( April 28,2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Balancing between India and China is the correct thing to do both in trade/economic relations and foreign policy matters, without aligning with one against the other. This is undoubtedly easier said than done given both the local and (less visible) international pressures. The policy must be formulated within a broader framework of Non-Alignment without any semblance of aligning with any of the global powers, the US or Russia, while Sri Lanka could take a prominent role/stand against any hostilities or war erupting in the region and beyond.
Both India and China could be Sri Lanka’s closest friends, in the latter consideration, as their declared interests/ambitions are primarily economic and not military. It is now time to resurrect the proposal of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranike to declare and maintain the Indian Ocean effectively as a Peace Zone.
It is in the above context that Dayan Jayatilleka’s (DJ) recent article “Jan 8th 2015 Regime Change: Trinco Was The Real Target” (Colombo Telegraph, 26 April) is quite unfortunate and irresponsible. To claim that ‘Trinco was the real target of the January change’ is pretty delusional. The real reason for this claim of course is his inability to appreciate the democratic change of government through the ballot box in January 2015, whatever the inherent weaknesses of the outcomes thereafter. It is a refusal of democracy that DJ has unfortunately demonstrated most of the time in favour of a regime like ‘Kim Jong-un’ in Sri Lanka. If the 2015 change had not taken place, Sri Lanka today would have been quite a duplicate of the North Korean regime. The delusion goes on to say, “So this is also what the new Constitution is about.” What is again neglected or distorted is Sri Lanka’s necessity and ability to change its constitution without dictates from other countries. A movement for constitutional reform has been there since 1994, first thwarted by the lack of agreement between the main two parties (in August 2000) and then by betraying the whole idea for the sake of strengthening the executive powers of a single person (in September 2010). Conspiracy Theories It is a blatant insult to the country and its people that the peaceful governmental change in 2015 (unlike Arab springs) and the intended constitutional changes are pictured as dictates of foreign conspiracies. Again, this shows DJ’s no-confidence in democracy. There is a grand conspiracy theory behind DJ’s main argument. As he says, this is what the January 2015 change was all about, “the US-India-Japan axis, securing through a puppet Prime Minister, the strategic prize of Trincomalee as part of its competition with China and Russia in the Asia–Pacific region and especially the Indian Ocean.” His claim about a ‘puppet Prime Minister’ is quite personal that he has been indulging in without any decency in almost all his recent articles. To talk about a ‘US-India-Japan axis competing with China and Russia in the Asia-Pacific region or the Indian Ocean’ is quite irresponsible to say the least. DJ is trying to dangerously give meaning to current situations (or bilateral alignments) in the image of the Second World War. The term ‘Axis Powers’ came into the use after a Tripartite Pact signed between Germany, Italy and Japan in September 1940. All these countries were fascist entities. Moreover, by that time, the second world war had already started; Germany invading Poland in September 1939 and Britain and France declaring war against Germany quite instantly. The danger of DJ is not that he is warning about the dangers of another destructive World War. But he appears thrilled about the possibility, and already outlining the battle lines, even implicating Sri Lanka into the calculation. It is similarly quite wrong to drag India into an Axis Power equation. India has been a major leader in the Non-Align Movement and in fact the NAM was largely a design of the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. India has signed a defence agreement with the US in recent times (2016), but not for the purposes of war but peace. There are similar agreements with Russia, the old friend of India. Even in the case of Japan, although she is quite tied up with the US at present in defence or military terms (after Japan’s unfortunate adventures in the World War II), if she is given the independent choice, Japan would prefer to be neutral or out of any future war. My studies in and on Japan during 2005/6 have led me to this conclusion. There are of course competitions among countries that DJ has mentioned in the Asia-Pacific region, and in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Those must be confined to economic or trade ‘competitions’ and not beyond. It is in this context that Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s proposal for a Peace Zone in the Indian Ocean should be again resurrected. Even in the case of trade and economic activities, there is much room for all to involve creatively and for the benefit of the poor people in the region. It is the peace that should be emphasised and promoted, and not war, although there are dangers given power ambitions, unwarranted fears or simple delusions like what DJ shares. Trincomalee Harbour DJ bases himself largely, in his arguments, on what Wade Shepard (WS) has written to ‘Forbes’ (21 April) on “New Silk Road or New Great Game? India Developing New Sri Lanka Port to Combat China.” This is again utterly a speculative article. At least, WS has a question mark to his title. But in the case of DJ, it is completely presented as the ‘final truth,’ as usual in his pompous style and rhetoric. WS’ argument is that India irritated by China’s growing influence in the country is trying to ‘jump in, show the money, and build something.’ And that is Trincomalee Port! Note the language he is using. WS is another DJ! Whether he knows or not, the Indian investments and trade agreements in Sri Lanka are long standing. Sri Lanka has been working with India in the SAARC context and whatever the current odds (spurred internally and externally), these links and relations should continue, keeping in mind the national interests. WS has not substantiated his claim that “India Developing New Sri Lanka Port to Combat China” in the article at all. On the contrary, it is not long time ago (exactly three months) that WS writing to the same Forbes (21 January) claimed that “India Tells Sri Lanka: You Can Take Your Port and Shove It.” If there had been a sudden ‘Axis conspiracy’ within these three months, WS and DJ should show it with facts. Nothing at all.
WS’s January article was speculative as much as the present one. Therefore, on this matter or others, one should not take WS or DJ seriously. They are ‘trouble makers’ fishing in troubled waters. Although WS is now a repeated writer on Asian matters, he has a clear slant against China’s economic progress. He is the author of ‘Ghost Cities of China.’ Perhaps he must be harbouring the same type of ‘envy’ against India’s economic progress now. Until recently he was just a ‘free-wheeling’ and ‘fancy-blogger’ who has come to some fame because of his antipathy and arguments against Asia. This is the person DJ is depending on as an authority on the subject!
It may be correct to say, naturally, that India could be apprehensive if there are undue Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka should not try to appease it artificially. India’s economic relations with Sri Lanka are long standing. There is no reason for India to suddenly ‘jump in’ as WS claims. If both countries, India and China, are interested in investing, helping and undertaking projects in Sri Lanka, beneficial to the country and the people, there is nothing wrong in encouraging both.
But what must be kept in mind is not only national interests, but also Sri Lanka’s economic and developmental priorities without depending too much on any of them. On this count, the present administration, and particularly the PM’s office, appears lackadaisical and quite dependent on other countries and investments. There should be a stronger national effort to encourage local entrepreneurship, promote savings and investments, and to undertake developmental projects. In this respect, there is some semblance of truth in what DJ says on the present economic policies. On the foreign policy front, Sri Lanka’s ‘non-alignment’ and the ‘middle path’ foreign policies, although not always properly followed, are well suited to face the evolving confrontational situations in the region and beyond. Sri Lanka should not be aligned with anyone in this ‘great game.’