China’s long shadow

G Parthasarathy considers the implications of Beijing’s growing influence over India’s Buddhist neighbours

Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, held on November 17,produced predictable results. The fractious ruling coalition headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, a longtime veteran from the leftist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, from the right-wing United National Party (UNP), suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of theOpposition’s Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who routed theincumbent rulers’ candidate, Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The president-elect previously served as defence secretary in the government headed by his brother, and both are regarded as national heroes in Sri Lanka for their decisive defeat in 2010 of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in a bloody ethnic conflict that lasted three decades. But internationally, the Rajapaksa brothers were also held responsible for the carnage that followed, when an estimated 70,000 Tamil civilianswere killed. The reality, however, is that the war was marked by brutal human rights abuses on both sides, as the LTTE’s Velupillai Prabhakaran had little respect for human lives, whether Sinhalas or his own Tamil brethren.

Under pressure from the US and its European alliesduring and after the conflict, the Rajapaksa Government inevitably turned to China for help, which responded immediately with large amounts of military and economic assistance. In doing so, the Chinese established a strong presence in Sri Lanka, participating in construction activities in Colombo and elsewhere, building the strategic Port of Hambantota and undertaking other projects such as constructing an airport and sports stadium in the Rajapaksa family’s southern Sri Lanka constituency.

The Hambantota Portprojectturned out to be a white elephant, earning virtually no revenue. Unable to repay credits extended by China, Sri Lanka was forced to hand over theport.Its increasing dependence on China also led to it providing berthing facilities for Chinese submarines in Colombo.(Indeed, surrendering national assets to repay Chinese loans is not confined to Sri Lanka, or even to Asia: countries across East Africa are facing a similar situation.)

The new Rajapaksa Government is committed to seeking measures to ease the Chinese debt burden

This is just one of a number of concerns facing this island nation.The election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as president has predictably caused serious misgivings amongst Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities, although the Rajapaksa brothers managed to further strengthen their support base in the majority Sinhala community during their election campaign. They made use of the fact that the Sirisena Government totally ignored sensitive intelligence inputs provided by India, warning that terrorist strikes by ISIS-inspired Islamic radicals were imminent around Easter Sunday this year. This negligence in dealing with the threat – which became a reality on Easter Sunday, with the loss of 259 lives, including 170 Sri Lankans – decisively turned majority Sinhala opinion against the ruling Sirisena administration.

Realising its past mistakes, the new Rajapaksa Government is committed to seeking measures to ease the Chinese debt burden. India and Japan have jointly agreed to build a new container terminal in Colombo to enhance its port capacity, as Colombo earns the bulk of its revenue as a transit point for cargo to India. New Delhi has also undertaken railway and construction projects in Sri Lanka, and is committed to developing the strategically located Trincomalee Port on Sri Lanka’s east coast. In addition, India believes that western insistence on imposing sanctions against Sri Lanka for alleged excesses during the final days of the ethnic conflict should be reviewed. The country was, after all, dealing with a long and bloodyseparatist insurgency by a ruthless terrorist organisation.

Eastwards in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyiis facing similar though more complex problems to those Sri Lanka has faced. There are 26 armed insurgent groups active in Myanmar, many of them located along the country’s borders with China, India, Thailand and Bangladesh. A few militant groups from India have found haven in Myanmar, mostly across its borders with China’s Yunnan Province.

Myanmar and India have developed a close understanding that allows them to deal strongly with armed separatist groups which moveacross the border. The problem is complicated by members of armed Indian insurgent groups gaining safe haven in Yunnan Province, along the Sino-Myanmar border – although this challenge has been largely addressed, as India has reached agreements with virtually all its north-eastern separatist groups to join the country’s democratic mainstream.

The government of Myanmar is finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the country’s ethnic insurgencies as a number of these groups – organisations such as the United Wa State Army (20000-25000 cadres) and the Kachin Independence Army (8000 cadres)– operate from acrossthe Sino-Myanmar border with impunity. China alsouses its vast economic leverage with Myanmar and its links with a wide cross-section of armed ethnic groups to compel the Myanmar Government, and the country’s virtually autonomous army, to fall in line with its wishes on a range of economic projects. India, Japan and South Korea see the serious implications of these Chinese moves, but the US and its European Allies view them largely in the context of the Rohingya refugee issue, forcing Myanmar into China’s ever closer embrace.

India faces serious problems on crucial issues vis-à-vis its relations with both Sri Lanka and Myanmar, because the policies of Europe, the US and its NATO alliesare propelling these neighbours increasinglytowards China.New Delhi is trying to persuade the new Sri Lankan Government to desist from permitting periodic visits by Chinese submarines, as the previous Rajapaksa Government did.

While India and Japan understand this danger and are determined tohelp Sri Lanka and Myanmar, distant powers inevitably have other priorities, while purportedly sharing India’s concerns about China’s policies and influence. Moreover, both Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar Army are seriously concerned about China’s growing strategic clout, so much so that the Myanmar Navy agreed to participate in Joint Exercises organised by the US navy in September this year, along with the navies of seven ASEAN members in the Gulf of Thailand, adjacent to the contested South China Sea.

Developing a stable balance of power in the Indian Ocean region will require the understanding of the US and its allies.

G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office

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