Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Jinping’s call to Gotabaya highlights post-corona foreign policy challenge


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion, on May 19, eleven years ago, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Victory was achieved, following a relentless nearly three-year-long campaign that crushed the conventional military capability of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which, the pundits had been claiming for years, as something not within the capability of the Sri Lankan security forces.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s triumph triggered an unprecedented political turmoil, in the wake of heavy foreign interference, by Western powers, seeking to deprive war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa a second term.

The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was brought into an unparalleled political alliance, consisting of the UNP, the JVP, the SLMC and the ACMC, to defeat President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The US compelled the TNA to join the UNP-led coalition, whereas war-winning Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka was picked as the Opposition candidate. Fonseka’s selection was meant to prevent the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa of exploiting the war victory to his advantage.

The overall US objective was to end China’s growing relationship with Sri Lanka by bringing the Rajapaksa reign to an end. Both the US-led Western powers, and India, felt President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s relationship with China undermined Western strategy, and Delhi’s dream of suzerainty over Colombo, therefore, they moved for tangible action.

They believed Sri Lanka’s direction should be changed, particularly against the backdrop of China funding the Hambantota port. China invested in the strategic Hambantota port, at the height of the war against the LTTE. Beijing stepped in with the required funding as the military was struggling on the Vanni front, with so-called foreign and local experts, possibly on certain payrolls, ad nauseam, asserting that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. Dr. Rohan Gunaratne was one such expert. Bloomberg news agency, in a report dated March 22, 2007, quoted Gunaratne as having said that Sri Lanka’s war couldn’t be won by either side. A story, captioned ‘Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger Rebels Fight a War That Can’t be Won,’ by Colombo-based Anusha Ondaatjie, quoted the Head of Terrorism Research at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Gunaratna, as having asserted: "Continuing the current spate of violence is not going to bring about a different outcome, or change the status quo. Both parties have developed significant support to be able to recover from losses, but this type of warfare is protracted". Gunaratna declared: "What is needed is a negotiated settlement to the conflict".

Thanks to Wikileaks divulging confidential India, US discussion, as regards the Chinese presence, at Hambantota, came to be in the public domain. Foreign powers had been so desperate, they backed General Fonseka and, in spite of him being called a war criminal, by then US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis. In a classified cable, originating from Colombo, in mid-January, 2010, Butenis categorized President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, General Sarath Fonseka and Basil Rajapaksa as war criminals. They were hell-bent on defeating the Rajapaksa administration, hence one of those categorized was chosen to challenge the then President.

It would be pertinent to mention that President Mahinda Rajapaksa called presidential polls well over a year ahead of schedule. Having won a six-year-term, at the Nov 2005 presidential poll, the President could have ruled till late 2011. Whatever the reasons that pushed him to seek early polls, President Mahinda Rajapaksa convincingly defeated General Fonseka, thus the controversial ‘regime change’ project, meant to end his relationship with China, came a cropper. Fonseka lost by a staggering 1.8 mn votes.

The former Chief of Defence Staff didn’t even have the right to exercise his franchise as he had not been included in the voter's list, for failure on his part to register.

First phase of H’tota port

Less than a year after the 2010 presidential polls, Sri Lanka commissioned the first phase of the China-funded Hambantota port. Four years later, China launched its flagship Colombo Port City project.

The presence of President Xi Jinping, at the launch of the USD1.4 bn project, underscored the pivotal importance of the largest single Chinese investment. Concerned Western powers, and India, made a second attempt to bring President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reign to an end. They succeeded in January 2015. However, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, on its own, instigated their self-inflicted downfall. The Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, caused unprecedented chaos. The betrayal of the armed forces, in Geneva, in Oct 2015, in between the Treasury bond scams, and, finally, the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre, facilitated wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the last presidential poll, in Nov 2019.

The Geneva betrayal, executed at the behest of the US, ruined the UNP-SLFP administration.

Soon after the 2015 victory, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration suspended the Colombo Port City project. The move angered China. On top of that, the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake caused another controversy by accusing China of exploiting Sri Lanka. China publicly lambasted Karunanayake, as Beijing-Colombo relations suffered, while the US stepped up its presence, with no less a person than Secretary of State John Kerry visiting Colombo, in May 2015. The visit, undertaken by the US Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, in August, of the following year, underlined Sri Lanka’s strategic importance.

Menon on Gotabaya

One-time India’s High Commissioner in Colombo, Shiv Shankar Menon, who held topmost diplomatic posts in China and the US, before being moved to New Delhi, as Foreign Secretary, and then as National Security Advisor, in his retirement wrote: Choices: Inside the making of foreign policy, launched in 2016, dealt with Sri Lanka-China relationship. Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section from the Chapter on Sri Lanka, titled ‘Force works’:

"I found that as Defence Secretary, Gotabaya, 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 Gotabaya’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 Gotabaya 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 wouldn’t be 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 was exclusivity sought or promised. And, realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity".

What exactly Menon meant by assurances given by Sri Lanka to India were respected till May 2014? In other words, Menon alleged that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government reneged on promises given to New Delhi. What did actually President Rajapaksa do, in May 2014, to earn the wrath of India.

Menon’s declaration that Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier, parked 14 miles off the Indian coast, underscored New Delhi’s serious concerns, in respect of the country being too close to China. Concerns, expressed by Menon, reflected in Indian reaction in the immediate aftermath of an alleged Chinese nuclear submarine visit to Colombo. Subsequently, the UNP administration was reported to have turned down a Chinese request for a submarine visit to Colombo harbor.

At the time Menon launched Choices: Inside the making of foreign policy, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had initiated a high-profile public campaign to enter politics at the highest level against the backdrop of the 19th Amendment, depriving twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa an opportunity to contest again.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa emerged as the undisputable choice, as the Opposition candidate, amidst the rapid and unprecedented deterioration of parliamentary standards. In spite of not having experience in politics, at any level, Gotabaya Rajapaksa proved his mettle in battling the marauding coronavirus – an unprecedented global health crisis that wrecked powerful economies. Sri Lanka, too, suffered badly.

Fresh Chinese move

Recently, China sought to resume projects that had been suspended here, due to the coronavirus pandemic, as the world struggled to cope up with the health crisis. The Chinese move should be examined, taking into consideration Indian and the US strategies, in respect of Sri Lanka, particularly consensus on Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and $ 480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant.

The Chinese Embassy, in Colombo, reported President XI Jinping’s telephone conversation with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on the night of May 13. The Chinese leader advocated the gradual resumption of, what the Chinese Embassy called, practical cooperation in various fields, advance major cooperation projects and promote global development strategy called ‘Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’ launched by China, in 2013. Sri Lanka is among dozens of countries, accommodated in the BRI, that covered regions in East Asia to Europe.

China cannot be faulted for seeking to expand its political and economic influence. Chinese leader’s call to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be viewed in the context of overall Chinese strategy-cause for US President Donald Trump’s aggressive policy towards China.

Underscoring the importance of the resumption of bilateral projects, the Chinese leader told President Gotabaya Rajapaksa such efforts would strengthen Sri Lanka’s post-corona economic recovery.

According to May 13 dated, Chinese news agency Xinhua report, President Jinping, in his conversation with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, noted that under his strong leadership, Sri Lanka effectively curbed the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus epidemic. The Chinese leader reiterated their continued commitment to support Sri Lanka and provide as much assistance as its capacity permitted.

China recently provided USD 500 mn loan on a request made by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, on behalf of Sri Lanka.

China and Sri Lanka are strategic cooperation partners that enjoy sincere mutual help and an everlasting friendship, said Xi, adding that their friendly ties and mutual trust have withstood various tests and have been uplifted, once again, in the joint fight against the pandemic.

Xinhua quoted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as having said that under Xi’s strong leadership, China had made significant achievements in its fight against COVID-19 and the Chinese people have demonstrated extraordinary wisdom and strength.

The Xinhua report: "Noting that Sri Lanka and China enjoy a long-running friendship with cooperation in various fields, advancing smoothly, he said China has, over the years, provided tremendous valuable support and help for his country’s economic and social development, for which the Sri Lankans are deeply grateful.

"The Sri Lankan President added that he appreciates the vision put forward by Xi of building a community, with a shared future for mankind, and agrees on supporting the WHO in playing a leading role in global anti-epidemic cooperation.

"Sri Lanka is willing to work with China to enhance exchanges, and cooperation, in such fields as economy, trade, tourism and infrastructure, and smoothly push forward the major Belt and Road cooperation projects, such as Colombo Port City, he said, adding that his country welcomes more investment from, and cooperation with, Chinese enterprises.

The Sri Lanka side, he added, stands ready to work with China to promote the building of a community with a shared future for mankind."

Western, Indian reactions

Closer China-Sri Lanka relations will certainly upset those opposed to President Jinping’s strategies, in spite of Sri Lanka’s repeated assurance that its relationship with China posed no threat to any country. Such assurances are unlikely to reassure the US and India, especially against the backdrop of China seeking to consolidate its power, as the world grappled with coronavirus. President Trump’s accusations that coronavirus originated in China, though not confirmed by the US Intelligence apparatus, certainly didn’t help China’s cause. The latest Chinese move, in Sri Lanka, is certain to trigger serious concerns, in Washington, as well as New Delhi.

Having failed in its 2010 operation, the US undertook a costly operation to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the 2015 presidential polls. US Secretary of State John Kerry later revealed how funding, amounting to USD 585 mn, was made available for Myanmar, Nigeria and Sri Lanka ‘change of government’ operations. Sri Lanka never bothered to inquire into the US revelation, though the then lawmaker Shehan Semasinghe once raised the matter, in Parliament. The US and its allies sought enhanced relations with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s entry into a Comprehensive Partnership, with key US longstanding strategic ally, Japan, in early 2015, marked a significant development in bilateral relations. Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe finalized the agreement, during the latter’s four-day visit to Tokyo. The Comprehensive Partnership covered (i) Promotion of Investment and Trade, (ii) Cooperation on the National Development Plan in Sri Lanka, and (iii) National Reconciliation and Peace building. The Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Partnership between Japan and Sri Lanka quoted Japanese leader Abe as having commended Wickremesinghe for co-sponsoring the Geneva Resolution.

In the section, headlined ‘Political Consultations and Maritime Cooperation’ Japan and Sri Lanka reached consensus on higher level of defence cooperation. In late August 2018, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera inspected Trincomalee and the Chinese managed Hambantota ports.

The Chinese are focused on ensuring projects, initiated and funded by them. The UNP-led administration, having suspended the Colombo Port City project, immediately after the 2015 presidential poll, allowed construction to resume over a year later. Two years later, the yahapalana lot ended up handing over the Hambantota port, to China, on a 99-year lease. Although the incumbent government felt that the Hambantota transaction needed a revisit, the idea was quietly dropped. Even during the UNP-SLFP coalition (2015-2019) China made an effort to influence a consensus between the government and the Rajapaksa Camp. Interestingly, the Chinese made an abortive bid to win over former President Rajapaksa’s support for its Hambantota project. Although, Rajapaksa, accompanied by one-time External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, visited Beijing, where they discussed the agreement, they failed to reach a consensus, with Rajapaksa declaring that he would extend his support, only if China and the yahapalana government followed the original agreement on Hambantota.

India pushed Sri Lanka really hard over its relationship with China. After the change of government, in 2015, Gotabaya Rajapaksa alleged that Indian National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, demanded the cancellation of the Colombo Port City project. In addition to that demand, which Rajapaksa said was very unfair, India wanted Sri Lanka to take over the 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 the SLPA. India requested all Chinese funded infrastructure projects be stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port. Rajapaksa, quoted Doval as having told him: "Sri Lanka is a small country, you don’t need such development projects".

Obviously, Sri Lanka is under tremendous pressure and struggling to cope with various demands. During the previous administration, simmering controversy over an agreement on the operation and maintenance of the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo south habour, revealed the daunting challenges Sri Lanka faced. Sharp differences between President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, over the ECT project, contributed to the collapse of the yahapalana arrangement.

The yahapalana political crisis, over ECT, highlighted how foreign funded projects can be quite a dilemma for political leaders as they strived to balance demands of major powers, hell-bent on pursuing strategic objectives, at the expense of smaller economies.


Former Foreign Secy on China move

The tele conversation, calling for the resumption of Sino-SL cooperative projects, despite the COVID challenges, signifies two things - the importance China attaches to its relationship with Sri Lanka  and the resilience and commitment of China to press ahead with its strategic out-reach programmes, like the BRI,  undeterred by any adverse impacts the COVID-19 pandemic may have had on China's rise, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, one-time Foreign Secretary, who held several key positions, including a top position at the UN, said. Palihakkara said so in response to The Island query.

The former Northern Province Governor said: "Sri Lanka, looking, as it is, to seek and receive substantial external inputs to its post-COVID economic recovery process, must seize this opportunity for that purpose while proceeding with necessary geopolitical prudence in keeping with the policy of strategic neutrality articulated by the President in his inauguration speech at Anuradhapura."