How Chinese presence in Sri Lanka affects India’s interest
Posted on September 18th, 2019

Anirudh Tyagi Courtesy The Times of India

The growing presence of Chinese footprints in Sri Lanka has made India a bit of nervous and forced it to further strengthen its ties with Colombo. The Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka ranges from infrastructure development, economic aid, investments, trade, and strong diplomatic support to the island state, especially in the wake of human rights accountability issue that emerged after the end of the Lankan Civil War. This is a cause of concern for New Delhi as Beijing is encroaching on its sphere of influence in the region and eroding its commercial and cultural links with the island nation.

When it comes to infrastructure development Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka has attracted considerable attention of India and it has been proven by the former’s strong foothold in Hambantota. Even in terms of timely completion of projects, cost-effectiveness and quality of infrastructure, the island nation favours Beijing over India. Other reasons why Colombo backs China is that they not only bring in their labour workforce but also grant the leverage on structural adjustments, policy reforms, competitive biddings, or transparency attached to their loans” or even human rights which something India doesn’t give to its age-old friend.

While most Indian companies are privately owned, Chinese ones are state-owned and supported by state financial institutions like China Development Bank Corporation, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) etc. This political attitude of Beijing to look towards strategic advantages, diplomatic mileage provides it with an extra edge over New Delhi. Thus to improve the tie-ups with Sri Lanka, New Delhi should take the above-mentioned engagement on a serious note.

As far as economic engagement is concerned, the volume of trade between Beijing and Colombo reached nearly $ 2.1 billion in 2010 and grew further to $3.14 billion in 2011. Of this figure, Sri Lankan export was a mere $153 million as against China’s $2.989 billion. The balance of trade is hugely in favour of China.

Yet Sri Lanka is not complaining. Even in terms of foreign investment and lender China is the largest one. But contrary to that Indian rupee does not enjoy the same privilege, despite the loud stated fact that for decades India remains as Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner and one of the largest donors and investors.

During the Civil War, when no country was willing to supply arms and ammunition to Sri Lankan, India stepped in to provide only non-lethal weapons” considering domestic political implications.

Again Beijing sensed the opportunity and liberally supplied requisite arms and ammunition to Sri Lankan troops to defeat the LTTE. This behaviour of China fetched them tremendous goodwill from the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese in general.

In the words of Gen Sarath Fonseka, the then Army Chief of Sri- Lanka- India had told us they were not in a position to sell or send offensive weapons or even equipment like radars and basic communication equipment to meet our requirements. So we had no other option…. It was readily available and comparatively cheaper — almost half the price compared to Russia. I think we had no other option.”

Despite knowing the fact that Colombo will be appreciating China’s diplomatic support against the West-led call for an international investigation on war crimes committed against the humanity during the Civil War, India too supported Sri Lanka along with Russia in defeating UN resolution in May 2009 censuring Sri Lanka. However after 3 years, not happy with Colombo’s sincerity of maintaining resolution and establishing long term stable relations with India, Delhi decided to back the US-sponsored resolution. But China again came forward as a trustworthy friend and backs Colombo against the resolution.

In March 2013, India again voted in favour of UNHRC further disappointing Sri Lanka. China again sensed an opportunity and mobilised its support against UNHRC resolution in favour of Sri Lanka.

And as there is no free lunch: Sri-Lanka time and again supported Beijing’s ‘one-China policy’ — that the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory.” Sri Lanka has also supported China several times on human rights motions against it.

Keeping in mind, all the above-mentioned developments, New Delhi concern should be more about the possibility of the dual-use mode of certain infrastructure projects. For Instance, China is allowed to have storage and fuelling facilities at Hambantota, although India has also been offered to enjoy the same facilities.

Last but not the least New Delhi must list its strengths and weaknesses when it is participating in the third country on developments. Apart from that New Delhi must establish the neighbourhood constituencies and should have a dialogue with the concerned political, economic, social and cultural actors.

A sustain bilateral ties with Sri Lanka is the key to make up for the ground lost to China.

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