Sri Lanka: Where does China, US aid-talk leave India?

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The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has said that Sri Lankans have reduced the number of meals eaten daily, owing to issues of availability and affordability. Already, a pre-Covid 2019 ADB study had shown that Sri Lankans would grow older before they become richer, that too with a shrinking working-age population. Provide for pandemic era updates and also for the current food, fuel and forex crises, and the picture is complete. However, everyone in the country, especially politicians and policymakers, not to forget the anti-Rajapaksa protestors across the country, seem to be oblivious to what more awaits the once-prosperous nation.

Rather, they all seem wanting to continue living in a make-believe world of ‘denials’, leaving it to the world around them to worry about their current plight and future possibilities. So much so, should God Almighty appear before them and offer them three boons for economic recovery and none else, they should still be shouting in union, ‘Gota Go Home’, as if everything depends near-exclusively on the early exit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — after others of the clan have been forced out. Only that Gota still holds that he would not yield, come what may.

Dial Delhi for distress

Truth be told, the Indian neighbour has demonstrated greater concern for the immediate plight of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, with the result an impression seems to have gained ground that government leaders in Colombo only have to dial Delhi for distress, and food, fuel and medicines would be knocking at Colombo Port. As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged in Parliament, “India is the only nation to help us.”

Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during an interview in Colombo, Sri Lanka. AP

Wickremesinghe also declared that he would not be able to approach India again if Parliament did not pass the Electricity Act amendment, which critics said was exclusively to help the Adani Group, the Indian infrastructure major, to take up hybrid power projects in the country without the tender process, or ‘through the back-door’. The issue has sort of died down but still has the potential to be revived at will, especially when traditional anti-India forces in the country find that there are other sources of economic succour.

It is in this context, China’s open commendation of India’s efforts to assist Sri Lanka requires added mention. The Left-leaning protestors in the country, it is hoped, too would be reading the Chinese messaging, that it requires ‘em all to help the sinking nation out of its economic plight — through the coming years, which could extend to decades. The latter is a possibility if Sri Lankans think and talk about politics more than economics. By that time, the world might have got its own priorities and end up writing off Sri Lanka as a ‘WFP case’ and nothing more, which it has already become.

“We have taken note that the Indian government has also done a lot in this regard. We commend those efforts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing in Beijing. “China is ready to work with India and the rest of the international community to help Sri Lanka and other developing countries experiencing difficulty to pull through the hardship as early as possible,” he said in an updated comment posted on the Foreign Ministry website.

The focus of the questions was however on the slow pace of Chinese assistance for Sri Lanka, compared to what it has given Pakistan. According to reports, China has rolled over $4.5-billion debt of Pakistan and also agreed not to withdraw $2.5 billion from Pakistan’s central bank, deposited in 2019 to boost the nation’s depleted forex reserves. In comparison, Beijing has stopped with $74 million for essential goods, followed now essential medical supplies.

“As to China-Sri Lanka financial cooperation, shortly after the Sri Lankan government announced to suspend international debt payments, Chinese financial institutions reached out to the Sri Lankan side and expressed their readiness to find a proper way to handle the matured debts related to China and help Sri Lanka to overcome the current difficulties,” spokesman Lijjan said. He did not talk about future assistance in the face of a long-pending Sri Lankan request for a $2.5-billion package and also a roll-over of a $1.5 billion in pending repayments.

Changing priorities

Speculating on Chinese disinterest in the nation, Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the nation’s key geo-strategic planner for 12 of the past 17 years, felt that Beijing’s priorities might have changed after all. “My analysis is that China has shifted their strategic focus into South-East Asia,” Rajapaksa told an interviewer. “They see more strategic interest in the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia, that region, and Africa.”

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“They have less interest in this region,” Rajapaksa said, referring to South Asia, of which Sri Lanka is a part. “I don't know whether I am right or wrong, even the focus on Pakistan has gone down. That shows that their interest here is not like earlier. Their interest has shifted to two other areas.” In the same vein, Rajapaksa referred to China indicating help for Sri Lanka, but added that ‘usually they don't like’ lending out more money to cover earlier debt-payments.

It is anybody’s guess if President Rajapaksa’s public utterances were aimed at generating a response/commitment from China. On the limited issue of Rajapaksa’s reference to ‘changing priorities’ of Beijing, the Chinese spokesperson had this much to say: “South Asian countries, along with the other countries in our neighbouring areas, are China's priority in its diplomacy. China attaches great importance to forging closer good neighbourly relations with its neighbours and has worked hard to this end.”

Outlining his nation’s post-Covid approach to geo-economic approach, the spokesman said, “We have closely followed the financial, fiscal and international balance of payment difficulties facing the South Asian countries and other developing countries… China will work with relevant countries to respond to risks and challenges and pursue high-quality Belt and Road cooperation to jointly sustain the sound momentum of security, stability, cooperation and development in our region and bring great benefits for all peoples in this region.”

Sino-American talks

In between, Colombo-based envoys of China and the US, Qi Zhenhong and Julie Chung, met in what could be described as an unprecedented move in and for Sri Lanka, and one of the rarest of the kind in the post-Cold War era, world-wide. At their meeting, held in the Chinese Embassy, the two ambassadors discussed common approaches to an economic recovery plan for the host-nation.

In a related development, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and tweeted that “during these economically and politically challenging times, the US stands ready to work with Sri Lanka, in close coordination with the International Monetary Fund and the international community”. It is anybody’s guess if Blinken’s phone call was linked to the Sino-American envoys’ meet, or not.

Earlier, too China had expressed a desire/willingness to work with the West on Wickremesinghe’s idea of an aid consortium. From the US side, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suggested that the four-nation Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, take a ‘more proactive role to address’ Sri Lanka’s political and economic crisis. There was no clarity if the panel wanted the Quad or the US to work with China, too.

It remains to be seen if Chinese president Xi Jinping would come up with any such proposal at the 23 June BRICS virtual summit, in which he would discuss multiple issues with leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa. Or, flag the need for a larger grouping to help nations like Sri Lanka, which may have already gone into the red or are bravely fighting against it.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. AP

Big boys’ club?

Independent of Chinese acknowledgement of India’s contributions in rushing to Sri Lanka’s help, and expressing readiness to work with India and others to help Sri Lanka, there is no clarity about the future role for New Delhi in any global initiative to assist Sri Lanka. There is nothing to suggest that the US friend/ally has taken New Delhi into confidence over its envoy talking to her Chinese counterpart in Colombo — or, if Washington sees future global economic engagements with Sri Lanka as one for ‘big boys’, where India did not fit in, as yet.

The last of the Indian fuel shipments under the existing arrangements have arrived in Sri Lanka, and Colombo is said to be keen to have New Delhi extend food and fuel assistance, further. Heightened Sri Lankan anxiety is palpable, understandable. In the week that Russia, in the midst of the Ukraine war, sent in 90,000 tonnes of crude, a Colombo court inexplicably ordered the ‘arrest’ of an Aeroflot passenger aircraft — and the order was promptly executed, too.

Russia, which had promised more fuel and also food, was already peeved at the slow pace of Sri Lankan response, indicating a possible tilt to the West with its ‘sanctions regime’. After the ‘arrested’ aircraft was freed, on Sri Lankan government intervention, Russia now seems to want to link further supplies to the resumption of Aeroflot flights, with guarantees that the past would not repeat. All of it means avoidable delays in supplies even as all the tall talk, if any, from the West, has produced not a grain of rice, not an ounce of oil, yet.

This adds to the pressure on India, which is unsure when the next SOS call from Colombo would come – and what kind of future planning and preparations should go into the nation’s preparations to aid Sri Lanka even more. The avoidable controversy involving Indian infra major, Adani, and claims to Prime Minister Modi reportedly insisting on Sri Lanka granting hybrid power projects to them, as attributed to President Rajapaksa, has left a bad taste — and naturally so.

Narendra Modi

If someone in India thought that it was all a thankless job all over again, he or she may not be wide off the mark. The question is if the ‘Adani row’ would impact other bilateral projects with Indian assistance. That is if it would be a repeat of the Sri Lankan cancellation of the three-nation Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) project, also involving Japan, citing political criticism and labour protests.

Larger questions

On larger canvas, India needs clarity if it is going to be a global initiative, or a Quad initiative or a China-driven affair, and if there was any real place for New Delhi in such schemes — and if at all the rest of them are going to chip in at all, whether or not after IMF certification. On the Quad-centric idea, India and Japan are both members, along with the US and Australia, but do not share the West’s views on hauling up Sri Lanka continually at the UNHRC.

New Delhi especially needs clarity if the West is going to insist on the operationalisation of UNHRC Resolution 49/1 for an ‘evidence-gathering mechanism’ on the ground, which can lead to political instability more than already. From an operational perspective, such a course would imply ‘sanctions’ of a different kind, which could lead to unimaginable starvation in the southern neighbourhood.

India cannot let that happen, whatever the ‘Adani row’ had meant in between. New Delhi, true to the form and content of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, would be duty-bound to stop starvation in Sri Lanka — with or without third-nation support. If such a course leads to India working with China, and also Russia, the latter more than already, the West should be forewarned as to who is to blame for the changing global/regional scenario that it entails.

At the same time, it is too early to predict if it would be for the better or the worse for India, if China too stops with all those procrastinated predictions for the future, when the need of the hour is food and fuel, here and now, for Sri Lanka. All these still do not include any possible outcomes from the China-US envoy-level talks that have already been forgotten, and a role, if any, for India in their collective scheme, if any. The question would still remain that all such aid would begin flowing in, in time to keep the wolves out of Sri Lanka’s way, whose responsibility rests all the more with the larger Indian neighbour even more than already!

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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Sri Lanka: Where does China, US aid-talk leave India?
Sri Lanka: Where does China, US aid-talk leave India?
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