A Japanese warning...
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 233
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera’s recently concluded visits to the China-run Hambantota port as well as the strategic Trincomalee port should be examined against the backdrop of growing US-Japan-India alliance meant to counter China.
Onodera arrived here following a two-day visit to New Delhi where two key US allies reiterated their commitment to further strengthen relations at all levels. Interestingly, as Onodera left New Delhi to begin his historic Sri Lanka visit, Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe arrived there for a critically important four-day visit.
The media raised Onodera’s impending visit to Sri Lanka immediately after the conclusion of talks with Indian leaders. Onodera’s briefing took place at the Taj Diplomatic Enclave. The media raised only one question as regards Japan-Sri Lanka relations.
Question: After this, you will travel to Sri Lanka and visit the Port of Hambantota. What is the purpose and significance of this visit by the Defense Minister of Japan to a port built and operated by China?
Minister: Actually, this will be the first time that the Defense Minister of Japan will be visiting Sri Lanka. Hence, as a defense minister, I think that it is very important to build a relationship with Sri Lanka, which is a particularly important location in the "free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy." In particular, since SDF (Self Defence Force) ships regularly enter the ports of Trincomalee and Hambantota, I would like to also to visit and inspect these locations as ports that SDF ships enter into.
Having visited the Colombo, Trincomalee and Hambantota ports, Onodera declared that the Hambantota port, situated in the busy east-west shipping route, should be free of military activity. Obviously, Japan is seriously concerned about China exploiting its 99-year lease of the port secured under controversial circumstances. Having opposed the Chinese take-over of Hambantota during the previous Rajapaksa administration, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo had no option but to conclude an agreement with Beijing.
Onodera was certainly speaking on behalf of the strategic US-Japan-India alliance struggling to cope up with the growing Chinese influence, in spite of the change of the Rajapaksa government in January 2015.
The strategic US-led alliance has adopted a common approach towards Sri Lanka vis-a-vis Colombo’s relationship with Beijing. Onodera’s unprecedented declaration that the Hambantota port shouldn’t be used for military activity surprised many. The Japanese defence chief wouldn’t have said so without specific consensus among members of the US-led coalition. India never made such a public declaration though New Delhi repeatedly urged Sri Lanka, over the years, to give up its relationship with China.
Since the change of government, in January 2015, Japan enhanced defence sector cooperation with Sri Lanka, in accordance with the US-led overall strategy to hinder Chinese ‘operations’ here. Onodera’s visit followed the 3rd Sri Lanka–Japan Dialogue on Maritime Security, Safety and Oceanic Issues held in July at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Colombo.
The Dialogue forms an important pillar of cooperation, envisaged in the Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Partnership between the two countries, concluded during the official visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to Japan in 2015.
Onodera’s visits to the Colombo, Trincomalee and Hambantota ports, as well as China taking Sri Lanka’s newest facility, dominated the media conference given by SLFP spokesman and Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe last week. Samarasinghe stoutly defended Japanese interest in maritime matters with the focus on Hambantota port. Samarasinghe didn’t find fault with Onodera for unanticipated declaration that Hambantota should be free of military activity. Samarasinghe explained that in spite of China having Hambantota on a 99-year-lease, warships visits would be regulated through the government.
China enhances its influence
Those opposed to Sri Lanka’s relationship with China had conveniently forgotten that China invested in Hanbantota at a time the Rajapaksa government was certainly not sure whether it could sustain the combined security forces offensive until the war could be brought to a successful conclusion. The Chinese threw its weight behind the Hambantota project though Western powers and India objected. Whether Western powers like it or not, obviously, Sri Lanka figures in overall Chinese strategy.
Thanks to Wiki leaks, we are aware of the discussion in New Delhi, on the Hambantota port, even before the construction of the inland port got underway, in January 2008. Sri Lanka and China inaugurated the port’s first stage in Nov 2010.
The following is the relevant section of the US diplomatic cable that dealt with the April 26, 2007, meeting the New Delhi–based US diplomat had with the then Joint Secretary, at the External Affairs Ministry Mohan Kumar. Having functioned as the Desk Officer in charge of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (1990-1992), Kumar received the appointment as Deputy High Commissioner, in Colombo, in late 2001. Kumar had taken up the Hambantota port issue with the US official, in his capacity as head of the division that handled relations with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Kumar has discussed stepped up Indian Navy patrols in the waters between India and Sri Lanka and expressed concern over Chinese involvement in the Hambantota port project. Kumar has also bitterly complained about Chinese taking advantage of the situation in Burma, at the expense of India.
The following is the section on the Hambantota port: "The situation in Sri Lanka is "bad, really bad – beyond bleak" in Kumar’s judgment. Characterizing the government and the LTTE as two sets of people with scant regard for the international community, Kumar was skeptical that political progress could be achieved anytime soon. He confirmed reports that the Indian Navy had stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka were 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 $500 million to help develop. He noted that China had increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opining that Rajapaksa had a "soft spot" for China following his visit to Beijing on March 9."
The US worked overtime to oust the Rajapaksas to break Sri Lanka’s relationship with China. Those who resented growing Chinese influence here appreciated the US initiative. The US project went awry, in 2010, with their choice, retired General Sarath Fonseka suffering a heavy defeat at the presidential poll. Having failed to oust Rajapaksa, in spite of ensuring that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) support to Fonseka, Western powers and their allies, including India, succeeded at the January 2015 presidential poll. However, they appeared to have failed to thwart major Chinese projects here.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has been compelled to defend and praise Chinese projects after having flayed China in the run up to the presidential and general elections, in January and August, 2015, respectively.
Interestingly, the Chinese made an abortive bid to win over former President Rajapaksa’s support for its Hambantota project. Although Rajapaksa Accompanied by former External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris visited Beijing, where they discussed the impending agreement, they failed to reach consensus with Rajapaksa declaring that he would extend his support only if China and yahapalana government followed the original agreement on Hambantota. India repeatedly pressed Sri Lanka to halt the Chinese projects.
After the change of government, wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa revealed how Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval pressed him to halt the major Chinese projects here. India wanted the USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project – Colombo Port City halted. India also demanded that Sri Lanka take over Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CMPH holds 85% of the partnership whilst the balance 15% is being held by SLPA. India wanted all major Chinese-funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told the writer that Doval once told him: "Sri Lanka is a small country, you don’t need such development projects."
The bottom line is that in spite of the US-led efforts meant to jeopardize the Beijing project, China remains entrenched in Colombo over three years after the change of government. Although, Sri Lanka antagonized China by turning down at least one submarine visit, the China mission remains on track.
One-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (1997-2000) Shivshankar Menon in Oct, 2016 launched Choices: Inside the making of India’s foreign policy, signaled that New Delhi had reason to want a change of government in Sri Lanka due to the then President Rajapaksa going back on his pledge in respect of Sri Lanka-China relations.
Menon accused former President Rajapaksa of breaking his solemn pledge, in May 2014, five years after the successful conclusion of the conflict. Obviously, the former President had earned the wrath of India for following a path which New Delhi believed threatened its security interests. Menon assertion that Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier parked 14 miles off the Indian coast clearly showed New Delhi’s serious concerns regarding Sri Lanka being too close to China.
Menon, who had been India’s National Security Advisor, from January, 2011, to May, 2014, refrained from revealing a specific incident/or incidents which revealed Sri Lanka’s duplicity in May 2014. The incumbent Ajit Doval succeeded Menon.
Having commented on the conduct of former President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Menon accused Sri Lanka of reneging on bilateral understanding with India. Menon directly alleged that the former President received Chinese funds for his political campaigns, and projects. The veteran diplomat didn’t indicate when the war-winning President first received Chinese funding.
Let me report verbatim the relevant section from the Chapter on Sri Lanka, titled ‘Force works’: "I found that as Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya, had a clear view of Sri Lanka’s interests, one that was compatible with ours. Immediately after the war, he reassured the Indian troika (National Security Advisor M.K. Narayan, Defence Secretary Vijay Singh, and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon) about the nature of Sri Lanka’s defence relationship with China, and helped Indian companies re-enter the reconstruction of Colombo. Security was Gotabhaya’s sole preoccupation, which made him sensitive to India’s concerns, while his brother Mahinda was much more compliant with Chinese demands, having built a political machine on Chinese money. The basic assurances that Gotabhaya and, more reluctantly, Mahinda Rajapaksa gave us were that India’s security interests would be respected and that there would be no surprises in Sri Lanka’s relations with China. In detailed conversations I was assured that there would be no permanent Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka and that Sri Lanka would look to India for most of its military training and intelligence needs. These assurances were respected, in practice, by the Sri Lankans, until May 2014. At no stage exclusivity sought or promised. And, realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity."
China woos Prez Sirisena
A recent New York Times reportage of the handing over of the Hambantota port by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government to the Chinese and the Rajapaksas reaction to the NYT captured media attention. The UNP took up the issue of China funding the Rajapaksa bid to secure a third term, in 2015, to the tune of USD 7.6 mn. In addition, the media reported the then SLFP strongman Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s wife Pushpa securing Chinese funding way back in 2012. The UNP raised the Chinese funding issue in parliament. The Joint Opposition hit back by raising the US-funding political projects in 2015 to change governments in Myanmar, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry has revealed the utilization of US taxpayers’ money amounting to USD 585 mn to carry out those political projects. The amount spent in Sri Lanka remains confidential.
The Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT) had no option but to accept that it made a donation of millions of rupees to a private fund linked to Rajapaksa family amid allegations that the Chinese funded the former President’s failed re-election bid.
The CICT acknowledged it paid nearly 20 million rupees to the Pushpa Rajapaksa Foundation as part of the company’s "corporate social responsibility."
Against a simmering row over Chinese funding of the Rajapaksa political campaign, President Sirisena, at the recent launch of the Moragahakanda-Kalu Ganga project revealed Chinese President Xi Jinping offering him Yuan 2 bn (Rs 48,000 mn or USD 300 mn) for a project of his choosing. The revelation was made in the presence of Chinese Ambassador Cheng Xueyuan and other members of the diplomatic community. The Island raised the issue at the SLFP briefing last week. SLFP spokesman Mahinda Samarasinghe responded that the Chinese funding can be utilized to improve the living standards of the people regardless of where they lived in. Samarasinghe acknowledged that perhaps it was the biggest such donation received by a foreign government. A smiling minister admitted that he hadn’t heard of a similar donation.
With the next presidential and parliamentary polls scheduled for 2019 and 2020, respectively, the utilization of mega Chinese funding can be crucial. Let me compare the funding made available by the UNP-led government to implement the ongoing Gamparaliya, enterprise Sri Lanka and related projects and the Chinese funding. State Finance and Media Media Minister Eran Wickremaratne last week explained how the government intended to spend Rs 8,000 mn for accelerated development projects over the next two years. But, President Sirisena has a staggering Rs 48,000 mn at his command, courtesy China, for projects beneficial to the long suffering people.
The US-led combine and the Chinese had made available a range of specific concessions to Sri Lanka to enhance their influence. India funded a special village construction project in memory of yahapalana architect Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha on a request from Sri Lanka Parliament. The Rs 300 mn project is the first of its kind here whereas China funded about 150 lawmakers of current parliament visiting China in batches. China also provided computers to parliamentarians and lawmakers over a year ago.
China has faced opposition to a large scale post-war northern housing project promoted by UNP Minister D.M. Swaminathan. There is speculation that India may have influenced Tamil National Alliance (TNA) opposition to the project, now stuck at the Cabinet.
The TNA’s current role should be studied, having taken into consideration its deplorable past. The TNA is a combination of political parties (Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi and the Tamil United Liberation Front) and former India sponsored terrorist groups, TELO, PLOTE and EPRLF). The TULF subsequently quit the grouping ahead of the TNA throwing its weight behind war-winning Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka at the January 2010 presidential poll by joining the UNP-led coalition that included the JVP. The same coalition worked together for Maithripala Sirisena’s victory at the last presidential poll. On both occasions, that alliance, backed by the US, contested under the Swan symbol. The US, as part its overall strategy to weaken Chinese hold on Sri Lanka, is engaged in a costly project here. As pointed out by the writer on many occasions, political alliances, political parties, NGOs, civil society as well as the media had benefited by US funding. The US and Sri Lanka owed taxpayers here and over there an explanation how USD 585 mn was spent in the run up to the last presidential polls in January 2015 as well as in Myanmar and Nigeria. Sri Lanka is also owed an explanation how USD 3.4 mn was spent here between presidential polls and parliamentary polls in January and February 2015.
Foreign powers influencing national polls and even national referendum are not isolated situations in global politics today. The last US presidential election, as well as the recently concluded US role in former Pakistani cricket great Imran’s Khan’s victory at the election, are example with Russia accused of facilitating Trump’s victory whereas the US is accused of throwing its weight behind Khan. Foreign powers will meddle in the forthcoming Sri Lanka national elections in a big way. Hope those struggling to cope up with Western and Indian interference remember, accountability issues are nothing but tools to undermine the Rajapaksas and the military and their MAIN concern China, now engaged in a trade war with the US. Sri Lanka is one of the theaters for US-led coalition’s strategic battle with China. That is the undeniable truth.