Chinese artful moves in Sri Lanka cut into India’s influence

March 10th, 2008 - 10:19 pm ICT by admin  

New York, March 10 (IANS) China is moving artfully in Sri Lanka and eyeing a role in the Indian Ocean even as India’s hands are tied over overtly backing the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for fear of infuriating the Tamils at home. The New York Times reported Sunday that Chinese assistance to the war-torn nation has grown fivefold in the last year to nearly $1 billion, eclipsing Sri Lanka’s long-time biggest donor, Japan.

The Chinese are building a highway, developing two power plants and putting up a new port in a southern district. Sri Lanka also buys a lot of weapons from China and China’s ally Pakistan.

China’s moves in Sri Lanka are part of its efforts to start building a circle of road-and-port connections in India’s neighbouring countries.

China has begun to eye a role in the Indian Ocean as its thirst for natural resources makes it more important to secure the sea lanes, C. Raja Mohan, an international relations professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, pointed out to the Times.

India, which was the only power centre in the region 20 years ago, is concerned.

But its dilemma is that overt support to the Sri Lankan counter-insurgency programme can be explosive among India’s Tamils. Yet, coming down hard on the government could push Sri Lanka deeper into China’s embrace.

“There is little choice,” Ashok Kumar Mehta, a retired general who was a leader of an Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka nearly 20 years ago, told the newspaper. “India’s policy is virtually hands off.”

New Delhi, like Washington, has shut the tap on direct military support to Sri Lanka. Its aid to Sri Lanka, however, has grown, to nearly $500 million this year. India is building a coal-fired power plant and Indian companies have been invited to build technology parks and invest in telecommunications.

China’s quiet assertion in India’s backyard has put Sri Lanka’s government in a position not only to play China off against India, but also to ignore complaints from outside Asia about human rights violations in the war, the latest being a report by Human Rights Watch, which blamed the government for a pattern of disappearances.

The Sri Lankan government, which jettisoned a five-year ceasefire this year, is now banking on a military victory over the LTTE, which is classified as a terrorist group in countries such as the US, Canada and the European Union, making it harder for the Tigers to raise money abroad.

The Times quoted Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary Palitha Kohona as saying the country’s traditional donors, namely, the US, Canada and the European Union, had “receded into a very distant corner,” to be replaced by countries in the East.

A latest entrant is Iran, which has promised a whopping $1.6 billion line of credit, primarily to help Sri Lanka buy Iranian oil.

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