In the second week of May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid an unusually low-key visit to Sri Lanka. No agreements were signed at the end of his stay, no joint declaration issued, no joint press conference held. New Delhi’s official position was that the Prime Minister had gone to attend the biggest Buddhist festival, Vesak Day, implying that it was of a non-official nature.
But the fact that on the day the Prime Minister landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka let it be known that it had ‘rejected’ a Chinese request to dock one of its submarines in Colombo this month (May). Despite the snub, Beijing defended its military ties with Sri Lanka and made it plain that there was much more to Modi’s visit than merely participating in a Buddhist festival.
It may be recalled that in October 2014, Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese sub twice to dock in Colombo port. It annoyed and alarmed India so much that eventually, it brought about the defeat of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government in the next election.
Indeed, circumstanced as Colombo is, it’s hard for Colombo either to antagonise China or to refuse to accept Chinese assistance in many development projects (like the Hambantota sea port at the southernmost tip of the island). Colombo’s refusal to allow a Chinese sub to dock was tempered with the cautious hint thrown by an unnamed official in the same breath that “a decision on further docking had been postponed.” Sri Lanka is obviously doing some tight-rope walking because it has to keep both her big and powerful neighbours, India and China, in good humour.
The Hambantota port is an instance. The $1.4 billion project was to be built by the China Merchants Ports Holding Company. The project ran into rough weather from the beginning. When the Sirisena Government came to power, it wanted to sell the port to the Chinese company. But the move met with strong protests. Colombo ultimately decided to renegotiate the deal by offering 80 per cent equity to the Chinese company to reduce the debt burden by converting the loan to equity. But even that met with stiff opposition from the locals and even from within the ruling coalition.
The Sirisena Government is also averse to the Chinese being given full control over the Hambantota port as its vital strategic interests are concerned. In the present framework, Colombo will have to hand over the complete control of the port to the Chinese. Indian interests apart, even public opinion in Sri Lanka is against handing over the port to the Chinese on a platter. Later, the controversy over Hambantota had unexpected fallout.
In January this year, the Sri Lankan Development Minister Sarath Fonseka had said in New Delhi that India and Sri Lanka were holding talks for developing the Trincomalee port on the eastern coast of the island nation. Immediately, the opposition in Colombo accused the Sirisena Government of trying to ‘balance India and China’ and turning Sri Lanka into a centre forbig Power rivalry. India immediately let it be known that it had no interest in developing the Trincomalee port and it was not at all interested in involving Sri Lanka in any ‘balancing acts’ with the Chinese. As things stand, the future of Hambantota has become uncertain while India has washed its hands clean of Trincomalee.
This was in January. In March, China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan said in Colombo that China and Sri Lanka would deepen defence cooperation and ‘promote strategic partnership.’ In Beijing, the official media was making a shrill propaganda that India was ‘trying to sour China’s relations with her South Asian neighbours.’ Beijing alleged that many countries in South Asia are ‘worried about India’s military power in the region.’ Sikkim’s joining of the Indian Union way back in 1975 was cited as an instance of “India’s ulterior motives with regard to its smaller neighbours.”
It was a diplomatic offensive by Beijing to try to drive a wedge between India and her neighbours and create fear about India’s military power while concealing the fact it is China which is the second strongest military power in the world today after the United States and its attitude to its neighbours is far from friendly, as is evident from its unilateral and jingoist claims over the South China Sea. China has even refused to honour the verdict of the International Law Court which dismissed its claims over SCS as patently untenable.
It was against this background that Prime Minister Modi made his quiet, low-key trip to Colombo ostensibly to participate in a Buddhist festival. Forging stronger links with Sri Lanka (and other neighbours) assumes a great importance in India’s foreign policy given China’s efforts at isolating India and sowing the seeds of distrust and fear in her neighbours of India’s supposedly ‘ulterior’ motives. Much more must have transpired in those two days that Modi spent in Colombo than what either side cared to put in public domain.
SOURCE : Millennium Post