Pakistan Premier’s Arrival Moots New Chapter in SL-Centric Geopolitics
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena last Sunday, in an interview with Ceylon Today, said Sri Lanka has ‘lost’ its sovereignty to three countries (China, India and the US) due to geopolitics, as the island is strategically located in the middle of the busiest East-West maritime lane.
Although the Minister was witty, the ‘new’ Pakistan heralded under Prime Minister Imran Khan, and his call for the Sri Lankan Government to be part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) endorses a ‘China-Pakistan-Sri Lanka triangle’, and it cannot be taken lightly.
Premier Khan has been studying the new developments in Sri Lanka and he was the only individual ‘left out’ in the region’s geopolitics where China, India, the US, and Japan (in the same order) have highly engaged and ‘encrypted’ their ties with Sri Lanka proportionately quite well.
It was none but the Chinese who are good at reading the world map using a stick as seen in ‘war movies’, realised first, the potential of this small island nation. Whether the result would be a win-win situation or not, the Hambantota Port deal changed the dimension and destiny from demand-led Sri Lanka to an island stirring geopolitical tension and at the same time being burdened with debt to develop the country in the post-war era.
Shift in non aligned stance
In that direction, Sri Lanka that had been boasting of being a member of the nonaligned movement, but is signalled to have shifted from that stance practically as it embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI map of China is enormous, adventurous, political and they are invincible so far as it is webbed with power, money, politics, military and booming trade that created the China-centric dependency hence there are countries in favour of China like Pakistan while some of the giants like India which has locked horns, would precisely watch closely at the new triangle friendship.
Imran Khan praised China and invited Sri Lanka to a prosperous future with CPEC. “My trade delegation should find ways and means for Sri Lanka to join CPEC, which is Pakistan's flagship connectivity project,” he said at the Temple Trees gathering. Premier Khan said Pakistan, being part of the BRI of China, would want to see how trade and connectivity with Sri Lanka could be enhanced joining CPEC and how Sri Lanka could connect to Central Asia through CPEC.
CPEC endorses Pakistan’s future monetary stability and is considered a breakthrough project under the BRI, the initiative focuses on Pakistan and especially the Southern Baluchistan region.
CPEC is politically guided by the CPEC Political Parties Joint Consultation Mechanism (PPJCM). PPJCM was established in 2019 between the Communist Party of China and the ruling and major non-ruling parties of Pakistan.
At the Trade and Investment Conference Khan elaborated that he joined politics to alleviate poverty. “President Rajapaksa was motivated by poverty alleviation and food inflation too,” he said, adding that the President had noted that he had been to China and visited various farms and found out how the Chinese have reduced the gap between the wholesale and retail market, which has a huge gap here and makes each item more expensive than the price quoted by the farmer. He said the Chinese reduced that gap with the use of technology.
Khan said he would go back to Pakistan and immediately introduce that technology and thanked President Rajapaksa for that piece of information. He said his next focus was to promote investment and profit. “We have completely changed our policies in Pakistan which have been there for 40 years and the bureaucratic structure evolved as such, which was an impediment to the business community and change the whole mindset. We are trying to change it in the last two years and to remove impediments that translate into ease of doing business. We have improved by 28 spots and come down according to the World Bank report,” he added.
“The whole idea is to generate wealth and lift the poor which the Chinese did. I admire China as there is no country in history that has ever lifted 700 million people out of poverty in 35 years. So the final goal is to create wealth and alleviate poverty and to create wealth in any country, it is political stability that matters,” he said.
He viewed that political stability and having good relations with neighbours was vital and terrorism or any conflict like how Sri Lanka and Pakistan had suffered. He noted it affects the business climate.
“As I came to power I approached Prime Minister Modi and told him the way forward for the Subcontinent to resolve our differences through dialogue and then improve our trade and relations and defuse the tension. I didn’t succeed but I am optimistic that eventually sense would prevail that the only way, we the subcontinent people can get away from poverty, is to have a trade relations.” He pointed out how civilised neighbours like the Europeans live. He said Germany and France fought so many wars, millions have been killed fighting each other but now a conflict between the two countries is unthinkable as they are interlinked for business. “Their trading ties are so strong especially after the European Union that these countries cannot think of another war,” he said. “My dream for the Subcontinent is to resolve our differences and our difference is only one. It’s the Kashmir issue.
All we want to resolve is follow the United Nation’s Security Council Resolution and that could be resolved only through dialogue. If there are conflicts between nations, it would breathe only conflicts, and these don’t resolve problems. The President of China also told me he has problems with his neighbours. All these problems are subservient to trade. And so, this should be applied to the Subcontinent and conflicts should be solved through dialogue and not through conflict,”he said. The Subcontinent he pointed has about 1.9 billion people and the trade potential is unimaginable.
He also stressed that Pakistan can play its part in reducing the rising tension between the US and China. Some 50 years back it was Pakistan that opened up China for the US. Pakistan organised the meeting between Henry Kissinger and the Chinese and we hope that Pakistan again can play a part. We have been a country that brings other nations and humanity together, Khan said.
Finally, Khan urged the business community in Sri Lanka to participate in the CPEC project as it opens the opportunity for Sri Lankan businesses right up to Central Asia. It gives an opportunity of connecting Pakistan’s Gwadar Port right up to Uzbekistan and the Central Asian States.
“Under CPEC we have special economic zones which give incentives to the businesses to set up industries there. I invite the Sri Lankan business and businessmen to come over to Pakistan and we will be hosting you and our businessmen who are here will be interacting with you to discuss various ways which would have mutual benefits to both parties,” he added.
It is said that CPEC will not only benefit Pakistan and China, but it also presents a strategic opportunity for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan to transport their goods more easily and gain competitiveness in regional and global markets.
China has been catering to Sri Lanka’s financial stability and even as last week, Sri Lanka has sought USD 2.2 billion from China as foreign reserves are sinking.
The Hambantota Port which is part of the BRI, is what Khan and China would want to connect and a strategic move needs a comprehensive study.
What is yet to be seen is how Gwadar Port supports Pakistan first for them to recover from the huge amount of Chinese loans and other loans they had obtained.
Of the Hambantota Port business 85% stake is for China whereas the Gwadar Port is leased only for 40 years to China and in both cases, China needs to promote businesses and Khan to introduce CPEC was China’s interest too.
Dhaka-based international Affairs scholar Professor Shahab Enam Khan said Sri Lanka would benefit from CPEC would be the access to the Gwadar Port which will allow Sri Lanka to have greater access to China through this transport route and also greater access to Central Asia without being dependent on the geopolitics and geostrategic vulnerability of the Indian Ocean leading to the Arab Sea and down the region and this is one of the options for Sri Lanka to explore. The second important point is the ongoing interest of global power over the Indian Ocean where Sri Lanka is critically located. So it is basically the point for the energy corridor, economic supply lines and certainly the military supply lines, henceforth obviously the whole idea is to contain China.
He added the Sri Lankan water is essential for any of the powers even to weigh on some sort of proxy presence. That is the reason we are now saying that the increasing mobility of global powers in Sri Lanka is essentially marked by Imran Khan’s visit.
Another part is this would be a cheap bargain for the Sri Lankans to balance between US interests and Chinese interest. How much Sri Lankans politics will benefit, we need to wait and see. The issue of economic benefits, trade benefits and logistic benefits will be a parameter of how the Sri Lankan leadership would manoeuvre these multiple interests.
CPEC is a critical corridor and it reflects both the strategic and economic interests of China and Pakistan and certainly the maritime countries would greatly benefit from CPEC, provided there is equitable arrangement and agreement among the States, he added.
On the Hamanbatota Port, Ports Authority Chairman General Ratnayake in a recent interview said, “Certain areas we can negotiate with China and in certain areas we will have to negotiate and agree as the Chinese also want business. We want to see that the Port is made use of and developed further as nothing much is happening there and we need them to develop it.”
Maritime experts attached to the Colombo University who spoke in anonymity said, “It depends entirely on China’s capability to go ahead with CPEC.”
He also said that Sri Lanka has played itself into polarisation in regional politics and lost its nonaligned status.
He said such engagement with China and Pakistan might benefit Sri Lanka in the short run but it would entertain difficulties and trouble to itself and the regions’ stability, he added. But he did not dismiss that once Sri Lanka is in CPEC and going by the development, Sri Lanka will be compelled to do many things that may irk other countries further, he added.
An Indian maritime expert noted that India has better access to world resources and knowledge base and not ‘closed’ like the Chinese.
He also opined Sri Lanka in CPEC is only China’s gain because it was given for a 99-year lease with an 85% stake.
Having seen Pakistan enter the fray, the only country that could be closely watching Sri Lanka is India which has problematic security, politics and geological upheavals with China and Pakistan. Already the Indian Media has expressed that Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka was a move by China to encircle India as well which is a dangerous message for Sri Lanka.
The recent events of revoking the East Container Terminal which is strategically located in the Colombo Port and now awarding the wind power project to China in the North, which the Indians highlight is close to their borders are some of the serious issues that Sri Lanka should address, despite the project being awarded to China after being processed through a legitimate tender procedure.
India has reiterated the 13A but whether it could be revoked or added in the new Constitution, would be a point that India will watch further and that has been stressed at the United Nations Human Rights Council too.
The Government has been keeping Indian ties intact and it seems the grip is loosening up and the Indian Prime Minister’s recent visit to Tamil Nadu is a case in point. He said his government has always taken care of the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils and ‘consistently’ flagged the issue of their rights with leaders in the island nation.
For New Delhi, the Tamil issue and 13 A are key for Modi's political career as well as India to be part of Sri Lanka- centric geopolitics amid the advent of the China-Pakistan-Sri Lanka triangle. It can trigger a lot more constraints for Sri Lanka,if India’s attention is dropped, political analysts say.
Khan in the block
Khan is a motivational speaker and came to power after studying the politics of Pakistan step-by-step.
He is the only person who called Modi as soon as he came to power. He told the Sri Lankan audience that it’s only the Kashmir issue that split their ties with India and that could be solved through dialogue. India should consider that option as they are the promoters of peace and stability in the Indian Ocean.
As Khan is also keen on promoting trade ties between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, his engagement should be purely trade and business with Sri Lanka and not a promoter of China.
Resolve ties with China
China has been doing its duty single-handedly in Sri Lanka and they have succeeded but until they also resolve their ties with India through dialogue there is less room for any mega trade and investments benefits for the Subcontinent, but there is a huge chance of inviting a ‘war’.
Khan has also pledged a USD 50M defence line facility for Sri Lanka to enhance its national security, which is highly welcomed in a scenario that extremism and terrorism are two aspects the Government is keenly watching.
But in this aspect, Sri Lanka should maintain sharing security information with regional powers but that does not happen due to feuds between countries. It would be an emblematic mistake if Pakistan, China and India don’t resolve their problems with their neighbours before creating hope for Sri Lanka in any mega maritime proposals.
Sri Lanka has not seen the light being part of China’s maritime strategy as expected. There is debt mounting and tilting towards China only is not the way forward.
The blessing for Sri Lanka would be what the President wants, inviting private international investors to Sri Lanka. That is the only way to diffuse geopolitical tensions and avoid being entrapped further.
(Pic by Nuwan Amarawansa)