Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Indo-Lanka relations and Mahinda Rajapaksa having a ‘soft spot’ for China



Chinese submarine docked at the Colombo port last November. The submarine on an escort mission to the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, had docked on its onward and return journey to Sri Lanka for replenishment. Amidst controversy over the submarine visit, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman said that the submarine together with a naval escort taskforce had visited the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast. He added: "On its way to and back from the mission area, the submarine made technical docking in Sri Lanka twice, and it is a quite common practice for submarines of world navies to dock at certain ports and conduct replenishment."

(pic courtesy Sri Lanka Navy)

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Deputy Foreign Minister, Ajith P. Perera, recently declared that the President Maithripala Sirisena-Premier Wickremesinghe administration’s new relationship, with Western powers and India, wouldn’t be at China’s expense. DM Perera assured Sri Lanka’s commitment to further improving bilateral relations with China, Pakistan and Russia whose support made possible the annihilation of the LTTE.

The DM was addressing the media at the Foreign Ministry, in the absence of Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who was in Beijing with President Maithripala Sirisena. The President undertook a state visit to Beijing, from March 25-27, 2015, on the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Although, the DM failed to make any reference to Israel, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, as well as the US, their backing for Sri Lanka’s triumph over LTTE terrorism is well known. Kalutara District MP’s statement should be examined in the backdrop of strong criticism of the growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, particularly during former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 10-year rule.

With China-Sri Lanka relations strained in the wake of President Rajapaksa’s defeat, at the Jan. 8, 2015, presidential election, it would be pertinent to discuss China-Sri Lanka relations over the past several decades. But, naturally, the focus would be on Chinese backing for Sri Lanka’s war against half a dozen Indian - sponsored terrorist groups. All except the LTTE gave up terrorism during 1990. However, the Chinese involvement continued to grow, in response to the growing LTTE threat. The war took a new turn, in June, 1990 with the LTTE achieving a conventional military capability the following year - thanks to its experience in fighting the Sri Lankan Army (1983-July 1987) and the Indian Army (Oct 1987 to Nov 1989.). The Indian Army quit Sri Lanka, in March 1990.

In fact, the Chinese involvement here should be studied vis-a-vis Indian intervention in the 80s. The then President JRJ had no option but to secure Chinese military help in the wake of the US refusing assistance, though it facilitated the Jewish State’s entry here.

Chinese role at UNHRC

China remained a close friend, in spite of change of governments in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, some have conveniently forgotten the crucial Chinese support, given to the military, as well as at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), since the conclusion of the war in May 2009. China played a pivotal role in defending Sri Lanka at Geneva, whereas India threw its weight behind, US resolutions against Sri Lanka, twice in 2012 and 2013. Last year, India abstained when Geneva approved an external inquiry into accountability issues here. Could Sri Lanka afford to forget Chinese backing simply because China had profited from its transactions here, over the years?

Perhaps the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) under its new management, should initiate a study on various aspects of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations, particularly in the post-Indian intervention era. Unfortunately, the previous government, in spite of crushing the LTTE, ignored the urgent need to examine the conflict. The previous LKIIRSS management had no sense of its priorities, and therefore, ended up in failure.

Let me reproduce what one-time Chinese President Yang Shangkun said in response to US criticism of the sale of Chinese missiles, as well as nuclear weapons, to countries considered a threat to the Western block, and Israel: "American opinion censures us for selling weapons. Yet the US also sells weapons. Why does not it censure itself?...So there is a question of fairness here...China has a saying, "Only magistrates are allowed to set fires. Ordinary people are not allowed to light lamps." You (the US) are strong, so you can sell without constraint. We are not strong, and so we sell very much less. Yet you denounce us every day. We feel uncomfortable."

Although, the declaration attributed to the then President Shangkun, who led China from 1988 to 1993, had absolutely no connection to Sri Lanka, its relevance is obvious. The JRJ administration experienced immense difficulties in securing the much needed arms to fight Indian - sponsored terrorist groups. China was one of the very few countries willing to help JRJ, regardless of Indian opposition. The then Indian Premier, Indira Gandhi, obviously believed that Indian - trained terrorist groups could have swiftly overwhelmed JRJ if the Sri Lankan military was deprived of arms, ammunition and equipment, as well as expertise. Premier Gandhi went to the extent of personally requesting Western powers not to back JRJ. A secret document, released by the UK National Achieves, in January, last year, revealed Gandhi requesting the then UK Premier Margaret Thatcher to stop helping JRJ fight terrorists. What she didn’t admit was that terrorists, fighting the JRJ government, were trained on Indian soil, armed and deployed across the Palk Straits. Gandhi was opposed to ex-members of the elite Special Air Services (SAS) taking a lucrative contract to train Sri Lankan troops in counter insurgency operations.

The declassified document quoted Gandhi as having told Thatcher: "We hope that you will use your influence to persuade (Sri Lanka’s) President (J R) Jayewardene to give a positive lead by making constructive suggestions at the All Parties’ Conference. Military aid and anti-insurgency assistance are not enough to overcome a political crisis which has to be faced and resolved."

But the UK allowed the project to continue, much to the dismay of India. Sri Lanka should be always grateful for the UK’s tacit support for JRJ.

Lanka acquires Chinese gunboats in 70s

Sri Lanka acquired seven gunboats from China during Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s administration, in early 1970s. However, there hadn’t been any major acquisitions until JRJ ordered 18 artillery pieces, and three Fast Attack Craft (FACs), during the 1980-1990 period. JRJ had to gradually enhance the fire power in response to the growing enemy capability. Sri Lanka took delivery of many more artillery pieces (122 mm, 152 mm, 130 mm howitzers, 120 mm and 82 mm mortars) from China, after 1990, as the Artillery Regiment expanded rapidly. A decade later, Sri Lanka acquired mobile RM 70 multiple rocket launchers, from Czechoslovakia, when the army was on the verge of facing a crushing defeat in the Jaffna peninsula.

Had it not being for the destructive Indian intervention, the Sri Lankan army would have probably remained ceremonial. India had never admitted destabilizing Sri Lanka, nor those demanding accountability on Sri Lanka’s part ever censured India for causing massive destruction in a neighboring country. One-time Indian High Commissioner J.N. Dixit (1985-1989) in his memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha’, launched in 2004, explained New Delhi’s intervention. Dixit had been Foreign Secretary (1991-1994) at the time he launched his memoirs in 1994, before his death the following year. At the time of his death, Dixit held the post of National of Security Advisor.

Having declared that the then Premier Gandhi would have intervened in Sri Lanka, regardless of the status of the ethnic issue, the veteran diplomat, in no uncertain terms, faulted the Premier’s decision. Dixit declared: "India’s involvement in Sri Lanka, in my assessment, was unavoidable not only due to the possible ramifications of the Sri Lankan government’s oppressive and discriminating polices against its Tamil citizens, but also in terms of India’s national concerns due to the Sri Lankan government’s security connections with the US, Pakistan and Israel."

Dixit asserted that Indian intervention should be analyzed in, what he called, the larger perspective of the international and regional strategic environment, between 1980-1984. The Indian alleged that the US and Pakistan had created a ‘politico-strategic’ pressure point against India in Sri Lanka. JRJ was accused of establishing substantive defence and intelligence contacts with the US, Pakistan and Israel.

Dixit conveniently forgot that JRJ wouldn’t have any reason to seek foreign military assistance if not for New Delhi’s despicable intervention here. In fact, the extremely low intensity counter-insurgency campaign undertaken by JRJ had to be dramatically intensified in the wake of the LTTE receiving the expertise, courtesy India, to wipe out an army patrol on the night of July 23, 1983. The killing of 13 soldiers caused anarchy with the inexperienced army going on the rampage in the Jaffna peninsula. India never commissioned an inquiry into its intervention here, though the assassination of one-time Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE on March 21, 1991 at Sriperumbedur, near Chennai, while campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections of 1991, was investigated by Justice Jain. The report was finalized in 1998.

It would be interesting to establish the exact time Indira Gandhi launched her Sri Lanka destabilization project. She had been premier for three consecutive terms (1966–77) and a fourth term from 1980 until she was assassinated in 1984. Did the destabilization project commence during S.J.S. Chhatwal’s tenure as the Indian High Commissioner here (1982-1985) or T. Abraham’s (1978-1982).

Chinese interceptors join battle

China remained committed to Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE during extremely difficult times. As the army was battling the LTTE, in the Eastern province, with Narakkanmulla-Thoppigala still under LTTE control, the LTTE bombed Katunayake air base, on March 26, 2007. The bombing, carried out by two LTTE aircraft targeted squadrons of Israeli Kfirs (No 10) and Ukrainian MiG 27s (No 12). However, the Chinese FT 7 (conversion trainer) and F-7BS interceptors (No 05) hadn’t been targeted though they, too, were based at Katunayake. Although, the LTTE failed to achieve its objectives, the unprecedented attack sent shock waves through the government.

The previous LTTE raid on Katunayake, on July 24, 2001 caused the destruction of 13 aircraft, including two Kfir jet fighters, one Mi-24 helicopter gunship and one MiG-27- jet fighter.

The military leadership came under tremendous pressure as the LTTE mounted a series of attacks both in the war zone and the South. Less than a week after the raid on Katunayake, Air Tigers bombed Palaly high security zone and the Kolonnawa oil refinery. The military top brass felt that the LTTE attacks could have a severe demoralizing impact on the Sinhalese, and therefore, immediate action was needed to acquire interceptors to neutralize the threat posed by so-called Air Tigers, particularly during the night. The military believed air attacks on major military and economic targets could even threaten the Vanni offensive, launched in March, 2007.

Sri Lanka had two options, Ukrainian MiG 29s or Chinese Chinese F7 GS and the air force opted for four Chinese aircraft which were on the production line at that time. Sri Lanka took delivery of Chinese interceptors, along with 10 short range infrared-guided PL-SE missiles, and two training missiles, in early January. The aircraft were acquired on a soft loan basis with the Chinese modifying the aircraft to suit Sri Lanka’s requirements. Shouldn’t we be grateful to China for providing much needed support as Sri Lanka was in dire straits?

India offered Mk II radar to thwart Sri Lanka acquiring Chinese built three dimensional radar. As the LTTE stepped up pressure, with a series of air attacks, the then President Rajapaksa authorized the air force to acquire Chinese radar to meet the LTTE threat. The Chinese installed JY 11 3 D radar at Mirigama during the second week of September, 2007.

China remained a major supplier of weapons until the conclusion of the conflict, in May 2009. Sri Lanka obtained a range of weapons including the standard infantry weapon of the Sri Lankan military T 56, T 56-1 light machine gun and 7.62 mm semi automatic pistol.

Sri Lanka boosted her advance training capacity, thanks to China, in 2001 with the acquisition of Karakorum-8 two-seat sub-sonic jet trainer, with limited ground air capability. The vast majority of jet pilots received advanced and fighter conversion training on K8. Jointly developed by China and Pakistan, K8 played a significant role, as an advanced trainer, and during the Eelam War IV the squadron was tasked to intercept Air Tigers, though the task couldn’t be achieved. The deployment of K8 squadron was a desperate measure before the acquisition of dedicated Chinese interceptors. It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Chinese interceptors, in 1991, during the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s administration.

The navy and the army also acquired a range of equipment over the years. China made available a stupendous amount of ammunition. The quantity of artillery rounds, fired at fortified LTTE targets, particularly the LTTE’s northern front line, during the Eelam War IV is evidence of continuous Chinese supplies, though difficulties were experienced during 2008, at the height of the Vanni war.

A revealing US diplomatic missive

India obviously detested the growing Chinese relationship with the previous government. Chinese submarine visits to the Colombo port, last year, caused rapid deterioration of Indo-Lanka relations with Beijing in no uncertain terms reiterating its right to such visits. The Indian media caused a major furore alleging that Colombo was accommodating Chinese nuclear submarines, though China and the previous Sri Lankan government denied accusations.

A diplomatic missive, originating from the US embassy, in New Delhi, on April 27, 2007 revealed New Delhi’s assertion of the ground situation in Sri Lanka as the war entered the final phase in the Eastern Province. The military brought the entire province under its control, in June 2007. The world wouldn’t have known about India’s attitude if not for whistle-blowing website, Wikileaks.

The cable, quoted Joint Secretary of the External Affairs Ministry, Mohan Kumar as having said that "The situation in Sri Lanka is "bad, really bad - beyond bleak." Alleging that neither the government nor Tamil separatists had any regard for the international community, Kumar sought a briefing from the US regarding Sri Lanka’s growing relations with China.

The cable: "Kumar confirmed reports that the Indian Navy has stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka are doing coordinated patrolling to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Tamil Nadu coast. Kumar said it would be helpful to get the American assessment of the port being built in Hambantota, which, he estimated, China was willing to spend US $500 million to help develop." He noted that China has increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opining that Rajapaksa had a ‘soft spot’ for China, following his visit to Beijing, in March, 2007.

President Rajapaksa commissioned the first stage of the Hambantota port project in 2007.

In spite of Kumar’s claim of coordinated patrols in the Palk Strait, the Sri Lankan Navy intercepted and destroyed many trawlers carrying weapons after they entered Sri Lankan waters.

According to the leaked cable, which dealt with Burma, the Maldives and Bangladesh, the Indian Joint Secretary of External Affairs has expressed concern over the Hambantota Port building project. A New Delhi - based British diplomat, Alex Hall-Hall, too, had been involved the discussion. The British had been always a part of the Indian strategy on Sri Lanka. This was evident when the British Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, during bilateral talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, in London last month, raised the contentious issue of the Chinese naval build-up in the region, as well as Sri Lanka’s military ties to China.