Analysis by Dr Palitha Kohona*
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (IDN) - As Sri Lanka, with an administration now in power for over one year, begins to confront complex domestic and international challenges, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe undertook a visit to Beijing.
Unthinkable just a few months ago with orchestrated anti China rhetoric flooding the media, he joined other world leaders who had already lined up outside the gates of Beijing seeking manna from the Middle Kingdom. At the conclusion of the visit on April 10, he spoke effusively of the potential for cooperation between the two countries.
So what caused the change? The visit was billed as an initiative to reassure the Chinese that Sri Lanka remained a reliable global partner, it is a welcoming destination for Chinese investors and tourists, and it will honour its contractual obligations to Chinese concerns made by the previous administration and it may have achieved at least some of its goals.
AsBut the price tag may have been high. The media has reported that Chinese funded infrastructure projects, suspended last year, will be resumed, loans obtained converted to equity, and major concessions made with regard to access to harbour facilities and land, all with the headline grabbing allegations of financial and environmental wrongdoing unresolved.
The Prime Minister's visit to Beijing would have been of close interest to the Chinese authorities and welcomed by the business communities of both countries. But the question still remains as to whether the bilateral relationship had been adequately rebooted and restored without loss of substance.
The reality is that the government needs finances to continue with the infrastructure developments initiated by the previous authorities and private sector investments. The former Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was exceptionally successful in attracting Chinese investments.
The infusions of Western capital eagerly anticipated following the brusque change of alignment away from China towards the West has not matrialised and is unlikely to materialise any time soon. While the West has not fully recovered from the 2008 bank meltdown, new crises, including, at present, the flood of refugees in Europe, continue to distract its attention.
While some comfort can be taken from the fact that a general election is unlikely in the near future in Sri Lanka, history suggests that the Sri Lankan electorate could become volatile. The country has been through three bloody insurrections in the past 46 years.
The relationship with China had to be patched up as the Government's other anticipated options receded rapidly. The regular feeding of the media with possible financial and other irregularities of the Rajapaksa regime is beginning to wear thin with the common man. The distraction of a bright new tomorrow heralded by a new constitution carries no conviction with the average voter. Many analysts would argue that it was not the absence of a faultless constitution that caused thirty years of terrorist driven bloodshed.
Accountability measures proposed to assuage Western pressures are only likely to create more divisions within the country and compound the gradually emerging disenchantment. If social order breaks down as a result of all or some of these factors, a leading bright spot of the economy creating thousands of jobs and generating revenue, tourism, will suffer. In particular Chinese and Japanese tourists will again begin to skip Sri Lanka in favour of the Maldives.
Against this background the Prime Minister's visit was essential. But his hosts are likely to continue watching the Government of Sri Lanka closely. It is unlikely that the Chinese would easily brush aside the noisy and gratuitous slights heaped upon them, including the suspension of the Colombo Port City project which had been inaugurated by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, himself, with the media being fed by persons holding high positions with tales of corruption and financial impropriety. Loss of face (mian zi) is not easily rectified in Chinese society.
To add to the mix, doubtful suggestions of infractions of environmental standards were raised at a high level. The visit has resulted in the resumption of the Port City project with a claim for compensation for the one-year interruption still to be resolved and the allegations of financial wrongdoing brushed aside.
Other allegations poured out unabated. It was suggested that the election campaign of the former President had been funded by Chinese concerns. Insinuations continue to be made in the media of the inferior quality of the Chinese built Norachcholai power plant. Competing interests from across the Palk Straight contribute to this situation.
Truck loads of advice from the West
Other Chinese funded projects, for example Moragahakanda, Mattala, Magampura Port, etc. have have been subject to similar broadbrush criticism. If there had been any impropriety, it should have been investigated and appropriate action taken, but to spur an anti China campaign was ill conceived. While some reprieve may have been obtained in the West dominated Human Rights Council in Geneva, no substantial financial or economic benefits have resulted from the West. Instead of barrows full of Dollars from the West Sri Lanka has received only truck loads of advice.
The government was reported to have engaged a Hong Kong PR firm to prepare the groundwork for the PM's trip. As to how the Chinese had viewed this is difficult to say and we may never know.
In the past Sri Lanka has sent very senior and highly regarded diplomats to China, and many of them have developed personal contacts at the highest levels. This is a resource that could have been better used to prepare the visit and consolidate the relationship.
China's affinity with the country that produced Sirimavo Bandaranaike – who served as Prime Minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka three times, 1960–65, 1970–77 and 1994–2000 – was well known. Many former Chinese ambassadors to Sri Lanka are excellent speakers of Sinhala. Senior Chinese diplomats fondly recall that they sent a team to study the Greater Colombo Economic Commission before launching the spectacularly successful Shen Zhen special economic zone.
The Chinese culture is still very traditional. Personal relations are valued. While they would do business with strangers, they prefer to deal with trusted friends. The process of building that trust must begin with mutual friends and preferably not through strangers working for a fee.
Sri Lanka has enjoyed deep rooted relations with China over the centuries which were consolidated further during the stewardships of Prime Ministers, SWRD and Sirimavo Bandaranaike. China steadfastly stood by Sri Lanka during its armed conflict with the terrorist LTTE despite pressures to stop the supply of weapons and was a high profile defender in international fora. It is a major supplier of Sri Lanka's imports and is now the second most important source of tourists.
Sri Lanka is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with China. During the previous regime it became the main source of development funding. The basics underlying the relationship must be made more positive. What is necessary now is to build on these and carefully leave aside the ill conceived irritants generated in 2015.
There is little doubt that China will take necessary measures to secure access to sources of energy and raw material. It has courted Pakistan and Myanmar assiduously for this purpose but the so called necklace of pearls is hardly a military threat.
The reference by President Xi Jinping to Pakistan not being a fair-weather friend is salutary. The proposed canal through the Kra peninsula in Thailand to bypass the Malacca choke point is most likely an element of China's grand design to secure energy supplies. The Chinese funded Magampura Port would have been a convenient point to obtain supplies and refuel but not necessarily a militarily significant asset.
As the Economist highlighted, it would have been increasingly attractive to large ocean going vessels carrying Indian Sub Continent bound cargo. So far there is little or no indication of China wanting to flex its military muscle away from its own immediate neighbourhood.
It is also to be noted that the massive Diego Garcia base of the U.S., just 400 miles to the south of Sri Lanka, would have been more than adequate to counter any latent Chinese military ambitions in the region. The U.S. possesses more blue water capability than the rest of the world combined.
China's blue water capability, with just one aircraft carrier, is unlikely to pose a threat to any Indian Ocean power any time soon. The U.S. did not consider Sri Lanka's relations with China to pose any threat to its interests. India may have taken a different view given its traditional attitude to its neighbourhood. But significantly, the China/India trade exceeds USD 80 billion annually.
While India's geopolitical sensitivities must feature prominently in Sri Lanka's dealings with any power external to the region, China must also receive reassurances that it's commercial interests are respected. The amelioration of the gratuitous slights proffered to China following the change of government in 2015 must continue to be a priority for the country in the coming months. The anticipated bucket loads of development assistance have not materialised from the West and, given the continuing financial uncertainties, are unlikely to materialise any time soon.
China, despite its own economic slowdown, is the only credible funding source of the world. Given that Sri Lanka's needs are not huge, China is in a position to extend a helping hand. But some tangible and carefully considered sacrifices may need to be offered to placate the Middle Kingdom.
Will China accommodate a contrite Sri Lanka? As Henry Kissinger once observed, China with its five-thousand-year history has a long term view of the world. It will determine its policies with its long term future in mind.
* Dr Palitha Kohona is former Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 April 2016]
IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.
Photo: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang holds talks with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Beijing, China, April 7, 2016. By Courtesy of Xinhua/Wang Ye.