The forthcoming debate in Parliament will focus on the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils but the more important issue about the diminution of India's strategic leverage to China in Sri Lanka is likely to be lost. Hambantota rings the bell.
Famous for salt flats and arid and hot weather, the sleepy environs of Hambantota district are destined to become the primary port of call in Sri Lanka. Reason? As the political constituency of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it is central to his Vision Document 2025. It has the world's first inbuilt harbour carved out of land, strategically located astride the busiest East-West shipping lane and poised to challenge the primacy of Singapore's port.
The port, of course, was made in China at friendship prices. Last month, just one ship was berthed in the harbour.
So how did India let China spread its wings over much of the country including Hambantota? Much of it owes to Rajapaksa's strategic decision to reduce dependence on India, a process that has accelerated after the defeat of the LTTE, ironically an outcome in which New Delhi played a key role. Rajapaksa says he wants to reposition Sri Lanka as the ‘pearl of the old Silk Route', doubtless an unintended congruence of China's string of pearls concept that envisions a necklace of bases across the Indian Ocean to challenge Indian and American trade and diplomacy. In August 2009, Rajapaksa clarified: "India need not fear China's role in Sri Lanka. The Chinese will come and go. But Indians will stay.”
But the Hambantota episode has an Indian twist. The first offer was made to India when Nirupama Rao was the high commissioner there. Rejection was dictated by cost and utility of the port facility. At Port Blair recently, national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon said that 70% of India's shipping is handled by Colombo port which is also being modernised with Chinese assistance.
Speaking about the Indian Ocean Region in 2009, Menon was equivocal about Hambantota becoming a part of China's ‘string of pearls'. Publicly, the Indian foreign office expresses no concern about China's enlarging footprint in Sri Lanka though according to WikiLeaks, in November 2007, Mohan Kumar, the joint secretary dealing with Sri Lanka, had told US embassy official Ted Osius in New Delhi that "we are concerned over China's access to Hambantota.”
In May 2011 in Beijing, Sri Lankan foreign minister GL Peiris said Hambantota will never be a military port. Yet, Gwadar and Chittagong ports, both constructed and modernised by China, are commercially and militarily ‘off the beat' and less attractive than Hambantota which requires just a five-mile deviation from the shipping lane.
At the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore in May 2011, Chinese defence minister Gen Liang said he was unaware of any plan to use Gwadar as a naval base and he had not heard about any base in Sri Lanka.
Many Sri Lankans are happy at the turn of events. "We are now in a position to juggle India and China but we are closer to China which has no strings attached," noted a diplomat. Another diplomat said China will have storage and fuelling facilities at Hambantota. "So can India," he quipped.
China has become Sri Lanka's biggest benefactor, with its activities increasing dramatically since Rajapaksa took command in 2005. Beijing's substantive political and military assistance during and after the war in tandem with Islamabad has undermined India's supply of defensive weapons. China's assistance now stands at $3.2 billion, overtaking Japan as Sri Lanka's biggest donor. It is Sri Lanka's biggest exporter after India with China-Sri Lanka trade doubling in the last five years to $1.13 billion. China was the biggest foreign investor in 2009. The yuan, not the rupee, has joined the authorised currency list for international transactions.
India's visibility is confined to the northeastern part of Sri Lanka. Still, India holds the ace: the clause in the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 that "Trincomalee or any other port in Sri Lanka would not be made available for military use to any country in a manner which is prejudicial to India's interest." India, though, should now go by Colombo's deeds, not words.
Ashok Mehta is former commander of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka. The views expressed by the author are personal.