Common Sense at CHOGM: Advantage China?


India’s external affairs minister Mr Salman Khurshid went to Sri Lanka substituting Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to participate in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) conclave. This decision by the government of India speaks volumes about how the regional politics and associated narrow political compulsions adversely impact the national security policy making. Regrettably, the politics of Tamil Nadu is more about tokenism than actually helping the cause of Talmilians in Sri Lanka.


The absence of Indian PM in no way has helped to resolve the issue in respect of setting straight the human rights record of the Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa but it has definitely impacted the long term strategic interests of India in respect of its one of the important neighbors.


India shares historical ties with Sri Lanka and has wide-ranging interests form Buddhism to business. The island state s of special importance because of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean region and the geographic advantages it offers. In the 21st century it is important for India to look at Sri Lanka beyond the Tamil issue.  There is a need to appreciate a fact that reasons could be no matter what but over the years India has failed to engage most of its neighbors. States like Sri Lanka give a hope and opportunity for constructive engagement but unfortunately that is not happening.  Interestingly, in the past in regards to the UN Human Rights Council resolution on human rights violations in Sri Lanka, India took a position that any West sponsored extreme ideas of blaming Sri Lanka should not be put on table. India had successfully lobbied for “less intrusive, more balanced and more respectful of Sri Lankan sovereignty” resolution. Unfortunately, the pragmatic foreign policy maneuvers are now found getting overshadowed by narrow political agendas.


This flip-flop in the foreign policy making is being systematically exploited by China. For last few years China is found using the opportunity of ‘void' in Indian foreign policy in Sri Lanka as an opportunity to ascertain its presence in island country. China has cautiously but deliberately started making inroads into Sri Lanka's strategic infrastructure sector about a decade ago. China understood that for an underdeveloped and politically distributed state like Sri Lanka, a sustained economic engagement would offer long-term benefits. Politically, Chinese helped them with supply of arms during major offensive against LTTE in  2009.


Today, China has emerged as one of the most important factors in India-Sri Lanka relations. China has succeeded in establishing a significant amount of footprint in Sri Lanka both economically and politically. Experts’ view that China’s strategy towards India have three elements: encirclement, envelopment and entanglement and the Sri Lankan case fits perfectly in this regard.


‘Encirclement’ is a kind of “strengthened Chinese strategic presence (encircling India) in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Maldives. China is very keen to invest in the Indian Ocean island states and Sir Lanka offers them the best platform. From coal power plant to harbor project, Chinese investment has raised to $ 4 billion since 2009. Bilateral trade between two countries has been increasing over the years to record $ 2.6 billion in 2012. ‘Envelopment’ is essentially “integrating all of India’s neighbors into the Chinese economy and they have achieved that beautifully in Sri Lanka.” And ‘Entanglement’ is “exploiting India’s domestic contradictions and multiple security concerns and politics in Tamil Nadu offers them the best opportunity for this.”


Despite being a member in CHOGM, China has successfully put its presence in and around during CHOGM. The Chinese efforts to enhance its trading opportunities on the sidelines of CHOGM are interesting. 42 Chinese companies were among the 100 foreign companies participating in the trade exhibition "Reflections of Sri Lanka" at Commonwealth Business Forum (CBF), held on the sidelines of CHOGM summit.  In contrast, despite being Sri Lanka's largest trading partner, India will be represented by only 21 companies at the exhibition. The venue for the CHOGM - Bandaranaike Memorial International Convention Hall (BMICH) in Colombo - was also renovated following China's grant of $15.3 million. Newly built $ 292 million highway connecting the capital’s international airport to the main city was supported by China. Three Chinese companies has signed deals worth over $1.5 billion with Sri Lanka at the CBF. All this clearly indicates that for a relatively inconsequential event like this how much China is keen to invest. In the area of technology collaboration too, China is found making intelligent investments. Few month’s back the first satellite for Sri Lanka (own by a private company) was launched with the Chinese assistance.


It is important for India to appreciate that China's "enduring generosity" to Sri Lanka is with a strategic purpose. The “great game” of this century is being played in the waters of the Indian Ocean and that’s why Sri Lanka matters most.


Author Note
Ajey Lele (Ph.D) is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi