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China will always matter less than India

[Lakbima News, Sunday, 25 April 2010 06:50 No Comment]

India, China and Sri Lanka

The electorate has clobbered the Opposition comatose in the South. It has given a strong mandate to a new capitalist government which is likely to complete its six year term. The TNA has come out on top in the Tamil areas by a modest majority. The combined vote of the TNA, UPFA and the UNP/F, in all three Tamil majority districts (Jaffna, Batticaloa and the Vanni was in the region of 84 to 85%, and only these parties won all the seats in the entire North and East. Every other Tamil party sank to blissful irrelevance, though the TMVP did put up a bit of a show in Batticaloa – 16,900 votes (9.4%), but made a fool of itself with 25 votes and 69 votes in the Vanni and Jaffna. Politics in both the North and South have been radically modified by the elections of January and April, but for different reasons.

I will argue today that nothing significant has been changed in so far as Indo-Chinese competitive stakes in Sri Lanka are concerned. I will go further to assert that the Indian and Chinese involvements in Lanka are qualitatively different and one must avoid confusing apples with oranges. The strategic conflict theories propounded by many – for example some presentations at the seminar organised by the Indian Centre for South Asian Studies and Centre for Asia Studies on April 12 and 13 in Madras entitled “Ethnic Reconciliation, Economic Reconstruction and Nation Building in Sri Lanka” and an apprehensive B Raman’s “Chinese Inroads Into Sri Lanka” on the Lanka Guardian website with dateline 13 April – are a-historical. Seeing the world in strategically dichotomous terms, many ex-foreign service and ex-defence establishment Indian commentators, just don’t get it!

Two dimensions, not one

Orthogonal transformations are where properties of physical systems or mathematical entities can be laid out so that different influences can be decoupled from each other and their impact examined independently, separate from each other. A typical case would be if you could separate the troublesome vibration of your car steering wheel into two frequencies or speeds, examine the reasons for each separately, and fix them independently. There are obvious limits to carrying this facilely into the more complex and interwoven world of social and political life; but within limits, some abstraction can be useful. I believe that Indian and Chinese involvements in Lanka are better understood in stand alone analyses with the competitive aspect given less emphasis.

China’s involvement is driven by two factors; keeping alive a special relationship that originated with the 1952 Rubber-Rice Pact (RRP) and the commercial benefits of Hambantota Port. Only older folks remember the RRP. It was during the 1950-53 Korean War and Washington was drumming up a worldwide boycott of trade with China; everyone was falling in line but little Lanka was perhaps the only country to defy Washington and sign a long-term trade agreement with China. The irony will not be lost on those familiar with America’s trade and debt dependence on China today. Be that as it may, Lanka has a special place in China’s friendship table and we have consistently reciprocated. Often as tourist or visiting professor in China when I answer the, where are you from question, I am greeted by a bright smile and “Ah Siri Lanka!”

Chinese generosity

Lanka has no energy or mineral resources to interest the Chinese – unlike Sudan, Nigeria, Venezuela, Iran and other African, Latin American and Asian countries and of course Australia. Chinese generosity to Lanka is motivated by its long memory of the RRP; it is a kind of special relationship. It also has negative consequences as when China refuses to condemn human-rights abuses taking cover under the code ‘non interference in internal affairs of others’. Partly this is to do with China’s own abysmal rights record.

The type of assistance that China can provide is of the large project, government to government infrastructure development type. China has not spawned a multitudinous class of private companies and capitalists capable of establishing private sector industries or linking up with locals in joint ventures – Indian and Western investors fit that bill better.

I also believe that the Port of Hambantota poses no strategic threat to India and the Indian brass knows it. China does not have a blue-water navy that can project power across the globe as the Sixth and Seventh Fleets can; it has no troops stationed in any foreign country; and if anything in Lanka became a real security threat to India, it will be neutralised quickly. The Hambantota facilities are of commercial interest to China, as also Gwadar in Pakistan, Chitagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Burma. Calling these a pearl necklace round India, implying a strategic threat is exaggerated, especially in the light of the new Indo-American strategic alliance.

The Indo-Ceylon home and home match

India does not have interests in Lanka, that’s the wrong word, it overlays it. Lanka too has reactive influences in India as a part may impinge on the whole; Lanka can be likened to an Indian State, but one or two degrees further removed. The overlay of population, language, religion and culture go back about three millennia and the future too will be symbiotic. I do not mean something as crude as Big Brotherly bullying, though it has happened. What I am asserting is that an overpowering material proximity, for better or for worse, is the way the subcontinent’s tectonic plates are arranged. This ain’t gonna change – China or no China, elections or no elections.

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