecy in these negotiations of what is an extremely large project by Sri Lanka standards with geo-political ramifications. Every new building in a municipality must have its plan displayed in front of the site, but not, it seems these big projects.
Sri Lanka is trying to ‘balance’ this about-turn on the Port City project by assuaging India’s concerns — pledging to enter into economic agreements (ETCA), huge housing projects in the North being given to Indian origin companies, ambulance services and ignoring the ‘irritants’ such as the poaching issue in the Northern waters of the island by Indian fishermen.
India is pushing for a coal plant in the East coast town of Sampur hoping to expand its footprint in this island. Its grouse is that discussions have been dragging for ten years. Now, the Tamil National Alliance has suddenly woken from its slumber and taken note of the growing opposition from residents and environmentalists to the side-effects of the coal plant. On the other hand, when the country is struggling for electricity, one wonders how it is going to feed a new port city that will obviously have a huge demand on power.
Like the Colombo Port City project, the Sampur coal plant is already ‘in situ’ – and we are still trying to figure out the pros and cons of such projects that are a virtual fait-accompli because the ground has been broken while the discussions are taking place.
As the Prime Minister packs his bags to visit China next week, the host country’s unstinted support for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the Northern insurgency cannot ever be forgotten. It may have come with ulterior motives, but who are we to question motives of friends who come to douse the flames when one’s house is on fire. It is good that the new Government is not severing its ties with an old and time-tested friend as is China and that China plans to continue its ‘investment’ in Sri Lanka’s South. With the West not ‘walking the talk’ in the form of foreign investments, a cash-strapped Government seems sans options to keep the wolf from the door and follow the course of the Rajapaksa Doctrine while learning the lessons from the past.
Let the Dalai Lama come
Two of the quid pro quos Chinese Governments have weighed down on successive Sri Lankan Governments for the past several decades have been the non-recognition of Formosa or Taiwan or the Republic of China and the non-issuance of a visa to the Dalai Lama of Tibet to visit Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has obliged on both counts. While the question of Taiwan is a given in world affairs, many countries including Sri Lanka are still trading with it. In the Dalai Lama’s case, while many countries permit visits by him provided he does not make politically sensitive comments especially against Beijing for annexing his country, Sri Lanka has fought shy of doing so.
The Tibetan leader has long wanted to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy and the Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura. That right has been denied to him. If Sri Lanka and China are such good friends as the joint communiqués are sure to say, then it is only right that the Sri Lanka Premier raise this question with his counterpart and the Chinese Government acquiesce to his request.
This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka