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Sri Lanka: Colombo spits in Delhi’s face again

Paper No. 5393                                           Dated 14-Feb-2013

Guest Column by Dr. Kumar David

It is very difficult to understand how Colombo, time and again, treats its supposedly giant neighbour like a toothless old hag, and gets away with it. Delhi blinks, rubs its eyes, stomachs the insults and plays profoundly dumb.

The latest straight into the eye ejection of sputum was President Mahinda Rajapakse’s pronouncement at the Independence Day tamasha that there would be no regional autonomy in Lanka; to put it bluntly, the Thirteenth Amendment and the crap that legions of Indian Ministers and popinjay bureaucrats have parleyed about for the last three years have gone out of the window. Never in the history of human diplomacy, have so many giants, been made to look like such blithering a clowns, by so puny an antagonist. That the Rajapakses are as clever, as Indian Government and Congress Party leaders are not, is not news, but cunning is not explanation enough; there must be something more.

The pop-press rationalises that Delhi suffers unplanned bowel movements when it thinks of China in the Indian Ocean and encounters bed-wetting nightmares, in which yellow hordes crawl all over the Island their eyes aslant the subcontinent while great fleets of sampans exit Hambantota to capture Visakhapatnam. Intelligent people don’t give any credence to this fairy tale. Delhi got into bed with Washington in a strategic alliance to pre-empt exactly such concerns on its southern ocean flank, but this theory says that it is behaving as if it had not formed the strategic alliance.  Let’s face it; the ‘Chinese strategic threat in the Indian Ocean’ theory is poppycock.

The non-event

Chinese military planners are no fools. They will not tangle with the US Navy or a US-Indian naval presence, in the Indian Ocean anytime in the foreseeable future.  China has no strategic motivation for sailing out in strength into the Indian Ocean; her naval priority is assertion of power in the littoral waters of the Mainland and Taiwan. This perspective is defined by the well-known first and second island chains thesis. These seas include the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Sea of Japan, the Philippine Sea and the Yellow Sea (Korean Sea). It has no strategic interest in looking over the Straits of Malacca and into the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea. This remark does not refer to the protection of oil import and trade routes where there is an interest in protecting shipping from pirates and nuisances. This is a one and two ship affair for which it has the resources; it involves no entanglement with America or India. Hambantota is insignificant for these purposes, but it is useful as a bunkering point for commercial shipping which is another matter.

A super-Nimitz class carrier costs $8 billion for ship alone, $5 billion for a complement of 70-odd aircraft and a fleet of 10 to 15 escort and support vessels to make a strike group, and say $2 billion for training a crew of hundreds of airmen and 7, 500 sailors. China’s first smallish nuclear-powered carrier is expected in 2020 and it may take another decade to commission an operational blue-water battle group; but still without combat experience. The US currently has 10 super-carriers; most in port but two or three are always out in far flung seas with escort fleets. Those in port can be fitted out with escort fleets quickly.

China will not for decades be a naval or air power that can project clout far away in distant oceans and continents. Its strategic obsession is the littoral waters of the motherland and its southern and westerly land borders. Indian political leaders seem to be misreading this, obvious as child’s play, reality. But maybe they only seem to be misreading, hmm, maybe the Great Game lies elsewhere. India, alongside Japan and Australia is but a subordinate player in the grand strategy orchestrated in Obama’s new Asian pivot; she is not consulted in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Central Asia theatre. Maybe what is at the heart of Delhi’s strategic befuddlement is this. It is not the Indian Ocean but being an outsider in America’s Chinese, Central Asian and Himalayan strategy nexus that unbalances Delhi. However, this conundrum is not of interest in the rest of this piece; my next focus is on the Colombo-Delhi state of play.

Will she, will she not?

A popular game among newspapermen these days is the ‘will India support the American procedural resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva’ betting. The answer is not knowable at this stage because of Delhi’s utter policy befuddlement, as I have described previously. We do not know what Delhi will do because Delhi does not know what it will do! On the one hand it has this strategic conundrum with the USA as I have described and it wishes to engage in a bit of finger twisting (the present Indian government cannot dream of twisting the American arm), but on the other hand it faces a political rout in Tamil Nadu (and possibly loss of votes in other southern states) and an autocratic excrescence across the Palk Strait. Dictatorship in Lanka is not compatible with democracy in India; it will soon entail conflict and spill over effects that India will rue.

Hence the common sense conclusion is that Delhi will back Washington and support the UNHRC resolution unless it still suffers from the delusory mental disconnect that “Engagement with the Rajapakses is the best way to ensure that at least something gets done”! Once bitten twice shy they say; so what are we to make of folks who have been bitten a dozen times and still yearn to be gnawed again? The Indian Prime Minister’s pusillanimity is indeed legendary. Or is it that the mandarins in Delhi really enjoy being taken for a ride?

If the Commonwealth Heads jamboree is not moved out of Colombo it will cause further embarrassment for India since protests will be more serious than last week when President Rajapakse and a mammoth 70-person delegation arrived in India on pilgrimage. If some countries boycott the meeting and India is not among them it may seal the fate of Congress in Tamil Nadu in the elections. The collapse of the Lankan government’s credibility after the unconstitutional impeachment of the Chief Justice ups the ante in these stakes. India’s silence on all these matters, including when a former Chief Justice was debarred from entering Lanka, one would have thought, merited at least a squeak of protest. That Delhi continues to unreservedly back Rajapakse through thick and thin is to me a matter for perplexity. Perhaps the truth will be revealed only if there is a change of Administration in India.

(The views expressed are his own)