Monday, September 20, 2010

China footprint bothers Delhi day after Lanka blast

By Sujan Dutta | The Telegraph

When dynamite ripped through the fishing village of Karadiyanaru in eastern Sri Lanka, a former LTTE stronghold, on Friday and killed 25 people, officials in New Delhi’s South Block and army headquarters burned the phone lines to find out what caused it.

Had remnants of the now-decimated LTTE succeeded in a desperate act of sabotage? As the body count, initially estimated at 60, was revised by Colombo to 25 and Sri Lanka began an investigation into what it believes was an accident, the focus has gradually shifted to the presence of the Chinese.

Among the 25 killed were two Chinese engaged in building roads near Batticaloa. Prima facie evidence suggests that the explosion ripped through the local police station when one of them opened a container of dynamite that was kept close to another container of detonators.

In Delhi, it was the presence of the Chinese in the island nation that immediately sent officials poring over maps of eastern Sri Lanka in the region around Batticaloa, where the LTTE had battled to the last and where the Sri Lankan armed forces are said to have killed hundreds in the opaque war that ended last year.

The presence of the Chinese in Hambantota, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, was well known. The Chinese are building a port in the strategic town where their merchant vessels and cargo carriers sailing to and from Africa can make a victualling (for food supplies) stop. Ironically, six years back, Colombo had proposed building the Hambantota port in a joint venture with India but New Delhi had let the offer pass.

The presence of the Chinese in Batticaloa highlights how strongly Beijing has been occupying strategic space in the island nation that New Delhi had vacated in the years before the LTTE was defeated. Also, all maritime traffic headed to and from ports in India’s east coast to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand sail not far from the town.

India has always been sensitive to traffic to the Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee in its northeast. Batticaloa is almost just as important. “We have such close relations with Sri Lanka that neither the Chinese nor anyone else (read Pakistan) can displace us easily but we know how their presence has increased,” one senior official in South Block asserted.

“It is not fair to assume that we are panicky about Chinese presence around us,” the Indian official emphasised. “But it is important that we sustain relations with Sri Lanka and make up for lost ground.”

Through the years of the war with the LTTE, New Delhi kept up a steady exchange with Colombo but categorically refused to sign a defence cooperation pact that Lanka wanted. India also refused to supply lethal weapons — given the sensitivities of its own Tamil population — but the army, air force and navy persisted with training and surveillance programmes for the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Since the middle of this year, however, India has practically launched a charm offensive on Sri Lanka.

Admiral Nirmal Verma was the first Indian service chief to visit a memorial to the 1,200-odd soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF, 1987-1990) who were killed in the war with the LTTE. The army chief, General V.K. Singh, himself a gallantry medal winner from that war, visited the island nation for five days earlier this month.

Visits by the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik, and defence secretary Pradeep Kumar are on the anvil. External affairs minister S.M. Krishna is due to visit next month after foreign secretary Nirupama Rao’s tour this month. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited New Delhi and Shimla in June.

The flurry of high-profile exchanges marks a huge effort by India to regain lost strategic space on the island that was occupied largely by China and by Pakistan in the run-up to the war that decimated the LTTE.

The Indian and Sri Lankan navies have robust co-operation and also co-ordinate the patrolling of the Palk Straits.

Foreign secretary Rao supervised agreements to open Indian consulates at Jaffna and Hambantota, significantly increasing Indian outreach even as the Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka expands.

© The Telegraph

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