There is more to it than a ‘Chinese military base’

By N Sathiya Moorthy

On the face of it, the Pentagon study that China ‘likely considered setting up a military base in Sri Lanka’ may have been motivated by the US administration’s need to keep the neighbourhood Indian Ocean waters at a boiling-point, eternally. Cheap interpretations could imply their desire for approaching the US Congress with a bigger military-budget and/or pushing more military, especially naval hardware, on India, which has real cause for concern.

The Chinese Embassy in Colombo has promptly denied the Pentagon report, using an anology that a ‘thief believes everybody steals’. It has also pointed out how even after pulling out of Afghanistan (also in South Asia like Sri Lanka and India), the US still maintains a whopping 750 military bases across the world. If untrue, the US would have denied it by now – or, should be denying the same anytime soon.

That is not the issue here. Sri Lanka has not denied the US claims thus far. One can hope that such a denial can be expected as the new week wears in. But in the normal course, Sri Lankan denial would have come promptly. It may or may not have been followed by one from Beijing.

The reason is not far to seek. After all, Sri Lanka knows that is is happening on granting permission or denying one – or even considering either, if approached. If not approached thus far, formally or otherwise, there is no way Colombo can divine what’s in China’s mind, what is in their calculations.

Hence, in the normal course, a Sri Lankan denial should have preceded that of China. One can only conclude that Sri Lanka does not care much about American speculation – which is not accompanied by any substantive evidence on the ground, or even theoretical construct that to point to them. Or, so it seems, prima facie.

The Pentagon study is speculative at best, at the moment. It may even have been aimed at drawing out China into coming out with a substantive denial, which could have provided leads into Beijing’s future military plans for the rest of the world. That does not seem to be happening in this case, at least not thus far.

Caught napping…

But we are in the early stages. That is, unless the US decides to stop here – and no member of the US Congress or Foreign Relations Committee, or strategic thinkers outside the government wants to question Pentagon over it, for details.

After all, they all would and should be concerned even more about such loose-ended Pentagon studies and their future fallouts for the entire nation, after the one on ‘Saddam Hussein’s WMD tale’. So much so, the next time a US President takes up the contents of such studies as the present one to his near-equal European allies in particular, sure enough he would be embarrassingly anticipating a query if it was not stolen from a PhD scholar’s untenable thesis somewhere.

If they fail to act on the current study, if it were true, then the US administration(s) and Congress may be eternally feel guilty. American people will not hesitate to name and shame them. Many of the errnign Congressmen could then forget a future life in politics.

Hence, also the reason why the US would – and would have to – take the Pentagon study more seriously than even they may have wanted. After all, at a time when China’s PLA-N navy is the world’s largest and the US aircraft-carriers are aging, to take on China on land, air and the seas elsewhere – and nearer home in the Pacific that they actually share though distanced by thousands of kilometres – no American would want to be caught napping, either way.

Larger question

But then, this particular issue is more about Sri Lanka than about the US or even China. In a way, China is incidental to the proceedings. The larger question is this: Does Sri Lanka – and Sri Lankans – want to permit a foreign military base in their territory, including territorial waters?

Already, there are those as much inside the country as outside, who continue speculating that Beijing can convert Hambantota into a military or at least an intelligence-base to keep an eye on the Indian Ocean waters, and even try and torpedo ‘enemy ships’, even if carrying only maritime goods and not naval assets and accessories?

They are also convinced that at some point Beijing operatives would use the up-and-coming (?) Colombo Port City (CPC) to launch cyber-wars and currency wars on nations unfriendly to China, but friendly still to Sri Lanka. It is also for this very reason, very few genuine foreign investors are going to flock to CPC as Sri Lanka has been made to believe.

The sum total belief is that all those firms hiring space in CPC would either be from China or would have a Chinese connection, open or not, real or imaginary. Definitely, through threat of sanction or persuasion, the US and the rest of the West can ensure that their big-ticket investors do not cross into this side of the Palk Strait. Investors from such other investor-nations, including those from the Gulf, South-East Asia or neighbouring India would not want their respective governments looking over their shoulders, at their home offices, for their ‘Chinese connections’. This will be so even if the space-hiring in the CPC does not havve anything directly and meaningful to do with China, that too in what is essentially in Sri Lankan territory.

In neighbouring India, reports of Chinese non-conventional energy projects for Jaffna Peninsula, in the islands off the mainland, has caused further consternation, after Hambantota, CPC – and also the forgotten Mattala ‘international airport’, which receives no aircraft, barring Russian wide-bodied planes, once in a few months.

Worsening public mood

To be fair, the public mood in the country has been indifferent at best to Chinese ‘bases’ in Hambantota, Mattala and now CPC, in the heart of the national capital. That is also because of memories from the post-Independence past, where pro-China campaigners have been systematically driving home the timely assistance in the form of ‘Rice-to-Rubber Pact’, way back in 1951, which alone ‘saved Ceylonese lives’ from starvation-deaths.

Then came Chinese funding, yes, for multiple Sri Lankan identities of dialogue and democracy, like the BMICH. It was followed by what is reported to be an open-ended Chinese-supply of fighter aircraft to take on the LTTE in the North, in the mid-nineties. None of them involved a Rajapaksa regime, as is being often made out by critics of the ‘ruling family’ for over a decade and a half, now.

People did not care much, not only when the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime offered the Hambantota construction-cum-concession contract to a Chinese firm. They said even less when the successor Sirisena-Ranil dispensation converted it into a so-called ‘debt-to-equity swap-deal’, handing over Sri Lankan territory – and with that, a part of the nation’s much-hyped ‘sovereignty’ – to a foreign nation.

But today, when the Chinese stock is low what with ‘contaminated organic fertiliser scam’ hitting the roof, people would stay equally indifferent if there was even an iota of truth in the speculative Pentagon study. If the protests against Hambantota swap-deal and the CPC construction were nominal – or worse, compared to those against the India-centric three-nation Colombo Port ECT project (since dropped for good), that may not be the case against a Chinese military base.

In the prevailing mood – which is going to last longer than Colombo or Beijing may have concluded – not just the political class and the political-conscious sections of the citizenry, even otherwise ‘unaffected and unconcerned’ sections of the population, especially the numerically-strong rural, farming class would be out in the open.

The ‘fertiliser fiasco’, if it could be called so, has convinced them that the entire ‘organic’ angle was chosen, not because it would rejuvenate agricultural lands in the country, or win global brownie points for the nation and the government. Many are convinced, it was hurried through without internal discussions, debates and even minimal official evaluations and preparations, only because some Chinese firm had it ready already — and possibly wanted, not just a market but guinea-pig, to boot.

No fault, but…?

Possibly, for no fault of it, Sri Lanka has been put in a non-visual dock, from where it is expected to answer questions that it may not have a clue of an answer. It is a message on what nations make out of the company you keep. Colombo has had a similar experience when in the Cold War era, when it moved too close to the US, for its comfort.

At the time, the Trincomalee oil farms, Voice of America (VoA) transmission towers, and, why even JRJ’s market-centric economic reforms were in focus. The nation’s current economic plight owes more than partly to the woes inherited from that past.

Worse still has been the plight of the nation that wanted to hunt with the hound and run with the hare – or ride in two boats at the same time. That’s of liberalised economic policies in terms of free imports and free-pricing on the one hand, and the consequent expansion of the social sector base and out-reach, all counting in monetary terms. No one wanted to alter this imbalanced balance is at the centre of the current economic woes.

For all the denials and taunting of the US, China also has to remember some of the unsavoury American past. Episodes like anti-government street-protests against the Shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines ended up targeting American military bases in the two countries. Protest leaders were convinced that some of their rulers’ high-handedness drew strength from the political backing that the latter got from the US super-power (even in a bi-polar world).

Today, Sri Lankan street-protests are more effective to the point of being vituperative, if not outrightly venomous, against the Indian neighbour. The competitive ECT-CPC labour protests were comparable for the form, not for the content, or the result – indicating where the sympathies and support, and even strategies, of the powers-that-be-lay.

The anti-India mood may not have changed now. Nor would the anti-US move in the wake of the simultaneous ‘New Fortress’ LNG supply-contract for an American firm change even if the Supreme Court rules in the government’s favour, when it begins hearing the case later this week.

But defenders of China, or of America, cannot anymore blame the government alternatively for holding back the details from Parliament and the people – or, even the Cabinet, whose prior approval was required for such enterprises in a democracy, which Sri Lanka still claims it is. And alliance ministers and the spec of political parties that they lead should ask themselves for their reaction when the Hambantota, CPC and a host of China-funded projects came up for Cabinet clearance or parliamentary debate.

Having looked the other way when the Government violated norms and procedures in the case of China, the leadership got used to taking the allies and the nation for granted, after all. The latter seem to have concluded, as with CPC and 20-A, the allies would bark, not bite….

That is beside the point, unless of course, the allies prove a point beyond reasonable doubt that they are either their master’s voice as charged by the JVP Opposition, or are using one controversial issue after another, to strike a deal with the government, either or a visible or invisible issue of personal interest for alliance’ leader or leaders.

But in a generation in which common people have relied entirely on the social media – and not on any political party or their leaderships – to launch mass-protests against the government of the day, Colombo needs to watch out for every wrong step of theirs. They have to be doubly careful, when their so-called international ally on which the nation counts for veto-vote in the UN and the like, begin arm-twisting the leadership – as with forcing down the ‘rejected’ organic fertiliser and ‘black-listing’ Government-owned People’s Bank, as only China has done at any time since Independence!

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

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