The China Card

by Eelapalan, April 5, 2013

Many among the Eelam Tamils continue to fall for the “China card” claims of Sri Lanka.  These claims serve, however, as a smokescreen for the realpolitik of the region vis-a-vis Sri Lanka.  A critical analysis of this is helpful for Eelam Tamils to develop a more nuanced approach.

China is of no help to Sri Lanka in strictly military terms in the post-war period.  China’s utility as a military hardware supplier is obviously no longer useful.  China has now shifted its focus to infrastructure development projects in Sri Lanka.  China can never project or base its military assets in Sri Lanka.  It is simply not possible given China’s current capabilities and location.  China is an emerging blue-water navy with a goal of being a fully developed one by 2050 (1) .  Even when it does reach the blue-water capabilities, China will have to risk an outright war with India if it tries to base military assets in Sri Lanka.  That is a red line for India.  The US and India know this.  So does Sri Lanka.  Dayan Jeyatilleke, who the American ambassador called a Sinhala hardliner, underscored this in a recent interview (2).

There is also a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest India has acted in covert ways in Sri Lanka in recent times when it felt the red line was crossed.  A few incidents of interest would be the cases of the Chinese “fishermen” killed in Sri Lankan waters in March 2003 (3) and the attack on the Pakistani ambassador in Colombo in Aug 2006 (4). Of whom, B. Raman who once headed RAW, said the following in  June 2004 (5).

“India has to carefully analyse the implications of his presence in Colombo and take the necessary follow-up action. His presence in Colombo will pose a threat not only to India’s national security, but also to stability and law and order in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province. “

Both of the above incidents were blamed on the LTTE, which officially denied it had anything to do with them.

The most well-known, overt, military intervention by India in Sri Lanka (not counting the 1971 JVP insurrection) in 1987 was not because a red line was crossed.  It was to secure the promises made to India by a pliable Sri Lankan state in agreements contained in the letters exchanged between JR & Rajiv (6) preceding the Indo Lanka Accord.  (On a side note, readers should note the provisions for training facilities for Sri Lankan security forces in 3. II. of those letters.  And how India, to this date, adheres to this agreement, despite all the protest by even Jayalalitha). Also note that the letter does not say a single word about Tamils or their political rights).

India’s focus has been towards west and east to prevent China’s southern thrust.  India feels its defense lines are drawn there and not along its southern borders.  India may feel secure about its southern borders and that her foreign policy is not worthy of change as long as there is a pliable Sri Lankan state and a pliable Tamil political establishment her southern flank.

There is one Chinese threat in Sri Lanka that India is worried about.  As it was the case prior to the Indo Lanka Accord with US listening posts, and as may have been the case with the Chinese fishing vessels, India is concerned about Chinese electronic eavesdropping on India’s strategic assets in south India and on its maritime activities.  India’s bigger concern is the so-called space program between Sri Lanka and China.  A recent ‘Hindu’ report (7) had the following to say

“The Indian authorities have been looking into possible options to counter any security threat.  In its suggestions, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had said India should offer to build and launch satellites for Colombo.

..And if Sri Lanka refused to budge, India would request its neighbour to regulate footprints of satellite coverage within its land and maritime boundary to minimise Chinese interference, if any.”

The timid and conciliatory tone of the reaction to this development indicates that India still feels that it has enough sway over Sri Lanka and does not need to flex her muscle yet.  Compare this to China’s stand in the East and West China Sea against Japan and South Korea or in matters relating to Taiwan or Tibet.  China has been forceful and unambiguous on neighbourhood issues that it considers to be critical to its national security.

So the Tamils of Tamil Eelam and Tamil Nadu continue to be frustrated by the Indian Union government’s continued apathy towards the Tamil issue.  And they are angered by its appeasement of the Sinhala Buddhist state, which the Union government continues to do even at the risk of the alienation of Tamil Nadu.  The Tamils fail to understand that India and the US do not want to introduce another variable on the southern border in the form of Tamil Eelam. India and the US are vested in keeping Sri Lanka a unitary state.

The military projection of India and the economic levers of the west are the instruments that keep Sri Lanka in check.  There is no indication that they will lose those levers anytime soon. The threat of a China- Sri Lanka alliance – as those in power want everyone to believe – is a convenient deflection. The UN resolution and other public pronouncements are only a side show to minimize the possibility of a pan-Tamil project. As long as Sri Lanka remains a market friendly country and is willing to pretend it is serious about reconciliation, the structural issues blocking a genuine peace will continued to be ignored by the powers.

The Sri Lankan state is so belligerent that it no longer is interested in even pretending to be serious about reconciliation, leaving the US and India without a moral escape route.  The pretences at the UN are only to get the Sri Lankan state back into playing the game.

Is there a way for Tamils to then get justice and enjoy peace?  It depends on how quickly the Tamils figure out the real levers they have.

The Tigers were the only group to correctly assess India and the west from their very inception. The leadership and the organization safeguarded the Tamil cause over and above realpolitik.  Fully aware of India’s position of not allowing the creation of Tamil Eelam, the Tigers chose to continue the armed struggle as independently as they could.  Calculating the regional geo-political odds, and given the non-existent political space in Sri Lanka, the Tigers believed that only a militarily strong organization that is willing to sacrifice everything and is uncompromising can force a change of that reality.

A separate and very nuanced analysis of if that approach was correct should be done in the context of current realities, not as a knee jerk reaction to post-Mullivaikal as some Tamils have been doing.

This author was witness to a meeting in 1986 that highlighted the LTTE’s early understanding of Indian policy.  A LTTE leader, Malaravan, delivered a passionate speech to a group of TELO cadres and explained why their organization was being banned.  The thrust of the speech was that TELO was working with India for a military intervention and that is not in the best interest of the Tamils.  Malaravan said such an intervention would permanently close the door on the possibility of Tamil Eelam.  This was at a time when India was seen as the savior of Tamils and a military intervention was strongly desired by Tamils living in Eelam.  Even in 1993, when more water had flowed under the bridge, the LTTE’s thinking about India’s policy was articulated here.  starting from page 14.  There has been enough said and written about the intimately close collaboration between India and Sri Lanka during the war. India adamantly blocking an accountability process warrants further scrutiny.

Given this strong and direct Indian involvement in Sri Lanka, how does then the Sri Lankan government get away with playing the China card?

This is the age of smart power.  Let’s ignore the military projection of India for analysis sake and look at other soft and hard powers of China.  How else can China secure a strategic interest in Sri Lanka?

There are some obvious possibilities on how China can try helping Sri Lanka:

a) By giving soft loans to prop up the government if India and West decide to squeeze the Sri Lankan economy.  All the current help comes with strings attached that Sri Lanka will need to pay back.

b) By offering Security Council protection to prevent anything further and above the simple, non-binding, resolutions such as the ones in the UNHRC.

These options were tried in Burma and did not yield any long term strategic benefits for China.  Burma’s Junta tried to sustain itself through China’s help.  India reversed its policy of non-engagement with Burma in the 90’s and started working with the Junta.  The US played the bad cop role a lot longer and only in the last few years has she accelerated her engagement in Burma with the full blessing of India.  Burma has far more to offer to the west than any other country in South Asia:  geo-strategic location and abundant natural resources.  Burma has realized China friendship alone is not enough.  Having China as a friend helps you survive, but does not allow you to grow.  China is not an import economy.  Not yet at least.  On the other hand, the US’s purchasing power surpasses everyone.

There are several parallels to Sri Lanka here.  Sri Lanka NEEDS India and the West rather than the other way around.  According to the Sri Lankan Department of Commerce’s 2012 data, India is the 3rd largest export partner for Sri Lanka, accounting for 6.1% of exports as of 2012,while China is at 16th accounting for only 1%.  Sri Lanka exports more to Turkey than to China.  Not surprisingly America (23%) and U.K. (12%) account for the lion share of Sri Lankan exports.  If imports to Sri Lanka are also taken into account, India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner.

While China continues to loan money for and help with infrastructure projects, America has integrated its purchasing power as an essential tool of its smart power.  America and the UK also have leverage over the IMF and World Bank lending to Sri Lanka.  If Sri Lanka continues as a market friendly country, these countries can continue to maintain their economic levers.  A  good infographic of investments by India and China can be found here.

In the absence of a direct military threat, China helping Sri Lanka to develop infrastructure also indirectly serves the US and India.  They do not have to spend money developing Sri Lanka and they can reap the benefits eventually. The more Sri Lanka develops, the more dependent it will become on the US and India. Without a radical change in Chinese consumer behaviour, China’s leverage on Sri Lanka will be a diminishing one in the short term.   How many more harbours and airports can China build in Sri Lanka?

Just as Eelam Tamils have been complaining that the economic development is meaningless without proper and vested political rights, Sinhalese will eventually complain that these developments are meaningless if they cannot afford to use any of them due to slow economic growth.

The growth of the Sri Lankan economy is intrinsically tied to the US, Europe and India. Just as in the case of Burma and in the case of Africa, infrastructure investments have yielded limited strategic return for China. It has generated goodwill that China can only capitalize on at a later stage.

The Security Council veto is part of a wider horse trading system and no country can rely on China’s vote as Sudan, Syria, and Iran are finding out.

So, in Sri Lanka, the US and India have prioritized economic stabilization over everything else and only play lip service to the structural issues preventing peace.  There is convergence of   western and Indian interests and that of Sinhala civil society around the rule of law and good governance as was evident in the recent UN resolution.  This is important to the US and India since the minimum standards of rule of law and good governance are essential for stable economic growth.

Tamils around the world and Tamil civil society in Eelam stand at odds with this model, insisting on accountability and political rights over economic development.

When will the US and India move beyond the 13th Amendment and the LLRC framework?

Only when they stand to lose those economic levers, either when the Sri Lankan state inexplicably foregoes the current economic model (an unlikely scenario, otherwise Tamara and Dayan would still be around trying to align Sri Lanka behind Cuba), or when the Tamils start to develop alternatives, simultaneously,  outside of the UN and foreign policy frameworks that take away those levers.  Tamils across the globe should pursue legislative, legal, and academic means to bring awareness to the policy bankruptcy of the west and India.

A few suggestions to consider:

1) Sri Lanka’s economic fault line lies in its over reliance on garment exports.  Apparels account for 41% of total exports.  This apparel ends up in consumer hands in the western world. In this age of viral messages, companies are increasingly sensitive to brand image.  An association of the brand to a genocidal country is not something the brands are willing to risk.  Especially when there are good, low-cost, alternatives like Bangladesh and Vietnam to source the apparels from.  A concerted and coordinated effort of Tamil diaspora with a compelling narrative of the atrocities of the government and linking the foreign currency earned to the genocidal state’s budget can bring about a larger consumer awareness.  Government officials like G.L Pieris’ criticism of diaspora boycott campaigns are recognition of this vulnerability.

2)  As in the case of the Congo conflict mineral law brought about through the US legislature, Tamils should work with genocide advocacy groups to expand the law to include countries like Syria, Sudan and Sri Lanka.

3) Pursue shareholder related forums and legal means to bring shareholder awareness of companies that continue to work with the Sri Lankan state

The slow genocide against the Tamils is something that can no longer be hidden.  The powers that willfully ignored it are now afraid of a cohesive, and transnational Tamil awareness of the realpolitik involved.  Let’s not fall for deflecting of the issue by inflating China’s influence.  The transnational Tamil voice has economic and political power and let’s not be afraid to use it.







(6) of letters


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