India, China and Rest of the WorldSeptember 18, 2011, 6:58 pm
Many seem to ask if Sri Lanka is moving towards China away from India. Those who answer the question in the affirmative hold two opposite views. While the first group seems to be happy about Sri Lanka’s increasing ties, economic and otherwise, with China, the other appears to see it as a danger because our closer ties with China would result in antagonizing India and the West. Sri Lankan foreign policy, especially when the UNP was in power, was oriented towards the West. Although the SLFP-led governments adopted more balanced foreign policy regime, they always valued the importance of close links with the USA and its allies. During the past six years, we have witnessed a kind of paradigm shift in the Sri Lankan foreign policy placing more emphasis on the countries in the region. As I have argued on many occasions, this is a positive change. Where could India and China be located in this new foreign policy shift? Can we afford to make a choice on this issue? This issue is raised by many commentators in recent times although not in explicit terms.
It would be pertinent to begin the discussion with a story, no doubt apocryphal, that refers to a conversation that Joseph Stalin had had with Indian diplomats in Moscow. Indian diplomats showed a map of South Asia to Soviet leader who was believed to be not very conversant with the word beyond the USSR. With a degree of astonishment, Stalin said: "I did not realize India was such a big country." Then suddenly noticing Sri Lanka at the tip of the Indian subcontinent, he asked: "What is the name of this little Indian island." "This is not an Indian island sir" the Indian diplomat politely responded and added: "This is Ceylon [Sri Lanka], a sovereign nation". Legend has it that Stalin’s response was: "Why?"
Stalin’s materialist and modernist rationality that either transcended or disregarded completely ethnic and nationalist differences failed to see a reason why a small island next to big Indian land mass existed as a separate sovereign nation. For Stalin, it was illogical. Although we do not need to accept the modernist logic and rationality of Stalin, his question brings us to an undeniable reality, the geo-political proximity of Sri Lanka to India. The presence of kin/irredentist community and cultural affinities has made the fact of proximity more complicated and pronounced. Hence, for Sri Lanka, India is unique and India cannot be compared with any other country irrespective of their help and assistance offered to Sri Lanka. One of the clear elements of the present government’s foreign policy is this acceptance of India’s uniqueness (using President Rajapaksa’s metaphor, the relative and friends) when it comes to its relations with the rest of the world. Late J R Jayewardene made in his first years of rule a terrible blunder disregarding totally this geo-political reality. India for Sri Lanka is ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ at the same time. Hence, the first principle of the Sri Lankan foreign policy is determined by the geo-political proximity to and cultural affinity with India so that the designers of Sri Lankan foreign policy have to keep in mind that Sri Lanka’s relations with the rest of the world should not be in conflict in substantial sense with the Indian foreign policy.
The question of China-Sri Lanka relations has been raised for two reasons. First, there has always been tension between India and China and in recent years it has increased as both countries are aspiring to super power status. In the case of China, no doubt, this objective is very much pronounced. So, there is reason to surmise that our close relations with China disturb and are not to the liking of India. This argument has some validity as India tends to think that China is gradually encircling India with the help of India’s neighbouring countries. We witnessed that during the Cold War period particularly during Indira Gandhi period, India thought of the US in the same way. Although India has increased trade and economic relations with China in recent years, it is clear that India becomes suspicious when the neighbouring countries develop similar relations with China. Because of the nature of capitalistic development in China, one may easily conclude that the logic of capital will eventually transform China into another imperialist country like the US, and other Western countries. Although this possibility cannot be denied conclusively, at the moment evidence shows that China’s relations with the developing world is somewhat different. This may be due to the fact that at this moment China gives pride of place to political considerations so that the imperialist logic of capital is bracketed. Sri Lanka has to be careful and concerned with the complex dynamic that operates in the Indian Ocean region.
Secondly, China-Sri Lanka relations have been questioned by pro-US groups in Sri Lanka as Sino-Lanka close ties would go against the US interests in the region. The US knows that it is losing its position in the world in general and in the Indian Ocean region in particular. The US has been the principal de-stabilizer in West Asia. Although there have been internal factors, the US has been the key factor in de-stabilizing Pakistan. I project if India continues with its recent pro-US policies, India will be in serious trouble in the coming years as anti-US forces would act together although their interests are in conflict and contradictory. In my opinion, there has been a serious imbalance in Indian foreign policy in recent years. The pro-US groups in Sri Lanka raise anti-China propaganda as part of the US campaign against China in the region. In my opinion, this is not a serious issue that has to be taken into account in making Sri Lankan foreign policy. It appears that the foreign policy makers in Sri Lanka consciously or unconsciously are trying to articulate Sri Lankan foreign policy taking all these new developments into consideration. This is a new world, or at least new world is emerging. So there should be new thinking as regards the Sri Lankan foreign relations.
The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.