02 June 2013

The China ‘choice’

Before July 1987, few Sri Lankans had heard the term bhoo-deshapaalana yathaarthaya (geo-political reality).  It was tossed around liberally by those who sought to give legitimacy to the infamous Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment of the Constitution consequent to it.  Strangely (and tellingly), the term is not used to describe post-LTTE Sri Lanka and the equally ‘legitimate’ argument for the abolishing of the 13th Amendment.

Part of that exercise was to point to India’s geographical proximity, size and military capabilities.  Those who are hell bent on letting India make Sri Lanka inhabit India’s version of Sri Lanka’s reality have not given up on this.  They forget that the United States of America, by and large, virtually wrote Sri Lanka’s agricultural policy in the eighties and nineties, and this at a time when India was closer to the USSR than the USA.  Distance counts, sure, but only so much. 

The above is preamble to Sino-Lanka relations of 2013.  It is about friendship and it is about options.  In a climate where India and the USA are both openly hostile to Sri Lanka, the island nation has few options.  If an analogy were needed, we can go to 1988-89 or the 3 decades long war.  In both instances, poor youth opted to stand with the JVP and the LTTE respectively since there was no compelling reason to stand with the state. 
The Government, similarly, cornered as it is internationally by India and the USA, both countries doing their utmost to destabilize the government and the nation, within and without, can’t be faulted for looking for help elsewhere.  The logical choice is China.

China has its own interests of course.  We do not live in an ideal world where there’s giving and no talk of taking, directly or indirectly.  It is business as usual, and as usual as it has always been when it comes to bilateral relations. 
What is different about China (for now) is that China has always had a policy of keeping out of local politics, working strictly with the Government in power and not tying ‘constitutional tinkering’ to offers of help.  Given all the headaches that the Government suffers at the moment, China seems to be a relatively good headache to have. 

All things considered, China has more Mr Asia credentials than India does.  India needs the USA prop. India is plagued by internal problems that are threatening the future of the union.  The Chinese footprint is slowly but surely obliterating the invasive, jump-on-your-face hoof-print of the USA.  If it comes down to picking a thug to protect you, then it makes sense to pick China. 
The questions, though, is whether we must always pick one thug or another.  Is it a given for all time on account of size, current state of fire power and such?  The answer is ‘no’.  Britain was not all that big. Rome was just a city.  It is about being smart, getting the pieces of the ‘independence puzzle’ and putting them in their correct places. 

Whether we agree with the why and how of these things, both the USA and China (like the USSR over much of the 20th Century) have solid systems in place to ensure political stability over a long period of time and through regime-change and efficiency on all counts. 
Positive though the picture painted by the Central Bank looks, impressive though the infrastructure development in post-conflict Sri Lanka, ‘systems’ continue to be terribly flawed with each (inevitable) rupture tided over by presidential intervention, promises, sweeteners and threat or execution of force.  The question ‘development for whom?’ is not just left unanswered but is not even considered relevant. So too the question ‘development for how long?’  

It is not in China’s or anyone else’s long term interests to get Sri Lanka to sort out these issues.  The insistence on devolution by India and the USA comes with tokenism pertaining to overall better governance, but the adjustments demanded are calculated, one could argue, to create or exacerbate friction among communities.  China’s ‘positive’ is that it doesn’t really care about such things as long as long-term strategic and economic interests are satisfied. 
This alliance, though, is colored by political expedience that takes into account global and regional political realities as by weaknesses that have been allowed to get worse.    Thus, although the strong relations with China that the President places emphasis on can be seen as judicious in the short term, it cannot be forgotten that the business of having to pick a ‘big brother’ shows how weak Sri Lanka is politically, economically, institutionally and even morally. 

A different approach is warranted and it better draw from history and culture, philosophical bedrock of civilizational high points.   
['The Nation' Editorial, June 2, 2013]