China back in the driving seat
Posted on August 14th, 2016

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, responding to the Joint Opposition’s objections to ETCA (the proposed Indo-Lanka Economic and Technology Cooperative Agreement), observed wryly that had the JO been around at the time, it would no doubt have also opposed Arahat Mahinda.

“They surely would have opposed him coming and propagating the message of the Buddha in this country,” he observed.

Wry and apt in a political culture where the Opposition believes that its responsibility is to oppose anything and everything proposed or done by the Government. It was also not out of order to fudge history a little – that too licensed by the current political culture.

Arahat Mahinda, after all, did not come from India or ‘Bharat’ but from Jambudvipa which, as has been pointed out, is cartographically, conceptually and culturally completely different to India. He came as a Shravaka of the Dhamma Raaja or the Buddha and no one else. Prince Siddhartha, in any case, was born in what is now known as Nepal. And anyway India of today did not exist back then. It can be argued that India, in fact, is a product of the British. That ‘India’ (of Arahat Mahinda) is not the India of Prime Minister Modi and his immediate predecessors going back to Rajiv Gandhi (as far as relations across the Palk Straits are concerned) and ETCA is certainly not the Word of the Buddha.

That history aside, the bigger issue is that it is not only the JO that is opposing ETCA. Professionals as well as business leaders have expressed concern. Add the fact that there’s an uncomfortable and disconcerting history of the Cabinet proposing and the President disposing, and all of a sudden ETCA looks more troubled than a deservedly flippant dismissal of the JO might indicate.

In contrast, relations between Sri Lanka and China, after what can in retrospect be called ‘some minor hiccups’ in the run up to the January 2015 election and a few months thereafter, seem to be improving by the day. The Government’s detractors would of course extract some ridiculing content for purposes of sloganeering, but one cannot but applaud the Prime Minister for being pragmatic.

The writing was on the wall, so to speak, immediately after Britain voted itself out of the European Union. While the immediate economic impact of that decision may have prompted the statements issues to the effect that Sri Lanka would look to Asia, the realities of the global economy and in particular the woes of North America and Europe could not have escaped the Prime Minister. China after all owns significant slices of European and US debt. An 180 degree turn on the Port City, a negotiated settlement of dues for losses incurred due to stoppage by way of sanctioning an expansion of the project, clearly indicate that the anti-China rhetoric is history as far as this Government is concerned.

The Government, from the beginning and regardless of loose statements from politicians from whom one cannot expect too much indicated that it would seek to improve relations with all countries. China, no doubt, understands that for reasons of proximity and subcontinent history (recent and ancient) Sri Lanka can ill afford to upset today’s India. Neither will today’s India be wished away. India, for its part and notwithstanding its angst vis-à-vis Chinese presence, would understand that a cash-strapped Sri Lanka with little help from countries in Europe and North America that appear to promise much but are certainly hard-pressed to deliver, has to look elsewhere. That ‘elsewhere’ is China and it’s a no-brainer to anyone with even an iota of knowledge about global economic realities.

Now whereas the previous regime was quite belligerent and even careless when choosing friends abroad, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has demonstrated that there’s very little to gain by screaming out the obvious. The preferred region mentioned post-Brexit was Asia and not China. ETCA, troubled though it is, has not been scrapped. Indeed, the Government has, at least in its statements, assured India that ETCA is a priority and will continue to be pushed.

Diplomatic niceties notwithstanding the Government will have to come to terms with another no-brainer: you seek economic support from a country and you are compelled to stand with that country politically. China may say ‘We understand your need to be nice to India, but look, if you want us to bail you out, then you have to see things as we see them’. International relations, need we say, are all about interests and not largesse?

What the relevant ‘politics’ would be, of course, is left to be seen. In an ideal world, Sri Lanka would not have to fret over choosing friends. In an ideal world there would be as much take as there is give, whether the giving and taking comes in the form of money or strategic interests. The Government appears to have dropped idealism and picked up pragmatism. Indeed, one might argue that the Government didn’t have much of a choice. In any event, the apparent decision to ‘go with China’ must blunt relations with India, notwithstanding pro-ETCA pronouncements. In fact, it might also yield the excuse and exit that the Government may need to manage ETCA-related discontent that it can ill-afford politically.

Perhaps things will become clearer once the Prime Minister returns from China. The chances are that China will make him and the Government stronger, both in negotiating India and the Joint Opposition. After all whereas India is an easy target for the JO, China is most certainly not.

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