GEOPOLITICS DROWNS SRI LANKA'S TAMILS: The great game
Last updated: 25 May, 2009
By M K Bhadrakumar 22:22 IST
Sri Lanka snubbed Washington by rejecting the US offer to dispatch a naval force to provide humanitarian assistance.
The strange line-up of the member countries of the United Human Rights Council (HRC) for or against Sri Lanka at the special session of the body scheduled to take place in Geneva on Tuesday underscores the maritime Great Game unfolding in the Indian Ocean.
The special session is being convened at the request of 17 of the 47 members of the HRC, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Britain. Hovering in the background is the United States. It aims at forcing Sri Lanka to face charges of gross human rights violations in its war against the Tamil insurgents. An HRC recommendation to set up an international commission of inquiry would put Colombo in the docks. An HRC special session has been called only on 10 previous occasions.
But Colombo is not browbeaten. The seasoned poker player has tabled a counter resolution titled “Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and Protection of Human Rights” commending Colombo for its victory over terrorism and soliciting funds for reconstruction. The 12 co-sponsors of the resolution include China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Egypt, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. India finds itself in the strange company but is justified in estimating that the HRC move against Sri Lanka is a non-starter. China and Russia will anyhow ensure that the ‘international community’ doesn’t torment Colombo. They have invited Sri Lanka to come close to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In essence, Sri Lanka is the theatre where Russia and China are frontally challenging the US’s incremental global strategy to establish NATO presence in the Indian Ocean region. The US has succeeded in bringing the NATO upto the Persian Gulf region. The NATO is swiftly expanding its relationship with Pakistan. But it is Sri Lanka that will be the jewel in the NATO’s Indian Ocean crown. Russia and China (and Iran) are determined to frustrate the US geo-strategy. The hard reality, therefore, is that geopolitics is sidetracking Sri Lanka’s Tamil problem. Sri Lanka snubbed Washington by rejecting the US offer to dispatch a naval force to evacuate or provide humanitarian assistance to the Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone. China, Russia and Iran encouraged Colombo to reject the US ‘humanitarian intervention’ in yet another strategically vital region.
There is moral muddiness all around. Simply put, a ‘containment strategy’ on the part of the US towards Sri Lanka becomes unworkable. By helping Sri Lanka to withstand the US pressure, China has secured the status of a ‘steadfast ally.’ Apart from arms supplies totalling $100 million, China has overtaken Japan as Sri Lanka’s number one foreign donor. China gave $ 1 billion assistance last year as compared to $ 7.4 million and 1.25 million pounds by the US and UK respectively.
India views with unease the Chinese inroads into Sri Lanka as part of a broad move into the Indian Ocean. But India faces acute dilemma. Its capacity to cajole the diehard Sinhalese nationalists to compromise with the Tamils for an enduring settlement suffers so long as China extends such no-holds-barred political backing to the Colombo establishment.
But Delhi cannot roll back its substantial political, military and economic support to Sri Lanka, either. The interlocking interests of the two neighbouring countries are self-evident. The lure of Sri Lanka cannot be overestimated. The US would like us to believe that India-China rivalry is the sum total of the geopolitics of Sri Lanka. But this is a dissimulation of the actual great game.
It is very obvious that there is a huge geopolitical backdrop of power plays in the Indian Ocean. The US’s naval dominance is declining and it is “leveraging the growing sea power of allies such as India and Japan to balance against China,” to quote Robert Kaplan, well-known strategic thinker and author.
China’s ascendance feared
Arguably, the US volte face on Colombo’s war (after having been its staunch supporter until recently) stems from the strategic setback it suffered through miscalculation insofar as while American admirals were scared away by Sri Lanka’s civil war, China simply moved in. The West fears China’s ascendance. On China’s part, however, the fuelling station in Hambantota becomes vital for optimally using the series of port facilities it has lined up in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar connecting the southern Chinese province of Yunnan to the world market.
The naval presence in Sri Lanka becomes invaluable for China if the planned canal across the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand materialises connecting Indian Ocean with China’s Pacific coast, a project that could dramatically shift the balance of power in Asia in China’s favour. Therefore, no matter what it takes, the West and China (with Russian backing) will compete for gaining the upper hand in Sri Lanka.
Having said that, the US also has a need for greater cooperation with China. This in turn creates a compulsion for the US to act as a ‘broker’ between India and China. During his visit to Delhi on May 14, the US Pacific Command chief Admiral Timothy J Keating revealed that he declined an offer recently from a top-ranking Chinese naval official regarding a US-Chinese understanding to split the seas East of Hawaii and West of Hawaii between the two navies, while on his part he said he invited China to join the annual US-India naval exercises codenamed ‘Malabar Exercises,’ but China declined and preferred to remain as an observer.
(The writer is a former diplomat)