In a cabinet meeting chaired by Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on February 1, Sri Lanka abruptly abandoned the Colombo port container terminal project with India and Japan, dealing a heavy blow to the Premier Minister Narendra Modis, who has praised the neighborhood policy a lot first which has not been able to do so. prevent the re-entry of China into the Indo-Sri Lankan theater; or, for that matter, in the rest of the neighborhood.
The project was announced by President Gotabhaya himself on January 13 in the presence of Indian Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar, visiting Colombo. What changed between January 13 and February 1? And why didn’t India’s foreign policy mandarins see this coming?
Was it a reward from the first family of island nations, which India had alienated itself when working behind the scenes to keep Gotabhayas’ brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (who is now prime minister) away from the presidential office in 2015? Or was it more than that? The multiple ramifications of this decision go beyond a simple settling of scores by the Rajapaksas.
With Sri Lanka reeling from the economic recession, after the Easter attacks and the pandemic, Beijing has once again become Colombos’ main benefactor, with the door now open to take control of India’s strategic belly.
The fact that President Rajapaksa used specious objections from the unions to protest the handing over of the project to foreign interests as a reason to back down on the 2019 deal lends weight to the accusation of a Chinese role in the sabotage of the project, which would have had the very favored Adani Group as a major investor in the development of the port. Currently, over 80% of the cargo from there is bound for India.
The fact that China is developing the Colombo international container terminal right next to ECT adds weight to the accusation, and no union has raised any objection to it. This, despite the fact that a huge plot of land, about 50 acres along the port of the capital, has become the exclusive property of Beijing.
As Colombo-based security and geopolitics analyst Asanga Abeyagoonasekera remarked on the Rajapaksa government’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the ECT citing local protests: When did geopolitics become prerogative of local trade unionists? When did they start to decide our foreign policy?
At the same cabinet meeting, Gotabhaya signed a Chinese renewable energy project in three islands off Jaffna, just 50 km from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. This is the third major Chinese investment, after the Hambantota Port Project and the Colombo Container Terminal.
Hambantota, which was first offered to India in 2009, was Beijing’s first playbook initiative to use investments to strategically gain a foothold in this critical waterway. (India’s trail of feet extended to its inability to move forward with modernizing tankers leased from the Indian Oil Corporation in 2003 in the deepwater port of Trincomalee, which would have given Delhi a strategic base on the critical northeast coast (another group of unions supported this).
The inexplicable silence of the Modi government on the TCE, even in the face of the consoling offer from the largest container terminal in the West, stands in stark contrast to the boisterous dinner diplomacy Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay indulged in when ‘he took office last year. He hosted Colombos’ power elite to a sparkling dinner. On the guest list was lineage heir Mahinda Rajapaksa, Namal, the main driver of greater Chinese investment in Hambantota.
Obviously, Colombos is unlikely to return to Beijing’s embrace. The docking of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka in 2014 during a visit to Colombo by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had raised concerns in India. Concerns about Delft only increased with the Chinese presence in Colombo, and now, in the three islands of Delft, Analativu and Nainativu.
China will now have the means to impose a strangulation in the narrow stretch of sea and to block trade and oil supplies, just as India and Vietnam have done in the Strait of Malacca and at sea. from eastern China. The islands will become a key listening post from which Beijing can monitor southern Indian naval operations from Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Vishakapatnam in the Bay of Bengal to Kochi on the coast of India. the Arabian Sea and to the Pakistani port of Gwadar at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, as part of its strategy to limit India’s missions in these waters.
Limiting India to its sphere of influence in South Asia clearly runs counter to its advance to the East, where India has been a willing partner with the United States, Australia and Japan to counteract China as part of the Quad group in the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean region that Delhi has sought to dominate, in tandem with Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, backed by the United States to keep Chinese expansionism at bay, is now going to be much more difficult to secure. Beijing’s ability to take control of Colombo will not be easy to thwart.
The intention of the Rajapaksa government was evident with its Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardenas quickly changing its India first policy to a Sri Lanka first policy. Yet when the Modi government sent Jaishankar to the island nation in January, when President Rajapaksa announced the Colombo Ports ECT project, he was blind and deaf to the change of Rajapaksas.
Insiders say Jaishankars is visiting a key Tamil leader, even a moderate like Sampanthan of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and openly expresses his support for decentralization to the provinces, in what has been widely seen as a step for the BJP to get votes in the upcoming Tamil Nadu election, was the proverbial red rag of the Sinhala majority bull. The Rajapaksas had little choice but to act quickly to appease their Buddhist voting bank, which raises the false bogey of an LTTE comeback, with the TNA as the front.
Blindsided in Nepal, caught napping by China munching on border areas of Bhutan, Ladakh and Arunachal, and playing the long game in Myanmar, insiders say India has had no response , no forward policy, to thwart the Chinese mode of using infrastructure projects such as ports and roads to gain influence in Southeast Asia.
In a gift of China’s real intention, one of the key elements of Sri Lankan port agreements not only prohibits all foreign countries from using their ports, it demands that China be alerted to all movements of ships to and from Lankan ports.
The changing equations between India and Sri Lanka are expected to take a new turn with the arrival in Colombo on February 23 of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, one of the first South Asian countries used by China in its signature Belt and Road Initiative.
The timing of the Khans’ visit is curious. It comes at a time when the Tamil diaspora has stepped up calls for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to reopen the Commission’s report on lessons learned and reconciliation that had virtually rid the government of Mahinda. Rajapaksa of human rights violations during the 2009 war against the LTTE.
The new report by Michele Bachelet, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, is however particularly damning. He states that in the 12 years since the end of the war, Sri Lanka has failed to demonstrate that it has the political will to move forward with an internal or hybrid justice process and reparations for atrocity crimes committed during the war in 2009.
Bachelet will call for alternative international options to ensure justice and reparations, including referral to the International Criminal Court, travel restrictions and ban for suspected Sri Lankan war criminals, and a stronger corps presence in Sri Lanka when the HRC meets later this week.
How Pakistan, a member, like India, votes will separate friend from foe.
The concern of the Rajapaksa governments also stems from the rapprochement of Tamils and Muslims (whom they had managed to divide) in the east and the north. In a show of force, tens of thousands of people from both communities embarked on a long march from Ampara to Jaffna in the north, a consequence of the crackdown on Muslims following the Easter attacks in April 2019. The government bans burials of Muslim Covid -19 victims made matters worse. The government’s cancellation of Imran Khan’s speech in parliament did not go well either, especially with leaders like Rauf Hakeem of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress.
Can India use this small window of opportunity, put aside the pain and embarrassment of TCE, and offer to play the role of interlocutor with the Tamil people, with whom it shares a civilizational bond that transcends the borders, and accelerates the many blocked projects to rebuild the lives of Tamils, still reeling from the civil war that ended 12 years ago?
The Colombo Indian enigma could emerge with the appointment of the new Sri Lankan envoy to Delhi, Milinda Moragoda. Having been one of the government’s main negotiators with the LTTE in 2002, as part of the team of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghes, he is an ideal bridge to the Rajapaksas, although reports are unconfirmed. indicate that its Sri Lanka Pathfinder Foundation, with close ties to China, is a potential beneficiary of the ECT project and the BRI’s largesse can only complicate matters.
If Delhi does not want to see the Indian Ocean become China’s backyard, it must step up its efforts on many levels and not take relations with Sri Lanka for granted.
(The writer was previously the foreign affairs editor of Gulf News Dubai and has spoken extensively on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East. She is the author of The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi )
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