In Picture: Hyundai cars manufactured in India roll off the carrier Asian Sun at the start of international commercial operations at Sri Lanka's Chinese-built Hambantota port on June 6, 2012. AFP Photo
Why does India need to deny that it has missiles aimed at the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka?
Yet that is precisely what the Indian High Commission in Colombo did in a press release issued on September 27.
‘India has a longstanding indigenous missile development programme. This programme is defensive in nature and is not directed against any country,’ it said, adding: ‘Speculation on such sensitive issues in a manner calculated to mislead, is out of tune with the spirit of the friendly and close relations India and Sri Lanka enjoy, including in the fields of defence and security.’
The curious denial came after an unsigned report asserting that India had ‘stationed long range Agni type Missile system targeting Sri Lanka’s strategic institutions’ was picked up by the Sri Lankan and the international media.
The report then went on to list the targets as Katunayaka, Ratmalana (Colombo’s international and domestic airports) Mattala (the new international airport at Hambantota), Sri Lanka’s Military Headquarters, the Putlam Coal plant, the Kerawalapitiya-Kelanithissa oil fired Power Plants and Colombo and Hambantota Ports.
Hambantota port, on the island’s southern tip, is situated on a key shipping lane, which sees around 300 ships, mostly oil tankers, passing through every day.
When the modern deep water port formally opened for international shipping in June, the first consignment it moved was a 1,000 Hyundai cars from Chennai, India, outbound for Algeria. By 2015, the port is expected to handle a million cars annually.
Spread over 4,000 acres, Hambantota will eventually be able to berth and service 33 massive vessels simultaneously, making it the largest and busiest harbour in South Asia.
The port, and another one coming up near it, is funded and built by the People’s Republic of China.
But it’s not just state-of-the-art ports that China is building in Sri Lanka. Chinese firms and engineers are building roads, train lines, telecommunication links, dams, reservoirs, expressways, hospitals, world class stadiums, schools, hotels, power plants and airports across the island nation.
Over the next decade, Chinese firms have pledged to invest $50 billion in the Emerald Isle. Bilateral trade was estimated at $3.15 billion in 2011, a hike of almost 50 per cent since 2008. (Compare that with bilateral trade between India and Sri Lanka, pegged at $4.8 billion in 2011, and expected to double to $10 billion by 2015.)
In late August, Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie (who will make way for his successor soon following the recent change of guard in China) spent five days in Sri Lanka before visiting Delhi.
In Colombo, Liang announced a grant of US $100 million for the Lankan Defence Ministry’s welfare projects, $12 million to build a modern auditorium for the Military Academy at Diyatalawa, and $1.5 million to upgrade the Defense Services College in Colombo.
The People’s Liberation Army trains Sri Lankan soldiers, and it was mainly Chinese –and Pakistani--military equipment which allowed Colombo to finally crush the LTTE and kill its dreaded commander Prabhakaran in May 2009.
According to Wikipedia, ‘China has been a steady supplier of military equipment to Sri Lanka and has cooperated with Sri Lanka to modernize and expand the Sri Lanka Armed Forces. China exports ammunition, anti-tank guided missiles, rocket launchers and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles….deep-penetration bombs and rockets, mortar ammunition, night vision devices, artillery armor mortars, security equipment, tanks, jets, naval vessels, radars, communication equipment to Sri Lanka…’
Beijing is Colombo’s largest military supplier.
The second largest? Pakistan.
In early 2012, the UN Human Rights Council moved a resolution which sought to promote ‘reconciliation and accountability’ in Sri Lanka, which essentially meant examining charges of human rights abuse by the Sri Lankan forces during the war with the LTTE.
Sri Lanka rejected the resolution, saying it would need time for the wounds to heal.
India voted for the resolution when it came up for vote at the UN in March. China and Russia voted against it, saying it infringed on Sri Lanka’s domestic and sovereign rights.
Apart from the standard ‘big brother syndrome’, where smaller nations view larger neighbours with suspicion and fear, India’s relationship with Sri Lanka has been dominated by the Tamil issue.
Sri Lankan Tamils have been treated abominably by the majority Sinhalese, causing much heartburn in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This led to the rise of the LTTE, and the botched Indian military intervention in the form of peacekeepers in Sri Lanka from July 1987 to March 1990. It also led to a huge influx of Tamil refugees fleeing persecution to India. And it led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE.
Politicians from Tamil Nadu, who also wield clout in the coalition government at the center, shamelessly milk this empathy for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan pilgrims were attacked by a mob in Tamil Nadu recently, and the state government objects to the training of Sri Lankan forces at Indian military camps on its soil.
Given these compulsions, it is difficult for any Indian government to formulate a rational policy on relations with Sri Lanka.
No one doubts the fact that Tamils in Sri Lanka have suffered immensely at the hands of the Sinhalese. At the same time, the brutal terror tactics adopted by the LTTE ensured that all Tamils in Sri Lanka were seen as possible sympathizers by the Sinhalese. The defeat of the LTTE has heightened the Sinhalese sense of superiority, with many feeling that the Tamils have finally been ‘put in place.’ Life is not easy for a Sri Lankan Tamil.
But should our foreign policy be dictated by these essentially domestic concerns?
Because by that rule of thumb, we should be seeking to censure almost all our neighbours for human rights violations, and be ready to deal with similar charges against ourselves at international forums.
And we should not complain when our traditional rivals China and Pakistan build strong economic and military relations with a neighbor that is a stone’s throw –- barely 31 km -- across the Palk Strait.
Electoral arithmetic always trumps strategic concerns.
Immediately after the rout of the LTTE, New Delhi granted some $100 million as aid for rehabilitation of the war torn people. It also launched a massive housing project for those displaced by the long ethnic war. Other longer term projects involve repairing and upgrading the Sri Lankan Railways, and helping war widows, fishermen, farmers, and entrepreneurs with training, equipment, resources and funds.
But the fact remains that when Sri Lanka sought Indian assistance to build Hambantota, New Delhi felt it was not commercially viable.
So today, we have Sri Lankan firms, trained by the Chinese, bidding to build ports in India. Tomorrow, Chinese warships, including its new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, can dock at Hambantota.
The fact remains India was unable to arm the Sri Lankan military against the LTTE, because of the Tamil issue. Even training the Sri Lankan forces and civil services in India is under a cloud due to fears of a backlash from Tamil politicians.
Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka was absolutely within its rights to seek help elsewhere. And we can’t blame China and Pakistan for jumping at the chance.
There are those who argue, or perhaps hope, that the passage of a Indian container ship through a Sri Lankan port built by China is symbolic of a deeper Sino-Indian understanding.
There are also those who take the high moral ground, saying Sri Lanka shares the same human rights record as its friends China and Pakistan.
New Delhi keeps reiterating that India and Sri Lanka’s destinies are interlinked, and that it has no desire or intention to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.
But the possibility of Chinese and Pakistani missile ships and aircraft being able to berth so close to India’s southern tip must be disconcerting to New Delhi.
The report that sparked all this was wrong. India does not have missiles targeted at Sri Lanka.
Simply because it takes barely a few minutes to set the Agni’s target co-ordinates.
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Ramananda Sengupta is a senior editor and strategic analyst