1 January 2015

New challenges from China

G Parthasarathy
Jan 1 2015 

Sri Lanka, Nepal keen on China's admission to SAARC
The year 2014 ended with China seeking and obtaining a measure of support for its attempts to gatecrash into SAARC during the Kathmandu summit. New Delhi will now face sustained attempts in 2015, from Sri Lanka and Nepal, to enhance Chinese influence and power across India's land and maritime frontiers. Sri Lanka is headed for Presidential elections on January 8. Nepal's Prime Minister Koirala has served notice that he is determined to adopt a new Constitution by January 22, whether or not there is a parliamentary consensus. Koirala is evidently ready to use the huge majority in the legislature that he and his coalition partners, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-UML) command, brushing aside demands from the Madhesi people, who are calling for a federal set-up, reflecting the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the country.

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse has sought re-election two years before the end of his second term Mr. Rajapakse was swept back to power in 2010 after he successfully brought an end to three decades of ethnic conflict, crushing the LTTE and eliminating its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. But the years thereafter have been troublesome domestically for Rajapakse, who has also faced serious international challenges arising from excesses allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the last days of the civil war. This has led to moves by the US and its Western allies to censure Sri Lanka and demand action against those allegedly guilty of killing innocent Tamils.

President Rajapakse faces challenges not only from the opposition UNP led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, but also from within his own party, mounted by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. His rival in the coming Presidential election, Mathripala Sirisena, is an influential and long-serving general secretary of the ruling SLFP who was also his Transport Minister. The Presidential election is being held when Mr. Rajapakse's popularity appears to be waning, with his party candidates recording a distinct fall in their vote share in the recent provincial elections. Recent communal violence directed at Muslims by the Buddhist clergy has raised concerns. There is disappointment amongst Tamils at the manner in which the Northern Province Government has been denied any meaningful powers for governance, contrary to what President Rajapakse had assured earlier. All this is creating a situation wherein the President could well lose the support of minority communities constituting 25% of the electorate. Moreover, sections of his own party, led by his rival Sirisena and Chandrika Kumaratunga, could split votes of the President's own SLFP. The UNP has been reinvigorated by these developments.

The Rajapakse family, now holding virtually all key positions in the government and the legislature, is a formidable force. There is, moreover, a generally submissive judiciary and formidable State machinery. It would be unrealistic to presume that the President would not be returned to office. Moreover, Sri Lanka has done very well economically in recent years. Allegations that the Western powers are seeking to end the Rajapakse era are now widespread. 

China's economic presence in Sri Lanka cuts across every section of the island's economic life. Apart from the massive development of the Hambantota and Colombo ports, China is now a major player in key sectors like telecommunications, rail transport, petroleum refineries, offshore oil and gas exploration, power and energy. Such economic cooperation with China is understandable, given the Western antipathy to the Rajapakse dispensation. India cannot, however, ignore either the growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, facilitated by recent berthing facilities in Colombo for Chinese submarines, or the enthusiastic backing for the Xi Jinping proposal for a "maritime silk route" in the Indian Ocean. A senior Sri Lankan diplomat spoke recently in India about the need for a South Asian security architecture that includes China and the need to admit China to SAARC. These are issues that India needs to deal with not just bilaterally, but also in consultation with Japan, the US and major European powers. Sri Lanka cannot presume it would get continuing Indian support for international challenges it faces, while it disregards India's security concerns.

Prime Minister Koirala's recent moves on facilitating SAARC membership for China are not very different from the directions taken by the Rajapakse government. The Prime Minister has rightly taken note of a gratuitous comment by an errant British Ambassador, urging Nepal to include the "right to change religion" in the Constitution now being drafted. It is really for the people and Parliament of Nepal to decide what the religious structure of Nepal should be. One wonders if the British Ambassadors in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia would render such gratuitous advice to their host governments. But what one cannot ignore is a report by a senior Nepali journalist that during a recent visit to Nepal, China's Vice Foreign Minister Chen Fengxiang argued that Nepal should reject federalism based on ethnicity and language, but merely agree to federalism across not more than three provinces, oriented from North to South, and touching both China and India.

Like Sri Lanka, Nepal appears to be very keen on China's admission to SAARC -- a proposal turned down by India. The driving force behind these moves is China's "all-weather friend" Pakistan. India cannot ignore China's growing economic and strategic profile within Nepal. China is now constructing a high altitude railway line from Lhasa to the second largest city of Shigatse in Tibet, located close to the China-Nepal border. A road link from Lhasa to Kathmandu is also under construction. Nepal has also been pressured by China to clamp down on the Tibetan refugees fleeing from persecution. 

The time has perhaps come for New Delhi to tell its eastern SAARC neighbours that, given Pakistan's obduracy, India sees very little prospect for regional economic integration within SAARC. Bilateral economic integration with these neighbours can be reinforced, not through SAARC, but through BIMSTEC, which brings together land-locked and coastal South Asian States across the Bay of Bengal, with ASEAN members, Myanmar and Thailand. BIMSTEC should become the organisation linking and integrating South and Southeast Asia economically.

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