Chinese spy ship at Hambantota: Why is there a strong pro-China, anti-India lobby in Sri Lanka?

Indians are more peeved at the Sri Lankan reaction than possibly the Chinese action. Why are Sri Lankans so ungrateful to India that provided generous support during the early months of the continuing economic and forex crises

N Sathiya Moorthy August 17, 2022 10:19:25 IST
Chinese spy ship at Hambantota: Why is there a strong pro-China, anti-India lobby in Sri Lanka?

Chinese spy ship Yuan Wang 5. Image courtesy News18Hindi

It may shock many Indians, and amuse the rest, that if any, there is a pro-China constituency in Sri Lanka and none of the kind for India. On the other hand, there are strong anti-India constituencies, and there is none against China. Distances do matter, so does ideology. Otherwise, the US and the West as a whole are strong favourites, beginning with local think tanks and NGOs/INGOs, only to be matched by anti-West critics, mostly among political parties and other ideologues.

The question has become relevant all over again after Sri Lanka allowed China’s dual-purpose naval tracking vessel, Yuan Wang 5, to dock at the southern Hambantota Port, which is in their possession on a 99-year lease despite India’s reservations and also from the US. A Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry statement said that India and the US did not offer ‘concrete reasons’ to deny entry, hence Yuan Wang 5 has been allowed to berth after holding it back for a few days for consultations. The statement clarified that the permission was contingent upon the Chinese vessel not undertaking any ‘research’ (spying?) while in Hambantota and would stop with replenishing its stocks.

Incidentally, this is not the first time a Chinese vessel is getting caught in a controversy of the kind viz India-Sri Lanka relations. Two Chinese submarines berthed at Colombo Port in quick succession in 2014, when the Rajapaksas were in power. Yet, in 2017, as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now President, declined permission for another Chinese submarine to visit Colombo, purportedly after India expressed medium and long-term security concerns.

Indians are especially peeved at the Sri Lankan reaction than possibly the Chinese action after New Delhi had despatched shiploads of food, fuel and medicines to the nation in the early months of the continuing economic and forex crises, which overwhelmed the Colombo dispensation. ‘Thankless’ and ‘ungrateful’ are common phrases that could be heard even in drawing room conversations.

However, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in Bengaluru that the ‘ship row’ was not a flashpoint between India and China. In New Delhi, spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Arindam Bagchi, rejecting Chinese ‘insinuations’ about the ship row, emphasised India’s right to address its security concerns, that the government would “make the best judgment in our own interest. This naturally takes into account the prevailing situation in our region, especially in the border areas” — a reference this to the post-Galwan freeze in bilateral political relations with China. Turning the tables on China, he repeated Beijing’s statement that yes “Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own independent decisions.”

Two sides of a coin

The Yuan Wang 5 controversy did not discourage India from delivering the promised gift of a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft, for Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). It was commissioned on 15 August, India’s Independence Day, in the presence of President Wickremesinghe and Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay. Speaking on the occasion, Wickremesinghe said that Sri Lanka and India were the two sides of the same coin and they had to stay together and flourish together. A second Dornier will be delivered when manufactured two years hence, and on mutually-accepted terms.

Against this, when Yuan Wang 5 finally made it to Hambantota Port on the morning of 16 August against the originally scheduled 11 August, the Chinese Embassy did arrange a spot reception. Present on the occasion, Wimal Weerawansa, founder of the National Freedom Front (NFF), a breakaway faction of the Left-leaning JVP and an estranged ally of the Rajapaksas, whom President Gota sacked along with two others earlier in the year. Speaking on the occasion, Weerawansa said that China was never behind ‘regime change’ efforts in the country. He underlined that stability in Sri Lanka was a sine quo non for peace in the Indian Ocean Region.

So was former navy chief and ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ parliamentarian of the Rajapaksas’ SLPP. He had argued the case for letting Yuan Wang 5 into Hambanota at a meeting of the SLPP leadership, in the presence of Wickremesinghe and also former President and SLPP boss, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The vessel would now leave Sri Lankan waters on 22 August, five days later than the original schedule.

Rice-for-Rubber Pact

Indians mostly confine their knowledge of China-Sri Lanka relations to the earlier Hambantota Port deal(s). Rivalling it is their argument that Colombo had stabbed India in the back by offering re-fuelling facility, though not to China but to Pakistan Air Force (PAF) during the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971) only months after IAF helicopters had ferried Sri Lankan soldiers to neutralise the ‘First JVP insurgency’ months earlier.

At a time when post-Independence India was still recovering from the loss and destruction of Partition (1947), Communist China, which came into being two years later in 1949, was already investing in India’s neighbourhood, including Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. When South Asia was reeling under drought, the Sino-Ceylon Rice-Rubber Pact of 1953 introduced a new element in bilateral relations, as the latter too had attained freedom only in 1948.

The barter system was unique to the twentieth century, as like now, Colombo did not have forex — though not this bad — to pay for the rice China was willing to sell. The noticeable feature of the agreement hence was that China priced Ceylon’s rubber higher than international rates and under-priced its rice. This was no comparison to what India has done now, but comparisons do not always help rivalling sentiments and perceptions. Given the state of the nation’s economy and the heavy demands for reconstruction, India had little option but to stay away, as it could not be a borrower and lender/donor at the same time.

Maritime tryst

Sri Lanka’s maritime tryst with China is mistakenly dated back to the two Hambantota deals of the past two decades — the first one a construction-cum-concession contract when war-victor Mahinda Rajapaksa was President, and the other, granting a 99-year-lease to China (2017) when present incumbent Wickremesinghe was the powerful Prime Minister under the former’s successor, Maithripala Sirisena. Long before it, in 1963, the two nations had signed a maritime cooperation agreement, which provided for ‘most favoured nation’ status for commercial vessels of each other.

In the combined dictionary of the two governments, the Hambantota Port deal(s) were also a ‘commercial arrangement’. Basing his decision on a so-called experts’ committee report, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who recently fled and then quit, claimed in 2019 that the lease was a ‘commercial deal’. Such a ‘cover-up’ became necessary as during the poll campaign, he declared his decision to ‘re-negotiate’ the lease, when no one had asked for it.

It was much like Wickremesinghe offering to scrap the China-funded Colombo Port City (CPC) financial SEZ project, ahead of the 2015 polls — and stopped with cosmetic changes after becoming Prime Minister. Both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa were seeking to placate the larger Indian neighbour ahead of the elections, and thus conveying a mischievous message that India desired it.

Third in a row in the maritime domain was the way China got to build and manage the International Container Terminal (ICT) in Colombo Port. As with Hambantota, India did not evince interest. At the same time, the Rajapaksas on return to power in 2019, cancelled the three-nation Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) project involving Japan, citing union troubles — but later made amends by offering the Western Container Terminal (WCT) through a bilateral public-private partnership.

Ideological tilt

There is truth in the assumption that a section of the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan bureaucracy is ideologically tilted towards China, and not India. This owes to the nation’s political history of the 20th century. Sri Lanka had a strong leftist socio-political movement, which was only an extension of the post-War global trends of the fifties and the sixties, and was a contributing factor for a ‘socialist coalition’ government in 1956, under elitist Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike.

When the socialist government and the movement supposedly failed the faithful, whose numbers were substantial given the general levels of poverty in the Sinhala South and also the early entry of global communism, a medical dropout from Moscow’s Lumumba University, Rohana Wijeweera founded the left-militant Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), in 1965. From an Indian perspective, Wijeweera conceptualised and conducted ‘Five Classes’ to educate his cadres, and third of it was against what he claimed was ‘Indian hegemony’.

In between, when India came to be seen as funding and arming Tamil militants against the Sri Lankan State after ‘Pogrom-83’, which ultimately culminated in the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the accompanying induction of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF), the JVP launched the ‘Second Insurgency’ in 1987, in the name of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’, pushing their own socio-economic agenda to the background.  The JVP was mauled in the brutal two-year reprisal by the nation’s armed forces, which marked the end of the party’s militant phase.

Though the JVP has been mainstreamed since, it has not repealed the ‘Five Classes’ as its basic ideological doctrine. Hence, the anti-India ideological politics remains — and mainline parties cite it as an excuse for their own selective stiff position viz India at times and on issues of their choice. More importantly, the party’s powerful trade and students’ unions too have fed on the ideology. Unlike in India, where the advent of Economic Reforms ended what used to be described as the ’dictatorship of the preliterate’, in Sri Lanka, they have survived and grown. Their presence and role in this year’s Aragayala struggle that alone ousted the ruling Rajapakas, especially after getting identified mostly with the breakaway Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), with a more ‘revolutionary’ agenda, bears testimony.

In this background, it is not difficult to comprehend the depth and width of the anti-India sentiments among a substantial section of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, however warped and irrelevant the logic today. Less said about the Tamils, whom the Sinhala polity identifies with India but who at best has been selective in raising its voice in the matter.

The Tamils have now criticised the government on Yuan Wang 5, mostly because they do not want to be seen as being as ungrateful as the Sinhalas, after New Delhi and Chennai separately rushing massive aid in the face of the prevailing economic distress. But the multi-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was the outside under-writer of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, now President, when the government leased out Hambantota to China for 99 long years, in a debt-to-equity deal, which anyway it was not.

All of it has meant that yesteryear students in the Sinhala-dominated bureaucracy are successors to the original JVP ideology, reduced mostly to their anti-India political posturing. In the post-IPKF era, the LTTE and its ideological successors overseas have made India a punch-bag for the new-generation Tamil youth even as their older generation’s ‘allegiance’ (for want of a better word) remains suspect.

Over and above this, barring the post-Pogrom era, India has been careful not to involve itself in the domestic politics of Sri Lanka, despite what may have been said by the likes of Mahinda Rajapaksa after losing the 2015 presidential poll. Even he sorts of ate his words, subsequently.

Translated, this means that India has not founded or funded any NGO or think-tanks in Sri Lanka (as is the case with other neighbourhood nations), because New Delhi has continued to feel that ‘interfering’ in their internal affairs would only spoil bilateral equations. This is only a continuance of the Nehruvian doctrine in the matter.

Against this, most Western nations are known to be having their mouth-pieces in Sri Lanka in different segments of the society. In a way, the latter were a take-off from the colonial era hang-overs, when certain sections used to pull out their wools when it used to be winter in London. Now, they do it when it is winter in Washington and New York, Ottawa and Oslo, not to leave out mainstream European capitals.

Moral duty

India does not fall under either category — of the Left-leaning ideological grouping, the loudness of their voices are not matched by the strength of their voter-base, and the ‘right, liberal’ urban elite, to whom taking a pro-West line comes naturally. But to be in politics and successful, they need to balance the two, whether it is the Rajapaksas and his SLFP predecessors, or incumbent Wickremesinghe and his UNP forebears.

India does not really fit in, yes. It is so despite New Delhi alone rushing food and fuel to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans in their hour of grave crisis, that is because the age-old national motto, ‘Vasudeva Kudumbakam’, meaning the ‘World is one family’, implying that ‘It is India’s moral duty to help’, does not permit compromising or diluting what is truly a humanitarian out-reach to cheap politics.

And on this one aspect of India’s foreign policy, there is consensus, cutting across party lines, ideologies and even socio-economic depravation, nearer home. With the result, in southern Tamil Nadu, which otherwise has huge problems with the ‘Sinhala-majority’ Sri Lankan State’s approach to the ethnic issue and the fishers’ dispute volunteered to send out relief material, both food and medicines, by ship-loads, even as the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) was continuing to arrest Tamil fishers from India.

For, there is a Tamil equivalent to ‘Vasudeva Kudumbakam’. Poet-philosopher Kaniyan Pungundranar lived probably around the 6th century BCE, and coined the line, ‘Yaadum Oore, Yaavarum Kelir’, meaning, very much the same: “Every place is ours, everyone is a kn.” It resonates, but is not reciprocated.

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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