The contemporary perception that Sri Lanka, in particular, and India’s other neighbours are playing off Beijing against New Delhi has gained ground over the years. (“Changing equations let Lanka play China off against India”, Somini Sengupta, 10 March, Mint). China’s economic resurgence and potential for taking on large projects such as the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka or Gwadar in Balochistan has resulted in Beijing winning a number of major infrastructure contracts in South Asia. This is followed up by the Chinese slow but persistent cultural interface through study centres, creating an illusion of pervasion of not just economies, but also social and cultural lives of people in the region.
However, regional relations in the subcontinent cannot be a zero sum game between India and China. If China is demonstrating its economic might, India’s political and historical position has not been weakened unlike the perception conveyed by the columnist. Some recent trends throw light on this assertion. Facilitating United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s visit to Myanmar reflects New Delhi’s current status of significance in Naypyidaw.
Specific to Sri Lanka, contracts for construction of Hambantota port were reportedly first offered to India by the Lankan government, but when rejected were lapped up by Beijing. This in no way imputes a motive of evoking competition between the two South Asian giants by Colombo. Similarly, it is not just China, but also the US which is heavily investing in Sri Lanka, particularly in the recently “liberated” East, while the European Union (EU) is extending the Generalized System of Preferences beyond 2009 for a period of three years. This will no doubt be reviewed in case of gross violations of human rights, yet the EU’s pre-emptive decision needs to be noted.
While China and Pakistan are providing weapons to Sri Lankan armed forces, Tamil sensitivities as well as India’s traditional policy of arms exports have limited New Delhi’s options. But still, has Beijing or Islamabad been able to convert the arms dividend into political capital? The answer may be a firm “no”. It is more than evident that Colombo continues to look towards India for a political solution to the long-drawn ethnic conflict. There are sufficient indications that withdrawal of the ceasefire was in consultation with India and that the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) proposals have also been in concurrence with New Delhi.
What is more, the two bitter political opponents, ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the opposition United National Party, (UNP), were recently brought together through a meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe ostensibly at India’s behest.
These are but small steps in an ethnic conflict, which has already taken more than 70,000 lives and which seems to have dehumanized a large swathe of population on the beatific island, disrupting the lives of millions. Adding shades of a regional power conflict would only increase the complexity of the situation, where China and India may be sharing rather than competing for economic space, while India is way ahead in political, social and cultural influence in Colombo which is unlikely to recede in the future.
Rahul K. Bhonsle is editor, South Asia Security Trends, a monthly journal. Comments are welcome at email@example.com