By Rathindra Kuruwita
Last week has been eventful. And I was conflicted on whether to write about the Sri Lankan visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more specifically his attitude and signalling during his visit to Dickoya, home to a large concentration of Indian origin Tamils or about China’s One Belt – One Road initiative.
India has always meddled in our internal affairs, given its geographical location and aspiration to be the dominant regional power.
I would be surprised if they didn’t, and it has always leveraged its ‘connection’ to the Tamil population to influence Sri Lankan Governments.
On the other hand China has tried to win us over by throwing money at us and frankly I prefer an external actor throwing money at us than having an external actor stoking sectarian sentiments for its advantage. And after watching Modi in Dickoya I got the sinking feeling that India will attempt to use Indian origin Tamils to counterbalance Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, which is growing again.
China was always great
But I feel that I need to write about China’s One Belt – One Road initiative and a bit about Chinese history because a lot of people who write about China, mostly born between 1940 and 1980, don’t seem to know much about the country.
I know it’s hard for people born between the 1940 to let’s say 1980 to get this into their heads, but China for the most part of history was a great nation, if not the greatest nation on earth. It dominated Asia for over millennia and all the great civilizations of the orient, Japan and Korea, learnt most of their ‘culture’ from China. And until about the early 19th century it was the richest country in the world, for example almost half of the silver from South American mines was traded with Chinese goods (see China producing almost everything you consume is nothing new) and its ideas (like building a wall, now that’s an idea that never goes out of fashion) and inventions (from paper to gunpowder), form the basis of our civilization.
Then from mid-19th century to mid-20th century, China had a really, really bad patch. The Qing dynasty (pronounced Ching), who were from Manchuria and had ruled China since the 17th century, had degenerated and the Taiping Rebellion from 1850 to 64 destroyed the social fabric of the country, and a number of European powers used this opportunity to ‘open the Chinese market’.
People were on drugs, there was no central authority and a number of warlords carved up chunks of the country and proceeded to destroy it. Although this catastrophic period lasted only for a century (which is a blip compared to how old the Chinese civilization is) by 1949 Mao had come to power and had started the long process of making China great again, our conception about ancient China, that it was a country of poor opium addicts living in squalor, are disproportionately drawn from this period. I blame the cold war propaganda. Anyway that’s why most cold war children, from boomers to Gen Xers, can’t really come to terms with China’s return to power.
These people who grew up before the internet, imagine how sad their childhoods were, had their perceptions of the world formed from listening to the BBC World Service and thought Sri Lankan affairs would always be dominated by the West and India. And you see them freaking out, bad mouthing Chinese investments and going gaga over a few Indian ambulances, and hoping that India and the West would restore the world order they knew. Sad!
An offer Sri Lanka can’t refuse
China’s One Belt – One Road, an ambitious initiative to build roads, rail roads, ports, pipelines and other infrastructure joining China to Central Asia, Europe and Africa by land and sea at an ‘anticipated cumulative investment, over an indefinite timescale, variously put at US$ 4 trillion or US$ 8 trillion,’ is China’s way of announcing that they are back.
And a lot of countries, including Sri Lanka, seem to be really keen on being a part of this initiative. During the One Belt – One Road forum which commenced on Sunday in Beijing, attended by leaders of 30 countries, President Xi Jinping of China stated that ‘total trade between China and other ‘One Belt, One Road’ countries has already hit more than $ 3 trillion from 2014 to 2016; and China’s investment in those countries has surpassed $ 50 billion, Xi said. Under the strategy, China has also set up 56 economic cooperation zones in 20 countries, which, it claims, have yielded $1.1 billion in tax revenues and have created 180,000 jobs in those nations. And to be a part of this endeavour, covering about 65 per cent of the world’s population, about one-third of the world’s GDP, and about a quarter of all the goods and services the world moves, is an offer Sri Lanka can’t refuse.
Does being a part of this initiative or taking huge loans from China give it leverage over Sri Lanka? And does that affect our national sovereignty? Of course it does. Anyone thinking otherwise is naive but then again to think that we have better options is also ridiculous. Sri Lanka needs a lot of money to keep its economy afloat and it needs serious foreign investments and there is no one who can help us in both aspects than China.
Last week Bloomberg reported that Chinese investors and involvement of Chinese Banks were the reason for ‘the small South Asian country garnering more than $11 billion of orders for the $1.5 billion of 10-year notes it sold last week, marking a quadrupling in demand compared with its dollar-debt issuance in 2015 and 2016. Chinese banks participated in arranging the sale for the first time, underscoring Sri Lanka’s deepening ties with Asia’s biggest economy’. Bloomberg went on to report that Sri Lanka is also benefiting from Chinese thirst for investments linked to their government’s Belt and Road development initiative.
India talking about sovereignty
And it is also quite ironical that India, who is boycotting the forum because it fears the China – Pakistan economic corridor, saying that ‘no country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.’
This is the country, unlike China, that has continuously meddled in the internal affairs of its neighbours, especially Sri Lanka where it used its ties with the Tamil population as leverage against successive Sri Lankan Governments, and will try to pull the same trick again in the coming years. Note the attitude and signalling of Indian Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Dickoya, home to a significant Indian origin Tamil population, and you could feel cogs turning in his mind.
Whether we succeed in balancing India and China, i.e. placating India while benefitting from One Road – One Belt, depends on how our government handles the two nations in the next two years. However, with an Indophile Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, a former President who has some leverage over the government and a powerful Tamil political party, I fear that we are bound to mess this one up.