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CAN SRI LANKA DITCH AMERICA AND EMBRACE CHINA?

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 3 July 2011 08:03 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s friends - Dimitry Medvedev and Hu Jintao Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa went into warm embraces with Presidents Hu Jintao of China and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia at the St Petersburg International Economic Conference last month but there were only brickbats for Rajapaksa from British political leaders such as David Cameron and the US State Department during the same period.

The Russian and Chinese leaders had assured the Sri Lankan president of their backing against attempts by the UN, which is strongly urged by leading western nations such as the United States and Britain, to compel Sri Lanka to probe alleged war crimes by its armed forces.

On Wednesday the US State Department urged the Sri Lankan government to ‘quickly address allegations of war crimes and ‘demonstrate that it is able and willing to meet these obligations as it seeks reconciliation’. If Sri Lankans do not do this there will be ‘growing pressure from the international community to examine other options’ the State Department had said.

While the issue of whether the United States and its allies have the moral right or the right under international law to make such demands on a sovereign state has been questioned before and will no doubt be reiterated, it also appears to mark a point of departure in foreign policy of Sri Lanka and the West.

Sri Lanka in Shanghai Organisation

Russian and Chinese leaders arrived at St. Petersburg soon after the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Astana, Kazakhstan. The SCO comprises six former Soviet Union republics and China and Russia and is a security organisation for the Central Asian region. Sri Lanka had been given observer status in the Shanghai Corporation (SCO) – a development unknown to most Sri Lankans! The other countries that had sought observer status earlier and been granted their request were: India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia. While these countries seeking observer status in this security organisation for Central Asia because of their proximity can be appreciated, Sri Lanka’s attempt – in the warm Indian Ocean far away from desolate Central Asia – could be explained by its desire to get into the China orbit.

This development in addition to the wide publicity given to Chinese and Russian assurances to Sri Lanka at St. Petersburg quite in contrast to the hostile attitude of Western nations accentuated Sri Lanka’s drift away from the West towards the rival powers: China and Russia.

Rajapaksa diplomacy

There are many reasons for the West to lock horns with Mahinda Rajapaksa one of which is his lack of diplomacy.  J. R. Jayewardene, it will be recalled was in the dog house after the 1983 riots, being accused of genocide by Indira Gandhi, the then Indian Prime Minister and later her son Rajiv. Not one country was willing to raise a finger to help him, he confessed after the riots. But he continued to receive western assistance for his massive Mahaweli projects and Japanese assistance to build the spanking new city of Jayawardanapura with a parliament, a modern hospital and many other projects. When America imposed a ban on the sale of armaments to Sri Lanka, an Israeli Interests Section was opened in the American Embassy in Colombo which supplied armaments and even provided Israeli military training to our military!

Then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and President Chandrika Kumaratunga were also able with their diplomacy to convince western leaders that the LTTE were terrorists and abducting children and had the organisation banned in most western countries.

Kicking out of Co-chairs

Rajapaksa’s diplomacy took off on the wrong foot with the kicking out of the four powerful Co-chairs who were directing negotiations with the LTTE. He was correct in getting rid of them because they believed in a negotiated settlement with the LTTE when it was quite clear that the ‘sun god’ had no such intention. But he was no Kadirgamar and had no Kadirgamar to maintain good relations with the Co-chairs while changing strategy. It appears that this was the beginning of stormy relations with the West.

Enter China

The only tangible reason for western antagonism appears to be China.  China is the sole challenger of the sole remaining superpower in the western world. Rajapaksa is obliged to China for supplying the massive flow of armaments without which his victory over the LTTE would not have been.

China caught Rajapaksa at a weak moment. Rajapaksa was being criticized very strongly by the West for violations of human rights much before the war crimes charges were made. He was very much obliged to China for the supply of armaments which the West refused. These were on loans which Sri Lanka will have to repay over many years. The people are not aware of the expenditure incurred or the interest payable.

Little wonder the Freedom of Information Act has been declared non-essential!

China for the past two years has been granting million and billion dollar loans which are hard to keep count of. There is the $ 1.5 billion flagship Hambantota Development Zone loan which Prof. Swaran Singh at the Jawarhalal Nehru University had commented on, to online edition World Politics Review last week. This project, he says, has strategic implications although ‘it is being touted as a commercial venture’. Sri Lanka depends on China for support against the allegations on war crimes although China boasts that this assistance ‘has no strings attached’, the professor pointed out. There is a $ 500 million housing loan and a $ 891 million loan for Coal power expansion and more than $ 3 billion pledged for infrastructure loans.

Second biggest economy

With China now said to be the second biggest economy next to the United States and expected to overtake it in few years, the thinking among many is that soon China will replace the United States as the No 1 economy. This thinking is common in this country after recent confrontations with the West. But could China replace the US and other Western nations in trade and other economic matters?

It has been pointed out that the United States still is the biggest trading partner of Sri Lanka, importing 22.1 per cent of Sri Lanka’s exports ($ 1.7 billion in 2010) while Britain took in 12.1 per cent, Germany 5.2 per cent, Belgium 4.9 per cent and Italy 4.8 percent while India accounted for only 4.5 percent. The question is: can Sri Lanka afford to lose a near 50 per cent of its export market.

China’s convulsions

The basis for the presumption of China overtaking the US economy and becoming the World’s No 1 is on basis that China’s economic and political progress will continue undisturbed. But the economies and politics of all countries are subject to sudden changes that are not anticipated. A decade and a half ago the thinking was that the burgeoning Japanese economy will be able to swallow up America. Some of the biggest American companies were threatened with the take over by Japanese multinationals. But Japan’s economy is now in the doldrums struggling to breakthrough.

Unexpected political changes in China have taken place even after the communist takeover with convulsing effects.  There was the Cultural Revolution during Mao’s lifetime that stood China on its head. Deng Xiao Ping then shifted on to a capitalist system but under rigid communist control that made China’s economy boom and this prosperity is continuing. China’s rapid economic recovery  from the Global Financial crisis while the West is still mired in it, has given the Chinese added confidence. But its leaders are sill apprehensive about future developments. The Tiananmen Square protest that erupted in 1989 was the tip of the iceberg of youth dissatisfaction with the communist regime. China put it down with brutal force.

Western commentators note that while most Chinese are quite confident about China’s future, not so their leadership.

Apprehensive leadership

Wen Jiabo the Chinese prime Minister during his visit to London last week admitted some of China’s weaknesses. In his address to the Royal Society he said: ‘Corruption, unfair income distribution and other ills that harm people’s interests still exist in China. He had also said: ‘Without freedom there can be no real democracy and without guarantee of economic and political rights there can be no real political freedom’. While warning the British to stop ‘finger pointing over human rights’ in their discussions with China, he had also said that there was no strategic conflict with Britain and  that ‘common interests outweigh differences’

The Economist in a special report on China in its latest issue states: ‘China’s leaders are more cautious than either underlings or the state controlled publishing industry. They avoid the term ‘China model’ and do not boast of Shenshi (age of prosperity).They appear to be more nervous now than anytime, more than over a decade. They have massively increased spending on domestic security which in this year’s budget has overtaken that on defence for the first time. The government has been reviving a Maoist system of neighbourhood surveillance by civilian volunteers. In the past few months the police have launched an all out assault on civil society arresting dozens of lawyers, NGO activists, bloggers and even artists. The Arab revolutions have spooked the leadership. From that perspective the system looks vulnerable’.

New leadership

Another reason for apprehension   by the leadership is that next year in October the Communist Party will hold its national congress after which the biggest reshuffle in a decade of China’s leadership will take place. President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabo will step down and a younger generation will begin the take over. The last congress in 2002 passed over without an incident but earlier events such as in 1976 triggered off a coup.

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