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Sri Lanka is like a beautiful princess for whom two princes China and India are competing for

By Udaya Gammanpila

How do you analyze Sri Lanka’s growing relationship with China disturbing neighbouring India?” I was posed with the above question or a question similar to that by Mano Tittawella.

I was a panelist at a discussion of the Sri Lanka Economic Summit organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and Tittawella was the moderator.

I explained that China and India are emerging superpower neighbours and border-sharing neighbours would be superpowers after 500 years. I further explained that 500 years ago, when border-sharing superpowers, namely Spain and Portugal had disputes, the Pope intervened to resolve those.

I said Sri Lanka had a potential to perform the role of the Pope and emerge as a soft superpower. When I said that, most of the audience had a good laugh. For them, Sri Lanka becoming a soft superpower was a joke.

I was not embarrassed at all. Around 12 years ago, when we spoke about the military defeat of the LTTE, the majority of the people not only laughed at us, but also ridiculed us. Eventually, our predictions became true. Frankly, we made it a reality by offering blood, toil, tears and sweat.

The reaction of the audience revealed to me a very important fact. The majority of the people are unaware of Sri Lanka’s true potential. Although this concept was in my mind for several years, I could not pen it. When Mano asked the above question, I thought “the time is right to voice my novel concept”.

Traditionally, superpowers are the nations who influence the other nations through their economic or military might. In the present world, we recognize the USA as the solitary superpower. Thirty years ago, the USA and USSR were the superpowers. A 100 years ago, the UK and France were the superpowers. 500 years ago, Spain and Portugal were the superpowers.

When Spanish explorers colonized westward and reached the American continent, the Portuguese colonized eastward and reached India. However, both had intense battles in their endeavour to dominate the globe. The Pope was saddened to hear about the disastrous battles between the two Catholic neighbours.

Hence, he convinced both countries to demarcate and divide the globe between them for colonization. The end result was the historic Treaty of Tordesillas signed on 7 June 1494. By this treaty, the Pope divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and Spain along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. The other side of the world was divided by the Treaty of Zaragoza signed on 22 April 1529.

The Pope did not use economic or military power to convince Spain and Portugal to enter into a treaty but his good office and goodwill. The nations, organizations and individuals who use their soft powers to influence the nations are known as soft superpowers. Accordingly, the Pope is a soft superpower who has immense influence over the world. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were soft superpowers in the last century. Japan and Norway have become soft superpowers through their “cheque book diplomacy”.

Amnesty International and Green International can also be considered as soft superpowers. The theory of “Soft Superpowers” was developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in his book, “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” published in 1990. He further developed the concept in “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics” published in 2004.

Political analysts have recognized India and China as emerging superpowers of the world. They have already commenced to compete with each other for the dominance over the globe. China has launched massive infrastructure projects in Indian neighbours giving birth to the theory of “Dragon’s String of Pearl”. According to this theory, China has encircled India by constructing seaports in Marao-Maldives,Gwadar-Pakistan, Chittagong-Bangladesh, Sittwe-Burma and Magama (Hambantota)-Sri Lanka.

When the competition grows further, it will definitely be felt by Indians and Chinese who share a common border. It should not be forgotten that they fought a war in 1962 on the disputed border. If China and India engage in a war again, who could intervene to settle it? The Pope has no role to play since these are not Catholic-dominated countries as in the case of Portugal and Spain. The UNO will be an invalid organization in an era dominated by Asia.

In fact, the UNO was established to avoid wars between the then superpowers, namely, USA, USSR, France, UK and China. It is an organization dominated by the West and will not be recognized and respected by the future world powers. If the Pope and the UNO has no influence over India and China, who can intervene to stop the war between the future superpowers? Is there any nation who has secured the confidence and respect of both these countries?

Sri Lanka has evolved in the recent past as a country respected by both emerging superpowers. During the early part of the Tamil Eelam war, India played a supportive role for the LTTE. Although they stopped supporting the LTTE after the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987, India was always reluctant to sell military hardware to Sri Lanka because of the pressure mounted by Tamil Nadu. China exploited this situation to its advantage.

China not only freely supplied military hardware but also abstained from pressurizing Sri Lanka for political reforms. In this backdrop, Sino – Lanka friendship grew to unprecedented levels. This friendship extended to the post-conflict era by financing all major infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, such as the Norochcholai power plant, Mattala airport, Magama seaport and the Southern Expressway. China may be in an attempt to turn Sri Lanka to be India’s Cuba.

The growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka is of course a concern for Indians. Nevertheless, India is not in a position to antagonize Sri Lanka and push it towards China. India cannot afford to lose Sri Lankan friendship in their attempt to show their displeasure because of its geographic location.

India has located its strategically important establishments such as nuclear power plants, IT Parks and research laboratories in South India since it cannot be reached by long range missiles of rival neighbours, China and Pakistan. If the solitary southern neighbour turned to be an enemy, India will lose its only safe zone. Hence, India is forced to embrace the policy of “winning back the runaway”.

In the above backdrop, Sri Lanka has become the beautiful princess in a fairytale and India and China are the powerful princes who compete with each other to win the heart of the princess. Both princes will tolerate whatever she does; fulfil any demand made by her; do anything to please her. However, when the princess chooses a prince, the story ends in a tragedy by killing the couple by the losing prince.

The lesson in the above story is that Sri Lanka can be the trusted friend of both China and India as long as Sri Lanka maintains transparency, honesty and impartiality in this triangular relationship. When Sri Lanka has the confidence of both sides, Sri Lanka will be the peace broker of the potential disputes between the emerging superpowers.

This is not a new role for Sri Lanka. When the Indo – China war erupted as a border dispute in 1962, neither the UNO nor any superpower was able to settle it. Our then charming Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike mediated to settle the dispute as a national leader acceptable to both countries. Mrs. Bandaranaike had to intervene again to settle the war between India and Pakistan in 1971. As long as Sri Lanka performs the role of the uncommitted princess, we have a promising future in the international arena.

(Udaya Gammanpila is Minister of Agriculture, Agrarian Development, Irrigation, Livestock Production and Development, Trade and Environment in the Western Provincial Council)