Will India’s vote drive Sri Lanka closer to China?

(MSN) India has made it clear to Sri Lanka that its vote on the US-backed resolution was aimed at speeding up the reconciliation process in the island nation, but the move has sparked speculation whether it was a strategic misstep that could drive Colombo closer to Beijing.

Given strong domestic political sentiments in Tamil Nadu over alleged atrocities against Tamils during Sri Lanka’s war on Tamil Tigers that ended in 2009, India’s options on the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council were severely circumscribed.

But there was more to India’s vote than the oft-touted domestic political compulsions.

Informed sources point out that what led New Delhi to vote in favour of the resolution was the slow pace of the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka after decimating the LTTE and the lack of progress in implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a panel set up by the Sri Lankan government to investigate charges of human rights violations.

In a detailed note explaining New Delhi’s vote, India’s external affairs ministry reminded Colombo of implementing its own LLRC’s recommendations and stressed that "there is a window of opportunity to forge a consensual way forward towards reconciliation through a political settlement respecting all ethnic and religious groups inhabiting the nation".

"It was not a vote against Sri Lanka. It was mainly a vote for getting Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the LLRC," Varadaraja Perumal, former chief minister of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority North-Eastern Province, told IANS.

Under the circumstances, India, said the sources, did the best it could. India got the US to accept two crucial amendments that made the resolution "non-intrusive", with an emphasis on Colombo’s sovereignty.

The Sri Lankan government has sought to put up a brave face, saying they understood India’s political compulsions and the vote won’t harm strong bilateral relations.

However, given the pattern of voting – China and Pakistan were among those who voted against the resolution – there is an unstated anxiety in New Delhi that the vote may have opened strategic space for China to deepen ties with Sri Lanka.

Lt. Gen (retd). A.S. Kalkat, who led the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) into Sri Lanka following the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord, has cautioned that India needs to proactively engage Sri Lanka to ensure that the Chinese don’t gain an upper hand there.

"There are strategic security concerns. We can’t afford to let the Chinese have an overwhelming presence in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is critically important to the security of our maritime security," Kalkat told IANS.

Perumal is sceptical of the Chinese threat to India’s interests in Sri Lanka. "The Sri Lankans are not pro-Chinese. Sri Lanka realises that they can’t develop a relationship with China that will harm New Delhi."

Kalkat feels that much will depend on how India mends fences with Sri Lanka after the vote and at the same time encourages it to deliver on key proposals of the 13th amendment for the devolution of powers that formed the core of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord.

But, as of now, India will be closely watching the next steps initiated by the UNHCR and ensure that Colombo’s sovereignty is not compromised in the process. At the same time, New Delhi will also keep a sharp eye on Beijing’s moves.

The stakes are high: China has emerged as the biggest lender ($1.2 billion) to Sri Lanka and has invested in airport, power plants, roads and bridges. China is also building the $1 billion Hambantota port, a showpiece project of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa is reported to have visited China at least five times during his tenure. Chinese businessmen and tourists are going to the country in increasingly larger numbers.

Three years ago, Sri Lanka opened a second consulate in China in Chengdu where Pakistan already has a consulate. India is still Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, but trade between China and Sri Lanka is now more than $2 billion.

For now, despite the rivalry with China, India can take solace from Rajapaksa’s assurance.

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