Taking ‘mutual respect’ to a ‘very high level’

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy 

Even in the best of times, the State visit of a Head of State to another nation, particularly an immediate neighbour, is of great significance. The expectations get doubled without anyone asking for it, when it is the maiden State visit overseas, and the neighbours are India and Sri Lanka.

In choosing New Delhi as his first overseas stop after being elected President through an undisputed popular mandate, Gotabhaya Nandasena Rajapaksa was carrying with him not only the good wishes of his people and the nation’s polity to India. He also received all this and more in abundance from the other side.

President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the Indian leadership, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has set the tone and tenor for bilateral relations, through the short and medium terms. It has the potential for the long-term even more, after Sri Lanka’s recent experiences involving the larger, northern neighbour.

If the earlier Rajapaksa regime, of incumbent’s older brother Mahinda R, had strained bilateral relations, owing possibly to misconceptions and mis-interpretations on both sides, and consequent misunderstandings, what followed was possibly a greater disaster. That neither side wants to acknowledge it as such, for a variety of reasons, does not take the truth away.

Under Mahinda R, there was too much of movement on Sri Lanka’s multiple domestic fronts. The resultant friction became too much for the two sides to handle, given that both nations have had multiple commitments, as much on the international scene as closer home.  The ‘ethnic issue’, with the UNHRC resolutions for a topping, was one such, where the Indian official line needed to take the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’ into account, possibly more than at present.

As if this was not enough, on this and other issues impacting on bilateral relations, non-regional players have had their own ways and means to manipulate non-existing strains between the two Indian Ocean neighbours. The West, led by the US, has had its say on the ‘ethnic issue’, focussing more on ‘war crimes probe’ and ‘accountability issues’ than on helping the Sri Lankan stake-holders to find a political solution to the vexatious core issue, post-war.

H’btota, then and now

India’s other core concern was, is and will be on security. In the Cold War era, the US and its regional allies (read: Pakistan) were on the Indian radar vis a vis South Asian neighbours. In the post-Cold War period, it is China. India’s concerns, now as then, were and are real.  In the Cold War times, the global adversary of the US, in the erstwhile Soviet Union was a dependable ally for India. At present, the US is India’s global ally viz China, but in selective matters, confined only to national security.

It does not cover economic issues, where India and China may be travelling on the same plane, but it is only in terms of global trade and ‘green issues’, again up to a point. In terms of Chinese economic interventions in the neighbourhood especially, India’s concerns continue to relate to the South Asian beneficiary’s inherent ability to stand up and not give in to Beijing’s pressures.

It was never ever about Sir Lanka inviting and/or China offering development aid, in the form of massive loans, to repay which small nations like Sri Lanka do not have inherent capability and perceptible possibilities to pay back. The question then remained – still remains – when and how the repayment would be done  If not, how would Colombo manage repayment, in what form?

India’s concerns regarding Sri Lanka’s Hambantota deal with China belonged there. Even as the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime went in for massive Chinese loans for developing the port in southern Sri Lanka facing the heavy Indian Ocean marine traffic, strategic experts in New Delhi (as elsewhere) were concerned only about two aspects. The idea of China using the facility for military purposes, whether against India or otherwise, did get a lot of analytical mention, yes, but the real and realistic concerns have since been proved right, but under a different regime.

Blaming it all on the predecessor Rajapaksa regime, the more recent duo leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, an inherited ‘debt-trap’ as the reason, and signed off Sri Lankan territory to Beijing for 99 long years, in return for otherwise ‘writing off’ the millions of dollars in credit. But for the duo leadership ending up as dual leadership in time, it is not unlikely that China’s PLA-Navy would have been guarding the Hambantota Port facility and the neighbouring waters.

Leaving aside the Indian concerns, President Sirisena, and more so then Ports Minister, international cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga, ensured, among other things, that the security of Sri Lankan territory and the adjoining waters would exclusively in the hands of Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), and not any ‘outsider’.

It also meant that the Chinese would be governed by Sri Lankan laws on Sri Lankan soil, and not by their own laws.  The rule should apply to the US when it comes to Sri Lanka extending/renewing ACSA and signs SOFA. It is explicit in the case of the latter, and the Rajapaksas especially have been clear that such agreements challenges and compromises the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

On assuming office, President Gotabhaya has clearly articulated the view that he would like to re-negotiate the ‘debt-equity swap-deal’ with Cbina, to go back to the original Mahinda commitment of long-term loan repayment against return of the Hambantota ‘territory’. It however remains to be seen if the debt-equity papers provide for such a possibility, or if China would walk half the distance, and possibly more, to rework the Sri Lanka relations with the Rajapaksas, all over again.

Anti-terror cooperation

In terms of bilateral security relations, the Gota-Modi talks have explored another area even more openly. Modi announced a $ 50-m aid for Sri Lanka to fight terrorism, along with a bigger $ 400 million for infrastructure development. The anti-terror is important as much for the symbolism as for the real use to which it is put.

In a way, it is a reiteration of bilateral cooperation in terms fighting regional terror of the LTTE kind, which is all in the past. The departure from the past is significant. It is the first time for fighting terrorism in Sri Lanka, India is extending material assistance, in the form of a credit-line. It is more than likely that Colombo would be using the same for terrorism-training in India, and also for purchase for intelligence-sharing equipment and services. Thus far, it was happening without Indian ‘investment’ of the kind in and on Sri Lanka.

While Sri Lankan State fought the LTTE, India shared intelligence but would not offer equipment. When in the last stages of the war, India offered radars to track down LTTE’s infant and at times infantile air wing activities and attacks (which did happen but without much success), India also felt the threat to its territory and strategic assets along the south Indian coast -=- especially southern Tamil Nadu, from across the Palk Strait, Gulf of Mannar and the larger Indian Ocean access-courses.

The departure of the kind now owes of course to the immediacy and dastardliness of the ‘Easter Sunday serial blasts’ in Colombo and Batticaloa, which claimed around 270 lives, including those of 39 foreigners. As may be recalled, the alerts about the blasts, which were not acted upon, came from India. In turn, the blasts probes by the Sri Lankan and Indian police, together at times and separately otherwise, led to individuals and groups in the south Indian States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Cooperative security

Given that there is as much possibility now as it was during the ‘Sea Tigers’ era of the LTTE for terrorists in the two countries putting the shared seas for operational use, as targets and as escape routes, there is greater need for coordinated security between the two. The third element in the triangle in common Indian Ocean neighbour Maldives. The nation faces greater threat from ISIS-trained ‘returnees’, running for cover from distant Syria.

The three nations needs to re-work their shared ‘Dhosti’ Coast Guard exercises among their Coast Guards, to make it more sustained, all round. Already, India-Maldives intelligence-sharing and training have been formalised through relevant protocols. India and Sri Lanka have been sharing intelligence for decades now. The two need to be integrated and formalised.

Sri Lanka still needs to keep an eye on LTTE elements from across the world who may want to use the Rajapaksas’ return to try re-launch their efforts at targeting the nation, all over again. Even through the early stages of ‘Eelam War IV’, there was a clear strategy for the Diaspora LTTE elements to wait their turn in the eventful event of the LTTE’s exit and Prabhakaran’s extinction, and convert his ‘catastrophic terror model’ into an insurgency directed exclusively at the Sri Lankan State.

Pre-determined positions

The pressures of the UNHRC are now more on the West, to see it as working in Sri Lanka’s case, lest other nations should take a leaf out of it, to thumb their noses at the global ‘Big Brothers’. In this background, Diaspora LTTE elements could be re-activating their propaganda war against the Rajapaksas – and by extension, the Sri Lankan State, institutions and the people, including fellow Tamils’. If the Sri Lankan Government has to re-double post-poll efforts at investigating individual attacks of an unexplainable kind, including local employees of foreign missions, the latter too need to be circumspect, without taking positions, possibly pre-determined for them by the ‘faceless’.

It is here that India’s moral support for Sri Lanka could be of immense help to Sri Lanka, which was available through the UNHRC process, but was not fully utilised and in ways that was possible. The lack of communication between Colombo and Delhi, and mis-communication from Colombo to Delhi using Delhi routes, was a contributing factor. It cannot be allowed to repeat itself.

President Gotabhaya has since declared that bilateral relations with India are based on ‘mutual respect and shared values’. He has also said that it would be taken to a ‘very high level’ under his care of Sri Lanka. Now is the time to commence the process – and he has full five years to see through its meaningful and successful conclusion.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head, Chennai Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)