Wednesday, 27 May 2009


Sri Lanka wards off Western bullying

By M K Bhadrakumar
Asia Times Online

The strange lineup of the member countries of the United
Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) 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.

Geopolitics is drowning the lamentations over the
legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils for equity,
justice and fair play and the perennial human-rights
questions that arise when the state violates the integrity
of the individual. Control of the maritime routes of the
Indian Ocean through which 70% of total world traffic of
petroleum products passes - and half of the world's
container traffic - takes precedence over the tragic plight
of the 300,000 ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka uprooted from
their life. The focus of the world powers is on becoming
the "Lord of the Malaccas".

The special session is being convened in Geneva at the
request of 17 of the 47 members of the UNHRC, including
Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands,
Switzerland and Britain. Hovering in the background is the
United States. The initiative is primarily of the European
Union (EU) and it aims at forcing Sri Lanka to face charges
of gross human-rights violations in its war against the
Tamil insurgents. An UNHRC recommendation to set up an
international commission of inquiry will not mean the end
of the world, but it can be a needless headache. An UNHRC
special session has been called only on 10 previous

However, 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". Believe it or not, the Sri Lankan resolution
commends Colombo for its victory over terrorism and
solicits funding from a grateful international community.
The 12 co-sponsors of the Sri Lankan resolution include
China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the
Philippines, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Russia, China backing Colombo The outcome of the UNHRC
special session can be foretold. The EU won't get anywhere.
It had better think of approaching the International
Criminal Court based in The Hague. But then, Sri Lanka is
not a signatory state. The "international community" can
get the United Nations Security Council to refer the case
to the ICC, in which case the ICC is mandated to summon a
non-signatory state. But then China and Russia wield veto

As soon as Colombo declared victory in the war against the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Chinese Foreign
Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu took friendly note of it. "As
a friendly neighbor, China has kept a close eye on how the
Sri Lankan situation developed. We sincerely hope Sri Lanka
will make efforts to accomplish national reconciliation,
social stability and economic progress," Ma said.

Equally, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei
Nesterenko "welcomed" Colombo's success in "restoring
control over the entire territory of the country" and
liberating the civilians held hostage. Russia "supports the
fight of the Sri Lankan government against terrorism and
separatism and for state sovereignty and territorial
integrity" and stands ready to "strengthen further its
cooperation [with Sri Lanka] ... both in a bilateral format
and in regional and international organizations on
counter-terrorism and on other themes of mutual concern".

China and Russia will ensure that the "international
community" cannot torment Colombo. They have invited Sri
Lanka to come close to the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization as a "dialogue partner". In essence, Sri Lanka
is transforming as the theater where Russia and China are
frontally challenging the US's incremental global strategy
to establish a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
presence in the Indian Ocean region.

The US has succeeded in bringing NATO up to the Persian
Gulf region. In October 2007, NATO conducted its first-ever
naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. The alliance is
swiftly expanding its relationship with Pakistan. The
chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike
Mullen told a US Congressional hearing on Thursday, "Where
I see NATO going is increasingly towards a broader and more
in-depth relationship with Pakistan, because of the common
interests." But it is Sri Lanka that will be the jewel in
NATO's Indian Ocean crown. Russia and China (and Iran) are
determined to frustrate the US geostrategy.

US pressure won't work But the US has taken a position of
high principles - the human-rights situation in Sri Lanka.
It can block Sri Lanka's application for a US$1.9 billion
emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Sri Lankan economy is in dire straits. US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton said on May 15 that this "is not an
appropriate time" to talk about the IMF loan. She confirmed
that the US had "raised questions about the IMF loan at
this time".

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly has linked the release
of the IMF loan to Colombo allowing the UN, the
International Committee of the Red Cross and other
international aid agencies, to access the camps where
"hundreds of thousands" of internally displaced Tamils
uprooted in the fighting are sheltered.

Washington is peeved that Colombo already forgot it was the
vehement US support that enabled Colombo to launch the
military operations against Sri Lanka in 2006. But the Sri
Lankan government would say it reciprocated the US backing
by signing in March 2007 an Access and Cross Servicing
Agreement with the US that allows American warships and
aircraft to use facilities in Sri Lanka.

At any rate, the US feels snubbed that Sri Lanka spurned
its offer a few months ago to dispatch a naval force to
evacuate or provide humanitarian assistance to the Tamil
civilians trapped in the war zone. An "assessment team" of
the US Navy visited Sri Lanka with a view to work out the
range of options for the operation. But Colombo somehow
developed cold feet about the wisdom of inviting US
"humanitarian intervention". Quite possibly, third
countries might have alerted Colombo to the risks involved.

Unsurprisingly, Washington is pressuring Colombo. Kelly
said on Thursday, "The international community needs to
make an assessment of exactly what happened and consult
with the Sri Lankan government on the way forward ... we
need to take things a step at a time. We need to focus on
the humanitarian situation, and we need to focus on
starting a political reconciliation process. Once we take
those steps, we can start looking at the broader issue of
economic and trade issues [IMF loan]".

However, the US pressure tactic may not work. Like in the
case of Myanmar or Sudan, if Washington steps up pressure,
China may come to Sri Lanka's help. There is moral
muddiness all around. Simply put, a "containment strategy"
on the part of the US towards Sri Lanka becomes unworkable.
Testy times lie ahead.

On Friday, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa accused
unnamed foreign powers of having tried to stop the military
operations against the LTTE by "threatening to haul us
before war crimes tribunals" and that he was ready "to go
to the gallows".

On Saturday, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (who is
the president's brother) told an Indian TV channel, "If one
talks of taking our military to a war crimes tribunal,
before that you have to take US troops, UK troops, all
those troops and all those leaders, into war crimes
[tribunals]." He was angrily responding to the EU demand
for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes by Sri
Lankan army.

India-China rivalry The countries that are backing Sri
Lanka at the UNHRC special session on Tuesday have a
convergence of interest insofar as they oppose the doctrine
of "humanitarian intervention" in sovereign states. China
and India have been at the receiving end in the past on the
human-rights issue and have extended mutual support in
warding off UNHRC pressure.

But in the present context, the motives of China and India
are complex. The fact is, China has exploited Sri Lanka's
vulnerability to secure the pre-eminent status of a
"steadfast ally". China is building in Hambantota a $1
billion port that it may eventually use as a refueling and
docking station for its navy as it patrols the Indian Ocean
and protects China's sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. Jane's
Defence Weekly has reported on Chinese supplies of
ammunition and ordnance for the Sri Lankan army and navy.
The Stockholm International Peace Foundation says China
gifted Sri Lanka six F7 jet fighters last year. Chinese aid
for Sri Lanka touched $1 billion last year. China is
presently Sri Lanka's number one foreign donor, overtaking
Japan. (The US and the UK gave measly amounts of $7.4
million and $1.9 million, respectively.)

India views the Chinese inroads into Sri Lanka with
disquiet as part of a broad move into the Indian Ocean. But
India faces an acute dilemma. Delhi hopes to influence
Colombo to seek an early settlement of the Tamil problem,
which has serious implications for India's politics and
national security. But its capacity to cajole the diehard
Sinhalese nationalists to compromise and reconcile suffers
as long as China backs Colombo to the hilt. Colombo's
defiant statements to the West also hold a subtle message
for Delhi.

If Delhi tries to roll back its substantial political,
military and economic support to Sri Lanka, China will
simply step in. The lure of Sri Lanka for China cannot be
overestimated by Delhi. Colombo plays the game beautifully.
Before procuring weapons from China, Colombo first presents
the wish list in Delhi. If Delhi declines, it promptly
approaches Beijing. (This was what happened in the case of
Hambantota port, too.)

Therefore, Delhi is unsure about Washington's pressure
tactic. It has known Colombo all through as a tough
negotiator - be it on the rights of Indian fishermen or
over Kachativu Island or regarding stateless persons of
Indian origin. Colombo stonewalled for decades all Indian
attempts to mediate a settlement to the Tamil problem.

Great Game in the Indian Ocean Clearly, it is far too
simplistic to portray Sri Lanka as a mere playpen of
China-India rivalry. There is a huge geopolitical backdrop.
The US's naval dominance is declining. On the other hand,
China's navy may have more warships than the US's in the
coming decade.

In the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, noted
strategic thinker and author Robert Kaplan analyzed the
power plays in the Indian Ocean. As Kaplan wrote, the US is
"beginning an elegant decline by leveraging the growing sea
power of allies such as India and Japan to balance against

To a great extent, the US volte face on Rajapksa's war
(after having been such a strong supporter until quite
recently) stems from the strategic setback it suffered
insofar as while the American admirals had been scared away
by Sri Lanka's ethnic strife, China simply moved in. The
West finds Rajapaksa getting too close to China for its
comfort. On China's part, however, the fueling station in
Sri Lanka becomes vital for optimally using the series of
port facilities that it has lined up in Pakistan,
Bangladesh and Myanmar connecting the southern Chinese
province of Yunnan.

The naval presence in Sri Lanka becomes invaluable for
China if the planned canal across the Isthmus of Kra in
Thailand materializes connecting the Indian Ocean with
China's Pacific coast, a project that has the potential to
dramatically shift the balance of power in Asia. Therefore,
no matter what it takes, Beijing will strive to expand its
influence in Sri Lanka and help Colombo ward off US

But, having said that, the US also has a need for greater
cooperation with China. To quote Kaplan, the US "seizes
every opportunity to incorporate China's navy into
international alliances; a US-Chinese understanding at sea
is crucial for the stabilization of world politics in the
21st century". This in turn creates a compulsion for the US
to both act as a "broker" between India and China and as a
moderator of the competition between the two hugely
ambitious powers. As Kaplan put it, even as India and China
"bump into each other" in the Indian Ocean, "the job of
managing their peaceful rise will fall on the US Navy to a
significant extent".

Curiously, during a visit to Delhi on May 14, the US
Pacific Command chief Admiral Timothy J Keating dropped a
bombshell among the unsuspecting Indians by revealing that
he declined an offer recently from a top-ranking Chinese
naval official for a US-Chinese understanding to split the
seas east of Hawaii and west of Hawaii between the two

Keating went on to say that on his part, he invited China
to join the annual US-India naval exercises codenamed
"Malabar Exercises" (which strategists in Delhi fancy as
their exclusive partnership with the US), but China
declined, saying it preferred to be an observer. Kaplan was
right in saying, "There will be surely tensions between the
three [US, Chinese, Indian] navies, especially as the gaps
in their relative strength begins to close."

What all this adds up to in immediate terms is that Colombo
will be plainly dismissive of the UNHRC meet on Tuesday.
Indeed, its first instinct is to hoot with derision. The
Sinhala establishment is fully aware of Sri Lanka's immense
strategic value in the accelerating power struggle in the
Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka sits on a central theater of global
conflict and competition and will derive leverage to
reinforce its sovereignty and independence and its
strategic autonomy.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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