In an interview with Cnn-Ibn live on the 11th of November 2011, president Rajapaksa was asked about his concessions to China. The assumption was that Sri Lanka increasingly lent towards China. How do you explain all the interest of Beijing for Colombo? From the Hambantota harbour to the South Express Highway, a lot of Chinese money is pouring on the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
So the question from an Indian perspective is: aren’t all these moves alienating your natural alignment with India?
Promptly president Rajapaksa clarified that:
“Everything given to China, was offered before to India”.
Considering the dexterity of the president with media, he staged the interview precisely to dispel any thought regarding his alliance with China.
What he said is credible but you must read within the lines.
The question deals with the following: Sri Lanka moved considerably towards China. It became one of String of Pearls, maybe one the most important. When it needed the most money and arms, Beijing stepped in. USA and also India were quite reluctant to help Colombo in amassing enough resources to smash the LTTE. The aim was to beat the Tigers only by a narrow margin.
China instead gave everything requested. It boosted the Sri Lankan war machine to build a considerable edge on the LTTE.
Finally China backed Sri Lanka up internationally. With the precious vote of Beijing in the UN security council, Colombo is virtually unassailable. Sure you can be questioned.
In March 2012 the UN gently asked the implementation of the LRCC, the internal report of the government about the alleged crime. In practical terms, the UN invited Colombo to comply at least with the extra mild recommendations internally promoted by the government itself. In case the top office is involved, not many chances of self-incrimination, I suppose. Any other, more tough move is automatically rejected by the Chinese support. In this climate, nobody will challenge a direct confrontation, when much more urgent issues are on the table. So for Sri Lanka this equals to immunity. Now, if you were India, wouldn’t this concern you? A State that you consider a domestic province is rapidly joining your biggest competitor in your main areas of influence.
The reaction of Rajapaksa is clear: complete reassurance. But you need to listen carefully. In an interview in June 2009 on the programme Walk the Talk (Indian channel NDTV), Rajapakse announced that the Chinese presence wasn’t harmful. He swore that any agreement was done for the benefit of Sri Lanka. No Sri Lankan bases can be used against Sri Lanka. That’s good enough, for Colombo. But if you are reassuring New Delhi, this doesn’t sound so good.
Rajapaksa is clearly playing a risky game with both. So you need to pay extra attention when he’s launching his messages. When he mentioned the offers to India, he’s reminding his counterparts that he’s playing according to the major rule of obedience. India comes first. Always. Only when India ignores Sri Lanka, he will turn to China. It’s important to remember this in the framework of the balance of power in the Indian Ocean.