Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sri Lanka - China Relations: Great expectations maybe bleak houses

By Kumar David | Lakbima News

China has been a good and loyal friend to Sri Lanka, that is the people and nation not this or that government, though sometimes it may be difficult to manage overlap. If the present regime has great expectations that it can ride rough and wild with human rights and China will stand by it through thick and thin, well its hopes may be resident in bleak houses. You may counter that China has stood firm by many egregious regimes (Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe), so why not Sri Lanka. There’s a difference; when the government or regime is indistinguishable from the state, China does not make a distinction either, but if the ruling party is prone to change, her loyalty is to the entity endowed with continuity, the nation.

For half a century China has been consistent in this stance. A UNP government signed the controversial Rubber-Rice Pact in 1952 and in 1957 an SLFP led government recognised the PRC even before its entry to the United Nations.

The deaf and blind club

The Chinese state is a major human rights violator and it is a one-party system, hence democracy in the sense of changing or challenging the government is out of the question. I am more aware than most, having squatted for a quarter of a century at China’s doorstep, that Chinese people accept the state and regime and those who desire to overthrow the CCP are a minority - I think a very small minority. I am not opening up a discussion of state, politics and public acquiescence in the Middle Kingdom today, we can do that another time, my point is that there are obvious reasons why the Chinese state has no interest in formal democracy elsewhere in the world. An unfortunate supplement is that its citizens too are disinterested in democracy in other nations, and that’s a nail in the coffin of anyone who expects Chinese support for human rights, globally. Could anyone, for decades, woo more discreditable louts than the murderous junta in Rangoon? Hence it is unsurprising that secrecy surrounds Chinese development loans to Lanka, conniving with GoSL to keep interest rates and repayment tenures hidden from the public who eventually must carry the burden.

So let us get this straight, China is a card-carrying life-member of the Deaf & Blind to Human Rights Club. However, with a few exceptions (Sihanouk, Pol Pot) China courts nations and peoples, not particular regimes. True China has a soft corner for the SLFP over the UNP, but don’t get the impression that she has special loyalty to the Rajapaksas and their dynastic household.

Steadfast to false principles

Firstly, Beijing is obedient to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations because it needs to be. The principle is: You shoot up your Darfurese in West Sudan, impale political protesters in Harare, and crush every Burmese under your jackboot, we don’t give a s***t, so long as you don’t come with prissy notions about who we lock up, what we do in Tibet, and why we clamp down on our dissidents. China has very obvious quid pro quo motives in urging loyalty to the principle of non-interference in the right of states to screw their citizens. You may recall Tennyson, oxymoron about Lancelot: “Faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”; likewise the Mandarin logic of foreign relations. What the government of Sri Lanka, or Timbuktoo does to its Tamils, its journalists or its human rights pests is an internal matter, China will not interfere, nor will it countenance interference by the US, the UN or any other foreigner. The principle will hold after the Rajapaksas are sent packing and a new bunch from the same party, or the UNP, takes over. The principle will hold even if the new lot throw all the Rajapaksas behind bars. To figure out the consistency of Chinese foreign policy, unburdened as it is by ethics and morality, you have to grasp this first.

The second Beijing principle to grasp is that in its view global existentialism is only state-to-state; bury all notions of class solidarity (“Workers of All Nations Unite” is heresy in ‘communist’ China!). Or Tennyson again: “His honour rooted in dishonour stood.” China will extend support to non-state actors only in clear cases of national liberation wars against a foreign enemy, the Vietnam War for example. The old Soviet Union was more politically flexible in its willingness to back rathu sahodarayo against repressive states in Africa, Latin America and Asia. I guess that was because the Soviet Union was in the thick of the cold war, while the Chinese were largely bystanders. This prioritising of state-to-state relations complements the non-interference attitude. It also justifies the Chinese willingness to provide armaments and war materials to selected states to bash internal opposition. Actually Beijing is much more consistent and predictable than New Delhi.

Economic motives and strategic indifference

China is hungry for resources; coal, iron ore and every other mineral with industrial or strategic potential; its thirst for oil is unquenchable. About 40% of global GDP growth is driven by the Middle Kingdom - the number varies a little each year. Its resource needs are gigantic; in July 2010 it overtook the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer, a record that the latter held for over a century. Lanka is energy deficient, but Hambantota is a useful point of call for shipments from Africa; to repeat then, it’s not some harebrained military strategy to encircle India with Chinese built Indian Ocean harbours, but commerce that explains Beijing’s involvement in Hambantota. Marry that with the old loyalty and you have it all; it is Sri Lanka, not the Rajapaksa cabal that occupies a soft spot in Beijing’s not so tender heart.

Let me link these strands together. I doubt if anything but the fall of Pakistan to extremists, admittedly a possibility within a decade, will bring Sri Lanka into Indo-American strategic cross-hairs; not some imagined Western paranoia of Chinese involvement in Lanka. Some locals imagine that such presumed paranoia bestows the island with great strategic weight. Nope that’s rubbish; Lanka has no military significance for China since she has no blue-water fleet or airpower to project across continents and so far from home. The lesson from Kissinger is to think big, to see the big picture and the large strategic landscape. Looked at this way, it’s the future of Pakistan, not Chinese intentions that will decide if Lanka becomes a strategic focus for the West. Afghanistan probably is already lost, but it is small change, Pakistan is the real prize. If Pakistan falls, then without doubt and in ways not now discernible, Indo-American strategic power will take control of the island - installing a pliant government may be the easiest. And China! China will keep mum as she did when Bush marched into Afghanistan on her border, or into Iraq.

© Lakbima News

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