So finally the Indian government decided that partisan politics is far too important to be sacrificed at the altar of national interest and took the decision that external affairs minister Salman Khurshid will head the Indian delegation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Sri Lanka next week instead of prime minister Manmohan Singh. This decision was taken in view of the opposition by parties in Tamil Nadu as well as a section in Congress and further underscores the weakening of the authority of the PM. The external affairs ministry has justified the decision by suggesting that in 10 summit-level meetings since 1993, the PM represented India five times while on four occasions, ministers had headed the Indian delegation. But the decision which has been taken under pressure will have long-term consequences for Indian foreign policy which politicians in their attempt at political tokenism are failing to comprehend.
This decision comes after India voted with 24 other states in May in favour of the controversial United Nation Human Rights Council resolution on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The main aspect of Indian intervention was the need for the institution of a credible and independent investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights abuses. If last year, New Delhi had tried to amend the West-sponsored resolution to make it less intrusive, more balanced and more respectful of Sri Lankan sovereignty, this year it was trying to do the opposite: bring in amendments to make some words in the resolution stronger. It reportedly pushed for seven written amendments in six paragraphs of the resolution. But if this was aimed at the domestic political landscape, it clearly failed to have any impact as both the AIADMK and the DMK accused the UPA government of “diluting” the US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC by not moving any amendment demanded by it.
As a consequence of such domestic political posturing, India has not only marginalised itself in the affairs of Tamils in Sri Lanka but has also made sure one of its most important neighbours will move further into the arms of China. After repeatedly opposing country-specific resolutions at the UNHCR and other such bodies, India ended up setting a dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt it. India’s foreign policy stands bereft of principle and pragmatism.
As it is Sri Lanka has been rapidly slipping out of India’s orbit. India failed to exert its leverage over the humanitarian troubles that the Tamils trapped in the fighting were facing. New Delhi’s attempts to end the war and avert humanitarian tragedy in north-east Sri Lanka proved futile.
Colombo’s centrality between Aden and Singapore makes it extremely significant strategically for Indian power projection possibilities. After initially following India’s lead in international affairs, even demanding that the British leave from their naval base at Trincomalee air base and air base at Katunayake in 1957, Colombo gradually gravitated towards a more independent foreign policy posture. And it was India’s enthusiasm for China that made Sri Lanka take China seriously but after the Chinese victory in its 1962 war with India, Colombo started courting Beijing much more seriously.
And now China has displaced Japan as Sri Lanka’s major aid donor with an annual package of $1 billion. Bilateral trade has doubled over the last five years with China emerging as the largest trading partner of Sri Lanka. China is now supplying over half of all the construction and development loans Sri Lanka is receiving.
Chinese investment in the development of infrastructure and oil exploration projects in Sri Lanka has also gathered momentum. China is providing interest free loans and preferential loans at subsidised rates to Sri Lanka for the development of infrastructure. It is the first foreign nation to have an exclusive economic zone in Sri Lanka. China is involved in a range of infrastructure development projects in Sri Lanka — constructing power plants, modernising Lankan railway, providing financial and technical assistance in launching of communication satellites.
China is financing over 85 per cent of the Hambantota Development Zone to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery, and international airport. The port, deeper than the one in Colombo, is to be used as a refuelling and docking station for its navy.
Though the two sides claim that this is merely a commercial venture, its future utility as a strategic asset by China remains a real possibility to India’s consternation. For China, Hambantota will not only be an important transit for general cargo and oil but a presence in Hambantota also enhances China’s monitoring and intelligence gathering capabilities vis-à-vis India.
India has expressed its displeasure about growing Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka on a number of occasions. In 2007, India’s national security adviser openly criticised Sri Lanka for attempting to purchase Chinese-built radar system on the grounds that it would “overreach” into the Indian air space. Yet Sri Lanka has emerged stronger and more stable after the military success in the Eelam war and the two elections at the national level. To counter Chinese influence, India has been forced to step up its diplomatic offensive and offer Colombo reconstruction aid. With the LTTE out of the picture, India has been hoping that it will have greater strategic space to manage bilateral ties.
However, where New Delhi will have to continue to balance domestic sensitivities and strategic interests, Beijing faces no such constraint in developing even stronger ties with Colombo. As a result, India is struggling to make itself more relevant to Sri Lanka than China.
Colombo matters because Indian Ocean matters. The “great game” of this century will be played on the waters of the Indian Ocean. Though India’s location gives it great operational advantages in the ocean, it is by no means certain that New Delhi is in a position to hold on to its geographic advantages. China is rapidly catching up and its ties with Sri Lanka are aimed at expanding its profile in this crucial part of the world.
India’s decision to not attend the CHOGM summit at the prime ministerial level will not only make India even more marginal in Sri Lanka with some grave long-term damage to its vital interests but will also raise doubts about India’s ability to lead South Asia.
The author is a reader in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College,