Photo: The landmark Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, a symbol of China-Sri Lanka Friendship (October 2011). Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2018

Challenges and Opportunities Sri Lanka-China Relations Face

By H.M.G.S. Palihakkara

Hewa Matara Gamage Siripala Palihakkara is former Governor of the Northern Province, one of the nine provinces, of Sri Lanka and former Foreign Secretary. Following are extracts from a foreword to the collection of essays by academics on Sri Lanka-China Relations ‘The Island of the Lion and the Land of the Dragon’, a joint publication of the Pathfinder Foundation in Sri Lanka and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, and edited by H.M.G.S. Palihakkara. The book was launched on January 16, 2018 in Colombo. – The Editor’s Note

COLOMBO (IDN) – The Cold War and its aftermath were marked by interesting contrasts as well as parallels. Only history will tell us if the risk of bipolar nuclear conflict of the Cold War was more or less dangerous than the reality of the widespread non-nuclear armed conflict and nuclear proliferation of the post-Cold war period.

The latter of course happened and will happen among States as well as non-state actors. The nuclear aspirant States include the rich and the poor as well as democratic and undemocratic ones. The wanton assault on our finite resources, especially the non-renewables and on our ecological life support system in the name of a ‘good life’ for those who can afford it, has made life untenable and unsustainable for many. Globalization has swept the world. It has brought about breathtaking progress in many areas for many people.

It is nevertheless alleged to be responsible for marginalizing many vulnerable populations. Economists are already talking about ‘de globalization’. In seeking greater good and well-being for their peoples, some nations and even continents had integrated into Unions blurring the hitherto sacrosanct attributes of sovereignty and nationhood. Some of these ‘advanced’ Nations now seem to experience countervailing waves of nationalism and even exclusion as was evident in the Brexit affair and in some elections in the Americas and Europe. 

In this complex situation of change and volatility, one constant that stood out has been the rising power of China. The former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer commenting on the impending ‘Trump era’ laments the ending of what is known as ‘the (trans-Atlantic) West’ led by the United States. He bemoans the probability that China will ‘fill this gap’.  

The cause and effect of this change and volatility is of course the subject of wide ranging on-going debates. What is beyond debate is the ascendency of what the United States’ Admiral Harry Harris called the ‘Indo- Region’ in general and the ‘Sino-Indian’ power in particular.

The region the Admiral referred to has some remarkable attributes. Its key players India and China, especially China will have the lion’s share of the world GDP totalling trillions of dollars; possibly the largest middle-class population; the largest purchasing power/production capacity and possibly the largest capital export potential in the world.

Henry Kissinger’s words several decades ago and long before Joschka Fischer’s pronouncement were therefore not surprising. ‘Given a decent system, China with 800 million workers will provide world leadership’ Kissinger said.

With Deng Xiaoping inspired reforms, what China has progressively and meticulously built up turns out to be quite a ‘decent system’ indeed. The country now has nearly double the population that Kissinger was talking about. No single country in recent times has alleviated poverty of so many in as short a time as China has.

Given their formidable capacity to produce and consume as well as to create and export, China and India hold ‘decisive stakes’ in sustainable global growth and development. That of course requires secure and well-serviced East-West trade routes including Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs).  

Sri Lanka’s quest for strategic prominence

Has Sri Lanka, located as it is at a strategic pivot on this trade route, prudently and optimally exploited the national interest benefits that we can derive from this enormous potential ‘to produce and consume’, especially by these two giant economies? Some analysts have also speculated on ‘Sri Lanka’s quest for strategic prominence in the Indian Ocean’ and the possibility of ‘carving out a role for itself (Sri Lanka) among the South Asian Littorals’.

The challenge for Sri Lankan diplomacy has been and will be to show that we are after commercial/ economic benefits and not strategic manipulation and that Sri Lanka will aggressively exploit the full investment and trading potential of the ‘Belt/Road’ initiatives of China for that purpose. In doing so, rather than having demarcated ‘zones for investing powers’, the whole of Sri Lanka can become a venue supporting multinational investment and multilateral cooperation for growth and development, without ruffling geopolitical feathers of anyone, regional or extra regional. 

Thus, the country will not be the ground zero for a ‘zero sum’ strategic power play that could give rise to the doomsday scenario of the kind conceived in the latest ‘geo political flourish’ from the Indian analytics industry viz, the possibility of Sri Lanka becoming a (hostile) ‘aircraft carrier parked just fourteen miles off the coast of India’.

The Belt/Road potential can of course be projected and used as an opportunity for everyone and a threat to no one. 

Despite the fact that China and Sri Lanka have deepened and widened their relations building on ‘the everlasting friendship’, to a platform of ‘strategic cooperation’, critics say that the former Government in Sri Lanka had unwisely placed most, if not all of their ‘eggs in the Chinese basket’ entailing serious debt management issues at home and troubling strategic concerns abroad involving India and the U.S. 

The current Government drew its share of criticism for the ‘clumsy handling’ of relations with China at the outset of its tenure. The new Government appeared too pre-occupied with making ‘course corrections’ to Sri Lanka’s relations with the United States and India that became sour during its predecessor’s tenure.

The Government has since embarked on what seemed to be successful diplomatic negotiations to iron out differences with China, especially with regard to two key projects – the Port City and Hambantota. But residual irritants continued to linger.

Another ‘unconventional’ facet in this interesting phase of Sino-Sri Lanka relations had been the way in which the two major parties in Sri Lanka had used or ‘misused’ the real or contrived state of Chinese assistance and bilateral relations in what was a bruising election campaign early this year. 

This contrasts with a long-standing Sri Lankan tradition of working towards a bipartisan foreign policy, so that foreign relations do not get enmeshed in local politics which is an enterprise where no quarter is usually given! Since of late, this important principle seemed to have wilted against political expedience.

Perhaps in reciprocity, China on its part also resorted to rather aggressive ‘public diplomacy’ in Sri Lanka in order to justify/explain its position on the nature of the so-called controversial projects and on the terms and conditions of the assistance provided. 

It is in this context that the present collection of essays dealing with China—Sri Lanka relations focus on a broad range of challenges and opportunities the two countries are faced with. 

The authors include academics, researchers, diplomats and senior officials from Sri Lanka and China, who have had close association with the issues at hand or the relevant policy processes. The essays bring out some interesting contrasts.

The Sri Lankan side seems to be still grappling with residual politics of issues thrown up by the last election campaign in the country, while the Chinese side is eager to bring out real life business matters beneficial to both side e.g. shifting the excess industrial capacity in China to Sri Lanka, help Sri Lanka to link up with global value chains exploiting the comparative advantage of the two countries in a complementary manner through the Belt/Road process.

These points to hard-nosed business advice to the Sri Lankan Government as well as to our private sector regarding clear and present opportunities, which we have yet to seize fully. The Chinese authors also have no qualms about being blunt on the need for China to project power and create ‘front power centres’ in the Indian Ocean region in order to protect Chinese ‘citizens and properties’. While China takes a ‘considered’ note of the Indian perceptions about its ‘sphere of influence’, it dismisses as baseless, the Indian fears that China is up to ‘strategic mischief’ in Sri Lanka. [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 February 2018]

Photo: The landmark Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, a symbol of China-Sri Lanka Friendship (October 2011). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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