The levelled playing fields of Lanka were queered this week when two titans – one the world’s superpower, the other its regional counterpart – chose to turn the tended turf to a muddied battlefield where invective missiles against each other were fired at will from their local silos, with scant regard to the much vaunted sovereignty of independent Lanka.
It also chillingly revealed that, beneath its proud, patriotic, defiant, flag waving, pseudo nationalistic bravado and inane rhetoric, there lay skulking the stark reality of this nation’s tenuous existence perilously dancing on a razor blade, torn between competing, irreconcilable interests of two ruthless, intransigent forces boiling with ire and hotly determined to shake the plum tree for itself without giving a fig about violating Lanka’s sovereign status with brash impunity.
Twenty four hours before the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touches down at the Bandaranaike International Airport on Tuesday night as the honoured guest of Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo issues a statement that, taken by its insidious import and underlying vituperative comments, is tantamount to no less than declaring him a persona non grata in Lanka or a person not welcome.
It is the highest form of censure that can be levelled against a diplomat by a host country, not by a third party country merely because its riled that a rival suitor had stepped on what she evidently perceives to be her exclusive turf bought for millions of yuan or is deadlocked as collateral for the loans liberally given. But strict observances of the niceties involved in diplomatic protocol is rashly cast aside along with its slothful panda disguise, and for a moment the sharp fangs of the Chinese tiger is bared for all to see and fear.
It is indeed, a surprise departure from the ever polite, ever poised, calm and collected, continually bowing countenance of the civilized Chinese diplomat; and raises the question whether China’s measure of Lankan sovereignty stands so debased that she deems it her acquired right to abuse an invited guest to Lanka and tacitly state his visit as unwelcome?
China may have her axe to grind with the US but is she impervious that she is trespassing on Lankan sovereignty when she arrogates to herself the right to divine the invited foreign envoys manifest before arrival and determine the suitability of entry according to her interests and not that of Lanka? And issue statements on Lanka’s behalf as if this independent island is another Hubei Province or Beijing’s Forbidden City?
Try a sample of China’s bizarre statement issued on the eve of the American Secretary of State’s arrival.
‘“Currently, Sri Lanka is facing the most severe challenge since the outbreak of COVID-19, and the local health system can no longer bear any imported risks. The United States has sent a large delegation and batches of advance team into Sri Lanka when its own confirmed cases reached 8.8 million and the death toll surpassed 230 thousand, and made various requests for the visit and even for an emergent road construction.’
What is the right China has to take the Lankan megaphone by force and speak for Lanka and question the advisability of the American delegation coming from the COVID ridden country and claim it is an ‘imported risk’. If Lanka feared the COVID crisis will aggravate as a result of the visit, has she no tongue to speak for herself or guts to suggest a postponement on medical grounds? Incidentally, didn’t a top level Chinese delegation visit Lanka earlier last month at the start of COVID’s second outbreak? Of course, they sojourned in the VIP’s fancy fictitious ‘travel bubble’ as did Pompeo and his advisors travel in the VIPs’ fancy fictitious ‘air bubble’.
In its statement, the Chinese Embassy also says: ‘The general public are constantly questioning: Does this approach truly prove your respect to the host country? Is it helpful to local epidemic prevention and control? Is it in the interests of the Sri Lankan people?”
Is it right for a third party country to speak on behalf of the sovereign people of Lanka and have the impudence to put words in their mouths and make them ask Chinese inspired self-serving questions as to whether the American’s visit is in the interest of their country when their own elected government obviously thought it was in Lanka’s interest when the Foreign Minister formally invited Pompeo?
As justification for straying beyond the permitted diplomatic ambit and speaking for the Government and people of Sri Lanka, the Chinese statement advances a novel and dangerous concept in the field of international law on the Rights of Sovereign States. The Chinese statement declares, ‘true friends should put themselves in the other side’s shoes.’
By this artful device, China can niftily slip into the shoes of any nation she declares unilaterally to be a true friend of and claim without warrant the right to speak on the friendly state’s behalf, to give mouth to its people with Chinese baked questions as if it were their own and, perhaps, even become its Protector and shoo away bullies from trampling on the grass as a true friend, undoubtedly, will do, unasked. And China’s got plenty friends, many forming a string of pearls around India’s neck, the brewing storm’s epicenter; and to strangle it, the raison d’etre of the whole exercise.
For instance, on September 3 this year, China rightly criticised America what it described as “meddling” by the US in the border standoff with India, saying Beijing and New Delhi have the ability to resolve their disputes bilaterally. The rebuke came after US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, had said Washington would push back against Beijing’s aggressive actions, including its “outsized” territorial claims on the border with India.
Here China was absolutely right to express her indignation and tell America off for the border dispute was one entirely between China and India; and it was not upto third party America to pontificate on the merits of the dispute or judge whether China’s territorial claims were ‘outsized’ or not.
Likewise, the invitation extended to and the subsequent arrival of the US Secretary of State Pompeo was a matter between the Lankan and American Government, even if China was on the menu for discussion, howsoever unpalatable it may have been to China. Until and unless Sri Lanka formally solicited China’s opinion on the outcome of the talks, it was not the business of third party China to comment on it publicly beforehand, and cast aspersions on Lanka’s invited guests as being potential COVID infected personnel, whether in her self- assumed role of true friend or not.
Not that the flying visit of the American Secretary of State was conducted any better. Five days before Pompeo landed in Lanka as the invited guest of Lankan Foreign Minister as the official record will note, his reputation and the dark ominous purpose of his mission to Colombo to deliver an ultimatum to the Government had preceded his arrival and bred local ill will to all things American.
The animosity arose from the threatening comments made by Dean Thompson, the senior State Department official for South and Central Asian affairs, who upped the ante by boorishly declaring that the United States will ‘urge’ Sri Lanka to make “difficult but necessary choices” on its economic relations when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits there next week.
Briefing reporters, US officials warned the Sri Lankan government about who they team up with for their economic partnerships, without explicitly naming China. Thompson said, “We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices.”
Being the biggest importer of Lanka’s goods, America could flex her economic muscle and browbeat Lanka to submission for she could stymie the inflow of American dollars that barely kept afloat the debt ridden Lankan economy. But to do so publicly and humiliate Lanka by implicitly telling her with whom she could do business and with whom she couldn’t was an undisguised attack on Lanka’s sovereignty and her sovereign right to choose her business partners and certainly showed the crass way in which the leading light in the western hemisphere treats a poor but friendly nation boasting democratic credentials.
By the same yardstick that China is criticised for casting abuse and aspersions over the American visit which is a bilateral affair between US and Lanka, so is America censured for her unwarranted concerns expressed over China’s presence in Lanka which is a bilateral affair between China and Lanka.
And after Michael Pompeo had arrived in Lanka to make an offer to the Lankan Government it couldn’t refuse, there is no letup in American digs at the Sri Lanka-China relationship.
So was it a threat or a treat he brought when he knocked on Lanka’s door during Halloween week? Judge for yourself.
In his speech at the Foreign Ministry flanked by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on his left, the 56-year-old former US Army officer and former CIA Director did not mince his words when it came to denouncing China and lauding America.
He said: “Indeed, a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka is a powerful and strategic partner for the United States on the world stage. It can be a beacon for a free and open Indo-Pacific. Look, that’s quite a contrast to what China seeks. We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner.’
Later in a television interview he was asked about Dean Thompson’s statement of the difficult choices Lanka will have to take. Pompeo assuaged Lanka’s fears by saying: ‘Those are the choices we hope Sri Lanka’s government makes, when it does, there will be opportunity, there will be good partnerships, not only with the United States but with the other democracies in the region.
Asked what the US has to offer apart from the MCC and SOFA, Pompeo painted his vision in glorious technicolor. “What America offers almost always is companies and private investment, partnerships and friendship. That’s how we roll in the United States. We won’t show up with state-sponsored enterprises. We won’t show up with debt packages that a country can’t possibly repay. We won’t attempt to use that debt to extort actions by the government. Those are two very different models. One is for democracy and freedom, the other is a tyrannical authoritarian model. We’re convinced that the Sri Lankan people will make the right choices for themselves.”
Pompeo laid to rest fears harboured in Lanka’s nationalistic breasts that the MCC will be forced down Lanka’s throat and the undue alarms set off by anti-American tub thumpers were finally muted. But there was cause to raise the red flag again when Pompeo, fresh after clinching a defence pact with ‘non-aligned’ India the day before, expressed that he had a ‘wide-ranging discussion on our security cooperation which helps keep some of the world’s most vital sea lanes open’ with Sri Lanka. Whether the security cooperation will lead to a defence pact is to be seen.
But since both parties have remained tight lipped over the real purpose, if any, of Pompeo’s country hopping visit to Lanka even as China and Lanka have kept mum over the Chinese delegation’s sudden visit to Colombo three weeks ago except to say that ‘China will firmly stand with Sri Lanka and extend to protect the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity at international fora including United Nations Human Rights Council’ one can only cross one’s fingers and pray Lanka will not be the site of Armageddon over India.
The pathetic scenario that was depicted this week was one of mice that had once roared boldly against the mighty powers to its own clan in self-aggrandizement, scurrying scared to their mouse holes to escape the jaws of the eastern tiger and the claws of the western eagle.
But the flurry of undiplomatic activity in Lanka this week of Chinese hysteria and American paranoia and the shabby way in which Lanka’s international safeguards as an independent nation were brusquely swept aside as of no consequence by both sides in their mad scramble to get a monopoly over Lanka, perhaps, brought strikingly home the terrible price a regressive people are summoned to pay when they boast false pride and revere false gods, and go overboard over pride swelling, ego bloating slogans extolling the dark ages of swords and cross bows with equal laws to match. Alas, Lanka’s halcyon days of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds may soon be drawing to a close.