Photo: Colombo Harbour, with the World Trade Center and the BOC tower in the background. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2017

Between the Surging Dragon and a Suspicious Sacred Cow – Sri Lanka’s Choices

By Dr Palitha Kohona*

COLOMBO (IDN) – Sri Lanka’s long history has been intimately conditioned by the monsoonal winds that buffet its shores and the tides and waves of the vast Indian Ocean. The greed and ambitions of its regional and distant neighbours who followed the winds and rode the waves coveting its treasures and its unique strategic location have been a bane as well as blessing.

While, time and time again, it was forced to ward off the marauding attention of external powers during the course of its long history, (in the early part, mainly from South India), geography provided it with the opportunity to exploit its fortunate position as a trading hub.

Now, once again history appears to be ready to place little Lanka at centre stage with emerging India nervously seeking to place constraints on it from engaging too intimately with distant powers (China in particular) and China identifying it as a central player in its One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative.

It is, therefore, imperative that Lanka should formulate a proactive policy with the focus on its location in the middle of the Indian Ocean and chart a future course that would continue to protect its independence and identity that stretches back much more than in the case of most countries and enhance its prosperity. Past experience suggests that the designs of powerful maritime nations will inevitably impact on its aspirations.

I have been visiting China regularly since 1985, both for official reasons and privately. On every visit I have been amazed by the rapid progress China was making. In 1985, Beijing boasted only one tourist class hotel, the Beijing Peace Hotel and one department store, the Friendship Store, and China was way behind Sri Lanka in living standards.

Today China boasts of the second largest economy in the world, has a scintillating network of roads and high speed railways, glittering cities, world class hotels, impressive living standards and is the largest lender to the world, including, Sri Lanka.

China’s multi-lane roads are clogged with fancy foreign cars and restaurants are always full. Gone are the days when its roads were a sea of bicycles ridden by men and women clad in Mao tunics. Today, pay as you ride yellow bikes are everywhere and you pay for renting one by phone app. Its military might commands respect. The crowded smart shopping centres, brash confident young women and mind-boggling consumer choices could place it anywhere in the West. Their hospitality was always impressive. Now it is legendary. The number of Chinese multi-millionaires keeps on growing.

Where ever I went, their expensive and glittering shops were full, the food choices were endless and the temples were well patronised (the light and sound show at the ancient Shaolin Temple was hauntingly spectacular). Buddhism is undergoing a noticeable revival with impressive mass participation in China.

The Chief Abbot of the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou who is also the vice secretary of the Chinese Buddhist Association, which has close links with the state, entertained me to tea and spoke fondly of his recent visit to Sri Lanka and of the potential for further expanding temple to temple and people to people contacts and exchanges. 

Buddhism provided Sri Lanka the soft power outreach to develop effective relations with the Buddhist world in the distant past and appears to provide a similarly tantalising opportunity now, especially with the Buddhist majority countries of South East Asia which are experiencing sustained growth.

Chinese Trains Rival the Shinkansen and the TGV

My fast train eased out of the Beijing Central Station sharp on time, and accelerated quickly to 98 kmph, and to 174 and then to 302 while hardly causing a tiny ripple in the cup of hot tea resting on the window sill. As it sped along litter and wild shrub free tracks, past endless fields and neat villages, city after city competing with each other for high-rise buildings, one is left wondering about the secret of China’s success.

The train itself, like other trains left punctually, was spotlessly clean and was crewed by smart uniformed staff. How did a centrally controlled economy and political system, endlessly derided by Western media and commentators, achieve such impressive heights in such a short period? Perhaps there is something to ponder here.

Opportunity Beckons Sri Lanka

There will be endless debates on every aspect of China’s mind-boggling achievements. But for Sri Lanka, with trading opportunities galore and considerable sympathy at popular level, it will present many economic and diplomatic challenges and opportunities.

Sri Lanka’s bonds with China were fostered over the millennia and the influences were not only one-way despite China’s massive size and wealth. Sri Lanka is undoubtedly tempted by China’s glittering success story but any embrace of China must necessarily be sensitive to India’s concerns.

Across the Palk Strait, our closest neighbour and main cultural and religious inspiration, India, has always been a factor that could not be ignored. Fortunately, the 22 mile wide Palk Strait kept Sri Lanka from being absorbed in to India.

While this natural moat helped us to maintain our distinct identity and independence over the centuries, India’s soft power influence was unavoidable. While India’s soft power outreach will continue to influence Sri Lanka, any brash effort to make this an overt imposition will be resisted, as it happened when India dispatched ostensible peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka in 1987. Our geographical position exposed us to many diverse influences, some immensely beneficial, others not so good.

Lessons From History

Sri Lanka’s maritime links with its neighbours and distant nations stretch way back into the mists of time.

Prince Vijaya, the legendary founder of the Sinhala race, and his followers came from across the seas. He stayed and assimilated with the rest of its inhabitants. Traders from distant lands – Rome, Greece, Persia, Arabia, the Indian sub-continent, Sri Vijaya and China – followed the monsoonal winds to Lanka in search of its fabled spices, precious stones, iron and elephants, making Lanka a thriving entrepot. Lanka prospered with the trade that occurred in its port cities and produced a fabulous civilisation, vast remnants of which still stand proud in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.

Repeated invasions from South Indian kingdoms, avaricious of its prosperity, were repelled sometimes after our kings were forced to regroup their forces in the central hills or in the south of the country. Sinhala armies, on occasion, even crossed the Palk Strait to support friendly South Indian rulers or establish buffer zones. Kings of the late Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods implemented a proactive foreign policy based on keeping the greedy neighbours in South India away from our shores. Balancing interests has been a time-tested strategy in foreign relations. Suspicions engendered by repeated invasions from South India persist to this day.

Simultaneously Lanka’s rulers, proudly independent, also ensured that the country would remain the safe and thriving hub of the sea based Silk Route originating mainly from the southern part of China. The caches of ancient foreign coins and porcelain still being discovered on a regular basis and the large number of sunken wrecks, many from China, close to its coastline suggest an intense international environment that had attracted traders, scholars, artists, religions, adventurers and ordinary people.

The map of Sri Lanka drawn by the Alexandrian cartographer Ptolemy, suggests the exaggerated importance of the island in the minds of Westerners. Legend has it that Hannibal’s war elephants came from Lanka, the elephants from this country having a reputation for their greater bulk and ferocity in warfare. Recent research seems to suggest that the iron ore smelted in the hills of Sabaragamuwa was used to produce the famous Damascus swords.

Buddhism’s Role in Lanka’s Foreign Relations

Buddhism came to the island from across the sea, from India. Later Lanka was to become the centre of the Southern School of Buddhism with Lankan missionary monks, with the active encouragement of its rulers, fanning out around the South Eastern and Eastern regions of Asia using the sea routes.

Buddhism became the vehicle for establishing warm relations with our neighbours to the East. The Sinhala Buddha style of Sukhothai, brought across by Sinhala monks and sculptors, is a recognised sculptural tradition in Thailand.

Buddha images sculpted in Lanka during the Anuradhapura period are to be found all over South East Asia and were recently highlighted at a much acclaimed exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Sinhala kings maintained a pilgrims’ rest in Bodh Gaya for almost 10 centuries. Today with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself underlining India’s role in propagating Buddhism, an opportunity presents itself to use Buddhism as a platform for building non-confrontational relations.

The Hong Kong maritime museum records visits by vessels manned by Sinhala sailors in the pre-colonial period. The Creole of Macao is a mix of Chinese, Portuguese and Sinhala. Marco Polo from Venice in the 13th century and Ibn Battuta from Tangiers in the 14th century visited Sri Lanka and left instructive records. Trade facilitation was a factor in dispatching a Sinhala diplomatic delegation to the court of Augustus Caesar.

While trade and Buddhism clearly made international relations an essential study for Lanka’s rulers, the attention it was receiving from neighbours near and far also made diplomacy an essential discipline for them. The country also became a destination for traders and Buddhist pilgrims and students of many nations. The Sinhalese also ventured across the seas for the same reasons. 

Relations with China

Extensive links with China also developed during the same period of history and maritime relations were established in the early part of the first millennium and they were mutually beneficial. Many Chinese Buddhist monks, in search of the pristine doctrine, visited the island and left detailed contemporary records.

Fa Xian and Xuanzang came to Lanka in the fifth and sixth centuries. Fa Xian travelled back to China on a ship carrying over 200 passengers. The Europeans did not build ships that big until well in to the 18th century. In the fifth century, Sri Lankan nuns travelled to China to establish the order of nuns in that country.

King Parakramabahu I not only sent an expeditionary force to Burma but also a royal princess to China. Obviously, the sagacious king considered a relationship sealed by marriage to the Chinese royals an advantage to Lanka. Marco Polo visited Sri Lanka during one of his missions on behalf of the Mongol emperor. The Chinese Admiral, Cheng He, visited Lanka, during his many epic voyages starting in 1409, as he sailed to Africa and beyond. He also took with him to China, a local prince, Alakeshwera.

The period of domination of the world by European colonial powers

During the emergence of European powers, relations between China and Sri Lanka (and with kingdoms in the subcontinent) almost disappeared. But they were revived soon after Sri Lanka gained its independence.

The Post Independence China Connection

Given its historical links with China, social, religious, trade and maritime, it should not be a surprise that these links were revived soon after independence and are now elevated to a high level.

In 1953, Sri Lanka went against the international political tide when it concluded the Rubber-Rice pact with a China which was hemmed in by sanctions. This was a foreign policy initiative that has paid rich dividends.

Since then, the links between the two countries have been consolidated further with Premier Zhou Enlai visiting the island in 1957. In the subsequent years, Sri Lanka’s leaders, starting with Sirimavo Bandaranaike Bandaranayaka, have visited China.

China studied the Colombo Export Processing Zone before launching its spectacularly successful Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. President Xi Jin Ping visited Sri Lanka in 2014.

Underlining the strength of the relationship between the two countries, China, growing steadily in economic and political muscle, provided vital and generous assistance to Sri Lanka during the terrorist conflict when traditional suppliers in the West were exploiting their hold over weapons supplies to exert negative pressure on the country. 

China resisted massive pressure from the West and the NGO community to support Sri Lanka. Wikileaks has revealed how Secretay of State, Hilary Clinton, even proposed to intervene militarily to secure the removal of the LTTE leadership from their final hold out and also sought to pressure the IMF to refrain from extending a standby loan to Sri Lanka.

China’s military assistance was critical and, later in the reconstruction phase, it was the major source of financial assistance. China was also an uncritical ally in international fora. It could be said confidently, that while the bilateral relationship with China grew firmer and closer, the government of Sri Lanka ensured that it was never at the expense of any other.

While the Sri Lankan government has always sought to maintain proper relations with India, the latter’s inexplicable training assistance to Tamil rebels which violently dragged back Sri Lanka’s progress for three decades, its military intervention under the pretext of peace keeping and more recently, its support of certain Western countries, in particular the U.S., at the Human Rights Council, damaged the bilateral relationship and popular perceptions of India. India’s own insensitive actions have resulted in significant portion of the Sri Lankan population not regarding India as a close friend.

Following the defeat of the LTTE at the hands of the security forces, China stepped in with billions of Dollars of credit for infrastructure development at a time when traditional donors did not have or did not wish to provide the resources that Sri Lanka was desperately seeking. Sri Lanka was in a hurry and China was ready to meet Lanka’s aspirations unconditionally.

China’s sensitivities and loyalties are conditioned by thousands of years of historical experience. Given its ancient and substantive connection, Sri Lanka has the opportunity to reboot the relationship with emerging China to our mutual benefit. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government recognised this opportunity early. 

However, the damage resulting from the insensitive treatment of China following the change of government in 2015 will require considerable effort to undo and facilitate even private business-to-business relations.

Sri Lanka is not the only beneficiary of China’s financial largess. China is the biggest lender to the world today, including to the USA. The U.S. owes China over 2 trillion Dollars. The bilateral trade exceeded 550 billion Dollars in 2012. Germany’s major trading partner is China, which is also a massive investor in and trading partner of all Western countries.

Chinese companies have purchased vital interests in strategic enterprises in the West, including Italy’s CDP Reti, Portugal’s EDP, Sweden’s Volvo, France’s Toulouse airport, the base of the Airbus company, and Greece’s Piraeus Port. The list is long. A Chinese company with links to the state has completed the purchase of the iconic Waldorf Astoria in NY where the U.S. Ambassador to the UN resides. Against this background, Lanka should not be unduly sensitive about its commercial links with China. I

India Enters the Strategic Equation

Colonial Britain’s most valuable possession and the source of wealth was India, which it left in 1947 as a poor struggling giant. While the institutions that Britain left behind have helped to keep the Union of India together, the country’s economy lagged. Today India is also emerging as an economic and military power. It is understandable that a country that is in the position of India should feel uncomfortable when real or imaginary challenges to its preeminent position in the region are perceived to arise. But one could legitimately ask whether Indian concerns about China are legitimate.

Incidentally, China’s bilateral trade with India exceeds $80 billion. Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly stressed the commonalities between the two countries, especially Buddhism. He has also invited Chinese businesses to invest in India. Economists suggest that it was the infusion of Chinese investment funds that reversed Africa’s decades of economic decline and boosted its growth. China’s initiative on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has attracted support from over 57 key countries, including Australia, the UK, Germany, France, Sri Lanka, etc. Singapore maintains close ties with China while continuing effective relations with the West.

The policies of other nations suggest that it is possible (even necessary) to develop close economic and other relations with emerging China without compromising ones essential interests or other international ties. India itself stands to gain by lessening suspicions and fostering a closer relationship with China. There are valuable lessons for Sri Lanka here.

The Colonial Experience

In more recent centuries, Lanka attracted the attention of powerful maritime nations from Europe, including the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, who left behind a strong imprint. Determined to monopolise the trade in spices, these European maritime powers, in turn, exerted total control over the coastal belt of the island to the exclusion of all others for over 300 years since 1505.

This period of forced separation from the ocean may have been a reason for Lankans losing their historical affinity with the sea. The independent kingdom of Kandy, largely due to its limited awareness of world politics, sought to play one colonial power against the other in an effort to rid the country of external domination and was outplayed by Britain, which had reached super power status by then.

Lanka Returns to the Limelight

Today, once again Sri Lanka is becoming important in a maritime sense. During the conflict with the terrorist LTTE that, uniquely for a non-state entity acquired an impressive naval capability, Sri Lanka developed effective naval counter firepower. The commander of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, General Hendrickson, had himself photographed on board an LTTE attack craft while reviewing a sail past.

The LTTE hijacked, ransacked and destroyed ships of many nations, including from Jordan and China. In its counter offensive, the proscribed LTTE’s large sea going vessels illicitly transporting weapons for the terrorist group and being used as floating arsenals were located with international assistance, pursued, and destroyed by the Lankan navy thousands of miles from its shores.

The same vessels had been used by the LTTE for arms and human trafficking and possibly drugs smuggling. Intelligence assistance from the U.S. and India were critical to the successes of the Lankan navy. Their destruction was a valuable contribution by Lanka to international efforts to stamp out these menaces.

The swarming technique used by small very fast LTTE suicide craft and used many times with deadly effect on Sri Lankan navel assets, were eventually countered by the navy imitating the swarming technique. Sri Lankan naval personnel, with their wealth of counter terrorism experience, could be used to perform protective functions on civilian vessels crossing the once pirate infested Somali coastal region.

With the vast number of vessels, including many giant container ships, sailing within view of Sri Lanka’s southern coast, it is vital that the Sri Lankan navy continue to maintain an active and high profile role to secure the safety of these vessels and contribute to the international goal of ensuring the freedom and security of ships legitimately traversing the seas.

With the threat of piracy still hovering in the West of the Arabian Sea, there is a duty to contribute its share to contain this deadly menace. Sri Lanka has also a responsibility to carefully monitoring its exclusive economic zone to deter illegal fishers and ensure compliance with its own laws and international rules.

Another obligation that it must discharge relates to discouraging illegal migration efforts. Already, Sri Lanka has developed an effective naval collaboration with Australia to counter illegal emigration.

The Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa had a clear policy of developing Sri Lanka as a regional maritime hub providing port facilities to the large bulk carriers plying between East Asia and the West and the tankers carrying over 60% of the energy needs of the East from the Middle East.

The successor government has also echoed these policy aspirations. The new Ruhunu Magampura Port and the Colombo Port City and harbour, both attracting substantial Chinese funding, were components of this plan. The Economist predicted that these mega ports would help Sri Lanka to become the distribution hub for the Indian subcontinent. The potential for making the country the key regional port of call for the global cruise industry also remains high. The governmental authorities of Sri Lanka would be well advised to continue with these polices for the benefit of the country.

The Ocean in Sri Lanka’s Future

Sri Lanka is recognised as having punched above its weight in the international arena on ocean matters.

It has been an active participant in multilateral efforts to develop a rule-based framework for the oceans and seas. Professor Anand of India argues that it was the practice that prevailed in the southern part of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea that influenced Grotius as he constructed the monumental concept of “mare liberum”.

In more recent times, Ambassador Shirley Amerasingha played a seminal role as the chair of the negotiations on the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) described as the constitution for the oceans. Kumar Chitty was the first secretary of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea based in Hamburg.

The writer (Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona) co-chaired the successful negotiations in the UN Ad Hoc Working Group on Biological Diversity Beyond National Jurisdiction. The Ad Hoc Working Group submitted its report in January 2015 and the UN has established a preparatory committee to make recommendations on the elements of an implementing agreement under the LOSC.

This would be only the third implementing agreement under the LOSC since it’s entry in to force. In addition he also was the Chair of the Sixth Committee of the UN General Assembly (Legal) in 2013 and the vice chair of the Conference of the Parties of the LOSC.

As a country that has depended on the ocean, more than it is willing to acknowledge, Sri Lanka should reinvigorate its international profile with regard to the Indian Ocean and the countries around it. Starting with India, Lanka’s relations with our giant neighbour should be based on reciprocity and mutual respect.

Sri Lanka’s political and economic choices should be sensitive of India’s concerns but should essentially be determined by Lanka’s sovereign interests. India itself would benefit from a strong and prosperous Sri Lanka and should avoid the temptation to lecture and hector. What is good for India may not necessarily be good for Lanka.

China will continue to be a neighbour that Sri Lanka must keep close to primarily due to the massive economic impact that China will have on the region. China has been a reliable friend in the past and there is no reason to suggest that it will not be in the future. Sri Lanka has had substantial cultural, religious (Buddhist) and economic relations with the other South and South East Asian countries.

These would be our natural allies and economic partners and relations with them should be actively fostered. Increased focus on our neighbours does not mean the exclusion of others from our thinking. But economic and political needs must dominate our vision. Sri Lanka has traditionally played a proactive role at the UN and other multilateral bodies. This role must continue.

* Dr Palitha Kohona is the former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York, Co-Chair of the UN Committee on Biological Diversity Beyond National Jurisdiction 2010 – 2015, President, of the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the UN General Assembly, 2014, Vice President, UN Oceans Regular Process 2014, President, UN Indian Ocean Commission 2010 – 2015. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 August 2017]

Photo: Colombo Harbour, with the World Trade Center and the BOC tower in the background. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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