Roadmap for India relations, growing Chinese influence and Quad politics By Shamindra Ferdinando

Spread the love

January 2009 Gujarat: The then Tourism Minister of Mahinda Rajapaksa administration Milinda Moragoda with the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi. Moragoda was there to address the annual “Vibrant Gujarat” Investor Forum.

Naming former lawmaker Milinda Moragoda as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi had been one of the most controversial decisions taken by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the onset of his administration.

The appointment was made in spite of strong objections, even by some of those who had backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature at the 2019 presidential election. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went to the extent of issuing a statement vowing to go ahead with appointments made following careful consideration. However, Moragoda couldn’t take up his new assignment due to the raging Covid-19 epidemic in India. Although the Covid-19 situation remains critical, Moragoda is planning to move to New Delhi soon.

Ahead of taking up his post in Delhi in the coming weeks, Moragoda released a document titled, ‘Integrated Country Strategy for Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions in India’ that dealt with the 2021-2023 period.

Deputy High Commissioner in New Delhi Niluka Kadurugamuwa, in his introduction to what can be called a road map, asserted that this could provide the required agenda though ideally it should be further fine-tuned and developed in the implementing phase. Sri Lanka needs a long term strategy. Sri Lanka cannot pursue an agenda to suit a particular envoy/government though differences in political approach are understandable.

A meticulous planner, Moragoda having thanked the Deputy HC and members of the Country Team as well as the group of experts who provided invaluable advice and inputs in preparation of the roadmap declared he accepted full responsibility for any omissions or oversights.

Having first entered Parliament through the UNP National List in late 2000, Moragoda successfully contested the 2001 and 2004 general elections on the UNP ticket though in 2007 he switched his allegiance under controversial circumstances to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Moragoda, who had been a key government negotiator in talks with the LTTE during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as the Premier in 2001-2003 was among those UNPers who received ministerial portfolios after they switched sides in 2007. Moragoda played quite an impressive role during his tenure as the Justice Minister. The writer had an opportunity to cover the rehabilitation process undertaken under Moragoda’s guidance. Perhaps, the involvement of the All Ceylon Hindu Congress in the rehabilitation of LTTE cadres is definitely a high point for the then Minister.

Moragoda remained with the Rajapaksas and was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first choice as the country’s top envoy in New Delhi. Throughout his political career, and post-parliament period, Moragoda pursued a strategy that was alien to many MPs/ex-MPs with the formation of Pathfinder Foundation being a singular achievement. Formation of Pathfinder Foundation (PF) that dealt in foreign relations among a range of other issues with the focus on developing relations and Quad countries, namely the US, Japan, Australia and Japan and US ally South Korea. In the wake of receiving diplomatic assignment, Moragoda gave up the chairmanship of PF to top ex-career diplomat Bernard Goonetilleke, who had been with the outfit for some time.

But what the writer likes to highlight is the recognition of PF by China as one of its top 10 partners here during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure as the President. The recognition was made at a ceremony to mark the Chinese New Year and Sri Lanka’s National Day held at the BMICH. Among those present were President Mahinda Rajapaksa (current Prime Minister), Prime Minister D.M Jayaratne (passed away in Nov 2019), Minister of Health Maithripala Sirisena (former President, SLFP leader, and currently SLPP MP), Minister of External Affairs G.L Peiris (SLPP Chairman and Education Minister), Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Senior Advisor Lalith Weeratunga. The then Chinese Ambassador Wu Jianghao who presented the top 10 partner’s award to Moragoda, Founder of Pathfinder Foundation, is now Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In his thank you note therein addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Moragoda declared the two countries were bound by circumstances of geography, economics, culture, history, and just as importantly, democratic values. Against this backdrop, the former lawmaker asserted any setbacks to Indo-Lanka relationship, however intractable they may appear to be at any given point in time, could only be temporary. Perhaps the proposed road map should be discussed taking into consideration what Moragoda stated in the section headlined ‘Mission Strategic Framework.’ Let me reproduce that vital part verbatim: “In recent years, the Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship has been increasingly dominated by a transactional approach. This is a consequence of the changes in the geo-political equilibrium in the region that have resulted in a growing trust deficit.”

But the Milinda Moragoda saga is not complete, we believe, without going into his background. He is the grandson of late legendary first Sri Lankan Governor of the country’s Central Bank N. U. Jayawardena, but left it under a cloud. The literally self-made, NU then went onto build a financial empire, but that too caved-in in the late’ 80s amidst a public spat with then Governor of the Central Bank Dr. H.N.S Karunatillake.


Indo-Lanka relations and Quad

Sri Lanka cannot even discuss Indo-Lanka relations without taking into consideration the US-led Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) the very purpose in its formation has been to gang up against Beijing. The Quad comprising the NATO leader the US, Japan, Australia and India, meant to counter the rapidly growing Chinese military, political and economic power and is also wary about Sri Lanka’s strategic relationship with China. The passage of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill in May this year certainly dismayed Quad. The outgoing US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz in April and in July this year sought to subvert the high profile Colombo Port City project. Of course, the CHEC Port City promptly set the record straight. Unfortunately, the government and the Foreign Ministry remained conveniently silent though issues raised by Ambassador Teplitz shouldn’t go unanswered. It would be pertinent to mention that the US statement definitely had the backing of other Quad members, Japan, Australia and India. South Korea though not being part of Quad certainly stands with the US-led grouping.

HC Moragoda’s roadmap that dealt with Indo-Lanka relations cannot be discussed leaving Quad out. In fact, Indo-Lanka relations, regardless of Sri Lanka’s position on bilateral matters, are essentially part of Sri Lanka’s response to Quad concerns relating to China. The forthcoming Malabar exercises off the coast of Guam in the Indo-Pacific are taking place ahead of the much-awaited Quad summit in the US in which Australian, Japanese and Indian leaders are scheduled to meet the US President Joe Biden in October.

Sri Lanka should pay attention to the evolving situation. If decision-makers bother to peruse Chapter 6: ‘An Indocentric Practitioner of Realpolitik’ in ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy’ authored by the late Indian Foreign Secretary J.N.Dixit , it wouldn’t be too difficult to understand the complexity of the situation.

The Moragoda roadmap made reference to the loss of about 1,300 Indian soldiers here. The reference is quite questionable and inappropriate. Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim below: “The intervention in the conflict in Sri Lanka where India lost about 1300 soldiers (emphasis is mine), India’s commitment of billions of dollars as development assistance and grant assistance to Sri Lanka, the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, cooperation extended through training of Sri Lankan military personnel, undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships to Sri Lankan students, as well as Joint Statements issued on the occasions of state visits of the leaders of the two countries, are but a few examples that amply demonstrate the breadth and depth of the strategic partnership enjoyed by the two countries (emphasis is mine).

It would certainly be a mistake on Sri Lanka’s part to recognise India’s uninvited intervention here as a benevolent example of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Actually, the Indian intervention should have been correctly assessed taking into consideration the late Dixit’s assessment as regards the then Indian Premier, the late Indira Gandhi’s decision vis a vis Sri Lanka.

In his memoirs, Dixit stated: “The two foreign policy decisions on which she could be faulted are: her ambiguous response to the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan and her giving active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Whatever the criticisms about these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessment about India’s national interests. Her logic was that she could not openly alienate the former Soviet Union when India was so dependent on that country for defence supplies and technologies. Similarly, she could not afford the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils. These aspirations were legitimate in the context of nearly 50 years of Sinhalese discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils.

In both cases, her decisions were relevant at the point of time they were taken. History will judge her as a political leader who safeguarded Indian national interests with determination and farsightedness.”

Dixit also justified the Indian intervention on the basis of what he described as ‘Sri Lankan government’s evolving security connections with the US, Pakistan and Israel.’


Indian stand in Geneva

Can one envisage the normalisation of Indo-Lanka ties as long as war-winning Sri Lanka remained on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) agenda? Can we ever forget Sri Lankan armed forces and political leadership are being hounded for bringing the devastating near three-decades long war to an end whereas those responsible for terrorism here sit in judgment? Sri Lanka needs to set the record straight. India can never absolve itself of the responsibility for causing terrorism here.

The world should acknowledge Sri Lanka would never have to fight a conventional military challenge on its soil if not for the Indian sponsorship of terrorism. Obviously, India wants everyone to conveniently forget its past military misadventure here (July 1987-March 1990) as it seeks a bigger role in the world stage as a US ally. India joined the US project against China long before the formation of Quad in 2007. Whether New Delhi’s policy towards Sri Lanka would be influenced by the overall Quad strategy in Indo-Pacific, Sri Lanka should be wary of India exploiting Geneva as a platform to pursue its objectives here. Clearly Quad countries, as well as South Korea home to nearly 30,000 US military personnel might be swayed to take a common stand in Geneva. Those countries either vote for Geneva resolutions moved by interested parties against Sri Lanka or abstained. Having caused terrorism here in the’ 80s to pave the way for the deployment of the Indian Army in 1987 with catastrophic consequences, India urged Sri Lanka in Geneva March 2021 to address Tamil aspirations. India said that Sri Lanka should take necessary steps through the process of reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment (shoved down our throat by Delhi) to the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Why should the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution or the new Constitution making process be an issue at the Geneva-based UNHRC?

The March 2021 Geneva session paved the way for a fresh international investigation into Sri Lanka’s accountability issue. Those who had openly and tacitly backed fresh investigation remained conveniently silent on now-disclosed diplomatic cables from the British High Commission in Colombo (January-May 2009) which contradicted unsubstantiated war crimes accusations directed at Sri Lanka.

It would also be pertinent to mention that Quad countries the Japan and Australia, have to share the expenditure incurred by the US military deployment. South Korea, too, pays for the US military. The US-India relations are now at an extremely high status with the latter being part of the Western powers’ overall thinking. Therefore, Sri Lanka cannot, under any circumstances, ignore the fact its close relationship with China may cause apprehensions among Quad members, particularly India. Such a situation cannot be addressed by improving bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and India. That is the undeniable truth. Against the backdrop of unbearable devastation caused by the raging Covid-19 epidemic, Sri Lanka is easy prey for foreign powers. The epidemic has weakened the country to such an extent that repayment of debt of USD 01 billion International Sovereign Bond Issue received media attention. Have you ever heard of such a fund transfer receiving media attention? Bloomberg quoted State Minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal as having said Sri Lanka has transferred funds to repay the $1 billion bond by Tuesday (July 27) deadline.

Roadmap: Seven primary objectives

As mentioned, the objectives of the Sri Lankan High Commission are (1) Elevate the existing close bilateral relationship to a strategic level through increased interactions at political level (2) Bolster foreign investments as well as earnings from exports. Achieve significant export growth and increase foreign exchange earnings, with the ultimate objective of increasing productivity, employment generation and international competitiveness to uplift the living standards of the people in Sri Lanka, with a view to achieving the macro-economic targets set out for the period 2020- 2025, in the Government Policy framework document, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ (3) Expand collaboration in the fields of strategic cooperation, defence and Indian Ocean security between Sri Lanka and India (4) Further enhance cooperation between Sri Lanka and India, particularly in the fields of culture, education and science and technology, to promote Sri Lanka’s interests (5) Project a more positive image of Sri Lanka in India through public diplomacy initiatives, with a view to reaching out to the people of India and strengthening people-to-people contacts (6) Enhance connectivity between Sri Lanka and India and finally (7) Promote Sri Lanka’s interests in protecting its ocean resources.

Perhaps one of the most important issues (objective number 7) is taking tangible measures to stop ongoing large scale organised poaching in Sri Lankan waters by the Indian fishing fleet. In spite of talks with the Central government, relevant state governments and other stakeholders, poaching continues unabated much to the dismay of local fishermen. India had the wherewithal to comfortably curb the Indian fishing fleet from crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary though New Delhi would never do so for obvious reasons. During the conflict (1980s-2009) terrorists exploited Indian poaching to move men and lethal material between South India and Sri Lanka. The poaching issue can be successfully dealt with only if India is genuinely interested in denying access to her fishermen, who literally invade Sri Lankan waters in thousands of boats to plunder our fish resources. Indo-Lanka relations should be examined against such bilateral issues as well as India being part of Quad ranged against emerging Superpower China. The bottom line Indo-Lanka relations cannot be decided bilaterally. The 99-year-lease of Hambantota port to China, flagship Chinese venture Colombo Port City project, Chinese managed terminal in the Colombo Port and a plethora of other agreements are all part of not only Indo-Lanka relations but relations with other Quad countries as well. Quad nations, the US and Japan recently conducted naval exercises off Trincomalee with the Sri Lanka Navy. The exercise marked a new phase of their strategy as Sri Lanka struggled to maintain a balance and is now forced to walk a diplomatic tightrope.

Post Disclaimer

Disclaimer: Roadmap for India relations, growing Chinese influence and Quad politics By Shamindra Ferdinando - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *