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Resetting diplomatic compass

India has handled the docking of Chinese ship in Sri Lanka with maturity

Resetting diplomatic compass

Taking it in one’s stride: Jaishankar’s message is that there is enough space in the ‘emerald island’ for Indian and Chinese presence. PTI



MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

Indian diplomacy encountered a humbling experience with the docking of China’s research vessel Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota Port last week. Colombo and Beijing broke the glass ceiling. Delhi is adjusting to the ‘new normal’. Sri Lanka’s wise leadership moved quickly by issuing ‘provisional approvals’ for Adani Green Energy to invest over $500 million in two wind projects in Mannar and Pooneryn in the northern region. It conveys goodwill.

As a growing power, India can’t be oblivious to the looming challenge of western dominance of the Indian Ocean under the shadow of neo-colonialism.

The manner in which the US ambassador to Sri Lanka jumped into the fray with alacrity somewhat muddled the waters but India knows the Chinese ship is only doing what western navies do all the time — replenish stocks of drinking water, food, etc., for long voyages in the vast ocean. In good measure, the Chinese ambassador in Sri Lanka reminded us that in 2014 a Chinese survey ship visited Colombo.

Indeed, a lot of damage has been caused by the ‘Ashley-Tellis thesis’ of the UPA era that Delhi and Washington should synchronise watches in South Asian capitals. The paradox is, much as India carries the burden of being ‘Big Brother’, the smaller countries in the region also cannot do without India. If the Five Eyes failed in Hong Kong, that was because China cannot be trifled with. But Sri Lanka or Nepal are small countries. The ruthlessness with which Washington frog-marched Kathmandu to ratify the Millennium Challenge Corporation pact in February was a morality play. The India-friendly government in Kathmandu has been forced to knock at Beijing’s door seeking ‘balance’.

As a growing power, India cannot be oblivious to the looming challenge of western dominance of the Indian Ocean under the shadow of neo-colonialism, which Sardar Panikkar had forewarned long ago. Sri Lanka is genetically similar to India — fiercely independent and determined to preserve its strategic autonomy. It needs — and deserves — India’s fullest backing. And it is in India’s self-interest too to act in line with the ‘big picture’.

A senior politician of the ruling front, Wimal Weerawansa, who represented President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the welcome ceremony for the Chinese ship last week, had this to say: ‘China has never told us what the structure of our government should be. China has never established NGOs in Sri Lanka, and funded them to destabilise the government. Therefore, China is one of the few countries that extended assistance to Sri Lanka during these tough times. We hope China will help us more.’

Of course the government’s diplomatic processes to advance a new thinking toward China will need time to gain traction, as there is a lot of resistance internally. Even erudite minds who held top positions in the foreign-policy establishment are weaned on the myth of Indian ‘sovereignty’ at stake in eastern Ladakh. But at responsible levels, there is awareness that the narratives of the past are becoming a liability. The constant communication between Delhi and Beijing at multiple levels needs iron nerves to navigate.

Conceivably, the Five Eyes precipitated the crisis in Sri Lanka with deliberation. After the crushing defeat of the regime change project, overnight, Five Eyes pulled out and western media is now propagating an India-China slugfest in Colombo. However, what works to India’s advantage is that unlike the Five Eyes which shed crocodile tears over Sri Lanka’s sorrows, India stepped forward and gave generous help.

EAM Jaishankar has since made some introspective remarks, while on a visit to Bengaluru. He tactfully picked a regional newspaper to transmit his message far and wide. First, Jaishankar distanced himself from the notion that the Indian Ocean is ‘India’s ocean’. That is a refreshing change of thinking as the Indian elite tend to forget that centuries ago, it was this same ocean that predatory colonial powers stealthily crossed to enslave the subcontinent and create indentured labour out of its native folks.

He advised the Indian elite to reconcile with the reality that India ‘cannot claim exclusivity in the region.’ This was a huge remark, as at one stroke, he rejected the vestiges of zero-sum mindset vis-a-vis China in the South Asian region. His message in the Sri Lankan context is that there is enough space in the ‘emerald island’ for Indian and Chinese presence.

Furthermore, he said the docking of the Chinese ship at Hambantota doesn’t have to be a ‘flashpoint’ between Delhi and Beijing. At one stroke, he distanced the government from the ill-informed media people and churlish think tankers. With reference to China’s footprint in the region, he remarked that ‘in international politics, each country plays a game, and we need to play our strengths.’ Surely, do the Chinese get paranoid when our naval vessels dock at ports in Vietnam, the Philippines or Japan?

The Colombo elite understood Jaishankar’s message, as evident in Wickremesinghe’s outpouring of gratitude and relief to reassure Delhi that Sri Lanka will be mindful of India’s legitimate concerns as a neighbour and emerging global power. He has made a big overture to the Indian leadership by constructively engaging with the Adani Group. The recent turmoil showed how critical energy security is. ‘Green development’ is potentially an important facet of economic and energy cooperation with Sri Lanka. It is up to us to design a road map.

Beijing is also attentive. Jaishankar’s reference to ‘Asian Century’ in his remarks from Thailand on August 18 has been keenly noted. With a new world order taking shape, EAM’s Thailand speech signalled that Indian diplomacy is proactively resetting the compass. The Indian Army’s participation with the PLA in Russia’s mammoth Vostok 2022 ‘strategic command exercises’ in western Pacific in September is just the right thing to do.


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