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“Sri Lanka must not become a bargaining tool”
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“Sri Lanka must not become a bargaining tool”

salma yusufSalma Yusuf, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Sri Lanka, examines her country’s growing diplomatic and economic relationship with the two emerging Asian superpowers, India and China, arguing that there are mutual benefits to be reaped by all.

The 51st anniversary of the Indo-China War of 1962 was marked on 20 October 2013 through 21 November 2013. A disputed Himalayan border was the main pretext for war, but other issues played a role.

The war failed to resolve disputes between the world’s two most populous countries and its legacy continues to weigh down an otherwise robust bilateral relationship built mainly on economic terms.

From a Sri Lankan perspective the war must be remembered for another reason. Then-Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was able to take the initiative for a conference of the non-aligned countries in December 1962 in Colombo, to mediate between India and China.

As Sri Lanka was regarded a close and trusted ally, Prime Minister Bandaranaike was subsequently invited to visit both countries where she explained what has henceforth been called the “Colombo Proposals.” While India accepted the Colombo Proposals absolutely, China accepted the Proposals in principle and they became the basis on which mediation between the two countries took place. Prime Minister Bandaranaike regarded the mediation effort as ‘the highest of Ceylon’s efforts in seeking to achieve its foreign policy aims.’

The economic footprint of two emerging Asian giants in post-war Sri Lanka has been established. China has invested as much as US$6.5 billion, primarily in infrastructure projects. Its commitments for the past five years other than infrastructural investments have included US$2.12 billion of which 2.1 billion was repayable. US$24 million has been in the form of outright aid. It has been reported that China provided as much as a quarter of Sri Lanka’s foreign borrowings in 2011. Chinese companies have bagged, so far, at least 14 major infrastructure projects in the country.

India’s assistance package in post-war Sri Lanka began with an assistance package of approximately US$110 million for immediate relief and resettlement; and thereafter an initiative in the form of construction of 50,000 houses for Internally Displaced Persons under a grant; a US $800 million credit line for reconstruction of Northern Railway lines; a Southern Railway Project under another concessional credit line of US$167.4 million; and among others, assistance to fishing communities; setting up of vocational training centres; assistance to war affected women through training and employment generation projects; and revival of agriculture through provision of tractors, seeds and agricultural implements.

It has been stated that despite there being a race between China and India, such a contest is not with intent to clash. Rather both countries are keen to further their own interests. On reflection, it is also not difficult to see that there is no real reason for both countries to compete as each have their own individual separate strengths. For instance, India is known for its service sector in the form of backroom Information Technology services and Business Process Outsourcing, whereas China’s is an economy driven by the production of goods exported to different parts of the world.

What becomes imperative for Sri Lanka then is to play a critical role, given its increased interest and engagement with India and China, to ensure that contention is not peddled between the two countries. Rather, it should seek to diffuse existing tensions and provide fresh impetus towards emphasizing that there exists sufficient strategic space for both countries to co-operate and develop within the Asian region, and globally, with no encroachment on the national sovereignty of either.

Sri Lanka must in no way become a battle ground or bargaining tool in the cooperation and development of Sino-Indian relations. Rather, it must strive to be a constructive force that shapes the destinies of the two emerging Asian giants individually, thereby contributing to peace and stability in the region, and in turn acquiring its own unique international positioning.

Sri Lanka must win the confidence of India and China, be a trusted friend of both emerging superpowers so that it can be called on to mediate and be the reliable peace broker in the unfortunate event of a potential dispute similar to that which erupted in 1962. It is time we pick up from where we left off in 1962, inheriting the pristine legacy of then-Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to play a critical role in what is fast becoming the most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century. 

photo credit: michael.heiss via photopin cc

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About me: I am a Human Rights Lawyer based in Sri Lanka, and a visiting lecturer in law at University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives, and previously at the University of Colombo.

As well I serve on both national and international programmes in the fields of law, governance, human rights and transitional justice. I hope to build on my work in policy development, research, advocacy and publishing going forward.  

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response.
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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