Taking forward the India ties, one more time?

Taking forward the India ties, one more time?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

It was a virtual meeting of ‘un-equals’ or ‘non-equals’, but that also brought out the brother/sister relations between the two, where diplomatic protocol had not much of a place. Between them, Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister (FM) Basil Rajapaksa and India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar have sought to remove the cobwebs in bilateral relations to a desired level.

The choice of the FM on the one side and the EAM on the other side showed their respective priorities. For Sri Lanka, the economy, finances and forex is of immediate concern. For India, strategic security, this one centred on Sri Lanka, is a near-eternal cause for concern.

In the last round, when FM Basil went to Delhi a few weeks back, India presented a unique pair for the interaction. His counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman joined EAM Jaishankar in one of the two interactions between the Finance Ministers. This time for the virtual meeting, Sri Lanka did not seem to have suggested to upgrade their own team by including Foreign Minister G L Peiris. Or, so it seems.

India has a unique 2+2 discussion format involving their Foreign and Defence Ministers, in the case of the US first and Russia too in the recent past. Given mutual interests, concerns and expectations, a  uniquely-suited 3+3 format would suit India and Sri Lanka even better, where respective Defence, Foreign and Finance Ministers huddle together for an annual, if not bi-annual or quarterly, exchange of ideas so as to facilitate early decision-making on either side.

Maybe, the respective Defence Minister’s place can be taken by the National Security Advisor (NSA), or it can be made a grand foursome group from either side. In Sri Lanka, most definitely, there would then be a protocol issue when it comes to identifying the team leader, but these are issues that governments by now should have been matured enough to resolve internally – if such a decision is taken.

For sure, such a scheme should be unlike the ad hoc arrangement that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime put in place at the height of the ethnic war more than a decade back. This should be a more formal, institutionalised arrangement, whose life and term is not coterminous with either elected government leadership in power in the two capitals.

Tall on promises, but…

The taste of the pudding is but then in the eating. Independent of the party or leadership in power in Colombo, India has always found Sri Lanka being tall on promises but short on implementation. Rather, a stark unwillingness has been seen all along, as if the government of the day did not at all intend sticking to the commitment.

New Delhi has always been left with the feeling that the Colombo leadership of the day was looking either for an economic succour of the current kind – which of course is the worst in a series – or political support as at UNHRC, or just moral support to face off electoral rivals nearer home, as in the case of former UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Whether promising a fair deal to the Tamils or unilaterally declaring to throw out China from the proposed Colombo Port City (CPC) project, if elected to power (whether or not sought by India in public or private), Ranil was very, very tall on promises. When it came to implementation, they did precisely what the Rajapaklsas did, but with greater elan and sophistication.

Either way, for India, the results were the same, not that New Delhi wanted China firmly out of CPC even before the first sod of land has been turned on. Ranil made it look like but his party and the breakaway SJB since have both declared that they are all for CPC, but were only opposed to the incumbent Gota Rajapaksa presidency’s legal scheme for the management of the Port City.

It was the same when it came to Ranil’s anticipated slow down on the China-funded Hambantota Port project. His decision to hand over Sri Lankan territory to China, purportedly on a 99-year-lease even when the rival Rajapaksas ‘stoutly’ (?) opposed the conversion of their construction-cum-concession contract into the new arrangement exposed the UNP for what it was worth.

The real debt and debt-trap are here, which the Rajapaksas did not possibly expect to be caught resolving when they took all those big-loans, especially from China with its usurious ways of money-lending. Possibly, they had hoped that the Opposition would continue to be in power for two or three terms, going by past national records and electoral history. That did not happen and they are now back in power, earlier than expected and earlier than they too may have wanted, barring as a check against personal harassment of their clan members by the previous regime.

Ranil’s charge of a debt-trap created by the Rajapaksas while in power before him was the cause was such conversion, as he wanted the world to believe, he poked a hole in his own argument by going back to China for more big-ticket loans for projects like highways construction that could well have waited. What is good for Ranil is equally so in the case of the SJB. This has left India with little option in dealing with Sri Lanka. Favourably, the Sri Lankans could call their stubbornness, ‘national consensus’.

Seeds of mistrust

While referring to the previous week’s $ 900-m package, EAM Jaishankar had tweeted about hopes of progress in the $ 1.5-b aid sought by Sri Lanka, which he had discussed with FM Basil on Saturday, 15 January. The tweet quoted FM Basil as mentioning various manufacturing sector heads as possible areas for Indian investments.

It is here the ECT-like hiccups and change-of-minds could occur, recur. Sri Lanka need not fool itself that India was mighty pleased with the offer of WCT in Colombo Port in the place of ECT, citing labour protests. New Delhi has seen enough of the world and even more of Colombo to be fooled. It is this kind of Colombo’s conduct that sows seeds of mistrust even in the average Indian mind.

In the past, Sri Lanka has only given cause for the mistrust to grow with each passing instance, each passing economic agreement or political understanding. The post-war shifting of political goal-post on a political settlement to the ethnic war was the irking element that caused New Delhi to side with the US at Geneva, circa 2012. Or, so it seems.

Against this, Jaishankar’s tweet has said that India would help find aid-partners for Sri Lanka. Clearly, it is other than China, and obviously aimed at discouraging Sri Lanka from going the China way, the Hambantota way, all over again. The assumption is that Colombo is agreeable to the idea, though throughout the Rajpaaksas’ administrative career, they have kept out the West and the IMF, whom they consider as an ‘American stooge’.

This will be an interesting phase to watch for all Sri Lankans. So would be the coming weeks, the run-up to the Geneva session of the UNHRC, where Sri Lanka would again be put over the coals. India to an extent can influence global decision, yes, but if and only if Sri Lanka ensures that the Tamils get their due (after the TNA had hardened their stand on 13-Plus, using a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a ploy).

India should also be satisfied to convince the ‘international community’ (West) that their collective strategic concerns over China are a thing of the past. This is independent of Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenghong’s Jaffna escapades, followed by his Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Colombo visit, which have raised more questions about Sri Lankan collaboration than China’s intentions and provocations.

That Indian High Commissioner Gopal Boglay thought it necessary to rush to New Delhi on what could be described as an unscheduled visit, only to fast-track the $ 900-m deal and also put the subsequent $ 1.5-b arrangement in place, should be proof of India’s concern in rushing to Sri Lanka’s help as a good neighbour and relation. A lot will now depend on how far Colombo goes to discourage anti-India elements purportedly opposed to the Trinco oil tanks farms deal -– if it came anywhere close to the efforts it put in neutralising anti-lease protests in the case of Hambantota. Or, will it be akin to the way the government used street-protests to stall CEPA as far back 2008, or the ECT deal more recently, is the million dollar question.

As Sri Lankan High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda even recently told a New Delhi media interviewer, the two nations had to move away from this ‘transactional phase’ to be able to look at the bigger picture. That is where the hitch may still be. Colombo’s problems with New Delhi vide collaborated projects may only be procedural, alleged delays in particular. That’s not the case with India’s concerns about Sri Lanka. There is an anticipated air of uncertainty and insincerity from the very start – and at the instance of, or to please a ‘third party’ – of course, China, in this post-Cold War era!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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