India should have an open mind about Chinese projects in Sri Lanka unless the island was seen conferring special favours on China, which is yet not the case, former diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala said.
Mr. Dhanapala, widely acclaimed as a top diplomat who played a key role in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy engagement during the war, spoke to The Hindu recently, and shared his views on a host of issues including Sri Lanka’s relationship with India and China, political developments such as the January 8 presidential polls and the ongoing campaign in Sri Lanka seeking abolition of executive presidency.
On India voicing concern over an apparently growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, Mr. Dhanapala — who has held key posts in Beijing, Washington and Geneva — said: “Little Sri Lanka, when it wanted to develop its economy, offered a project of the Hambantota harbour to India who decided for very good economic reasons not to accept it, and so they went to China. Now if you can show me any economic project which has conferred special favours on China, which it has not conferred on other countries let alone India, then I would concede there is a tilt towards China. But that is not yet the case,” he said.
Sri Lanka, however, had most of its loans coming in from one Chinese basket, making it heavily indebted to one country which was economically unwise, he said. “But it has not resulted in us yet being politically dependent on one country.”
The “spread” in Sri Lanka’s international relationships — India is the country’s largest trading partner, Sri Lanka gets tourists from the West — countered the argument that there was a tilt towards China. All the same, Sri Lanka must keep India informed in order to allay strategic fears, Mr. Dhanapala added.
In this regard, the United States’ ‘String of Pearls’ theory had to be viewed with care and suspicion, he said, because “they [United States] have their own motives, trying to stir up trouble in Asia,” by setting up China against India in the region, even as it deals with its own decline.
Also, India would necessarily remain a crucial bilateral partner, he said, because Sri Lanka was geo-politically locked “in a permanent relationship with India which has to be mutually accepted as an irreversible fact of political life.”
The former diplomat, regarded an expert on nuclear disarmament, has more recently been involved in the campaign to abolish executive presidency in Sri Lanka, one of the key themes of the upcoming presidential polls.
Tracing its history to the time of former president J.R. Jayawardene 35 years ago, he said the leader chose the model to suit his own desire to have a more effective executive and to help his attempt to have a Singapore style administration in Sri Lanka.
Over the years different leaders used it to their advantage, with some proving excessive in their use of dictatorial powers. Now it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he said, who evoked many concerns, especially over the dominance of his family, over allegations of corruption and many other acts of dictatorial powers.
The campaign demanded a credible candidate who could obtain popular support for the single objective of abolishing the executive presidency. “And clearly Maithripala Sirisena has fitted that bill,” he said, pointing to the support that Mr. Sirisena — a former minister in Mr. Rajapaksa’s cabinet who recently defected to the opposition platform — has so far drawn from the Sinhala-Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party), the main opposition United National Party and the Marxist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna that is backing the joint opposition platform in an “oblique way”.
On former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s come back to support the common candidate, Mr. Dhanapala said her importance cannot be exaggerated or underrated. “It is left to be seen whether after nine years of being absent from the frontline of politics she just has some residual appeal that will help to swing some votes in her favour.”