Striking A Balance

Written by Tahera Sajid  •  Region  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

President Rajapaksa is committed to turning the fishing village of Hambantota into one of Asia’s leading commercial cities. However, award of the contract to a Chinese company has sparked much controversy.

The Hambantota District located in southern Sri Lanka has been the center of some major developments since 2007. The Hambantota port, set to open in June 2013, is seen as a major infrastructure investment by China, especially due to its strategic location on one of the world’s busiest East-West shipping lanes. After completion, the facility will be run by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority to generate tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic benefits for the country.

There is much concern in international circles, particularly from Indian analysts and government officials, regarding China’s growing influence across the Indian Ocean. Projects with Chinese involvement include seaports like Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sitwe in Myanmar and now, Hambantota in Sri Lanka. These are increasingly viewed as a concerted Chinese effort directed towards containment of India’s aspirations in the region. However, Sri Lanka has on several occasions categorically challenged any such allegation and praised China’s steady support for Sri Lanka’s economic and defense needs.

In a July 2009 interview with TIME Magazine, President Rajapaksa reiterated that the strategic gains from Hambantota port would greatly benefit Sri Lanka, and it was not a Chinese proposition, because “I asked for it. China did not propose it. It was not a Chinese proposal. The proposal was from us; they gave money. If India said, ‘Yes, we’ll give you a port’, I will gladly accept. If America says, ‘We will give a fully equipped airport’ - yes, why not? Unfortunately, they are not offering to us.” On another occasion, Rajapaksa revealed that he had offered the Hambantota port project first to India and America but the terms offered did not match the Chinese package. Moreover, in his presidential election manifesto in 2010, President Rajapakse detailed the economic benefits of the project, remarking, “… it is very likely that over 10,000 vessels will dock at the new Port, annually, thereby generating around Rs. 50 billion [US$455 million] in foreign exchange.”

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, was also quoted while appreciating China’s role in supporting Sri Lanka during the Tamil insurgency, when the Western nations and India offered only conditional and limited support. “When others imposed cutbacks or conditions on weapons sales to Sri Lanka they did not stop to think that a fellow democracy would be at a grave disadvantage against a terrorist enemy which had no restrictions on smuggling of weapons, including heavy weaponry. China has enabled in practice, not just in words, the defense of Sri Lanka’s independence, and sovereignty and restoration of its national unity.”

Even the Chinese government on many occasions has tried to alleviate India’s concerns. Defense Minister, Mr. Liang Guanglie on his visit to Sri Lanka in September 2012, reportedly assured that the economic and military ties between the two countries were meant for peaceful purposes, “maintaining regional security and stability and not targeted at any ‘third party,” clearly referring to India. Considering that China has not shown any aggressive tendencies towards neighboring nations and holds a good track record of employing peaceful means, the comment deserves serious consideration from Indian authorities.

The port is largely seen by both governments as a sign of the goodwill generated by China in Sri Lanka through its reasonable, consistent and generous policies over the years, especially during Sri Lanka’s regional and internal challenges. However, India and China are the world’s two fastest-growing economies that have fought one war and have a history of friction even in peace-time relations. India’s desire to be the leader and regional power appears to be challenged by China’s steady successes in economic and military fields, which understandably fuel India’s insecurities. The paranoia in India that China may eventually become a real economic and security threat to what India considers its natural influence in the region is growing.

To that effect, Professor Chellaney, an academic at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, stressed in 2009 in The Times of India that the main reason for Chinese infatuation with Sri Lanka was due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, which is “…a crucial international passageway for trade and oil.” Hambantota is only “…the latest `pearl’ in China’s strategy to control vital sea lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific Oceans by assembling a ‘string of pearls’ in the form of listening posts, special naval arrangements and access to ports.’’

Independent observers speculate that though Chinese interests in the region are primarily economically oriented there is no denying that some of these may lead to fulfilling security considerations in the future. The Chinese development planners and practitioners, as well as defense strategists, clearly want to see China move steadily towards a superpower status and India is wary because that would change the power balance entirely and make China a force to be reckoned with, not only in South Asia but also at the global level.

While India and China continue to challenge each other on various fronts, Sri Lanka needs to balance its own interests while maintaining amicable relations with both countries. Sri Lanka has found China to be a tried and tested friend and ally and both will continue to work towards common interests and gains. At the same time, good relations with India are crucial for political stability. Even though tensions in the relationship will remain as each side contemplates its position, not alienating the other will prove a critical foreign policy goal for both India and Sri Lanka. India, for its part, will also have to reevaluate its own foreign policy towards China for peace in the region, and not pressurize Sri Lanka unnecessarily. Balancing power dynamics through reasonable policy directives goes a long way towards regional prosperity. 

Tahera Sajid is a freelance journalist and lives in Massachusetts, USA.  She is a community builder and an active advocate for interfaith relations. 

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