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On 19 May 2021, the Sri Lankan Parliament approved the 'Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill 'by a majority vote (148-59). Though the Government of Sri Lanka claims that it will provide a boost to the country's economy by being a source of investment (US Dollars 15 Billion) and employment (200,000 jobs), the Opposition has alleged that it compromises the country's sovereignty and will become a Chinese colony in Sri Lanka.

rajapakse meeting with china leaderThe Colombo Port City, built at the cost of USD 1.4 billion on 269 hectares of reclaimed land off the Port of Colombo, will include a Special Economic Zone where it will be free to operate in any currency. The SEZ will be administered by a Special Commission, which will be exempt from certain legal and constitutional oversight, which effectively means the SEZ will be an extra-constitutional territory within Sri Lanka. The much talked about sovereignty of Sri Lanka invoked will take a permanent holiday, for it is now the powerful Chinese, not the hapless Tamils. The Colombo Port City has not come as a surprise as it was quite on the anvil, especially when the Rajapakshes, Gotabaya and Mahinda, hold the reins.

It was during the time Mahinda was the President and Gotabaya the Defence Secretary that the Chinese dragon gained a firm foothold in the lion's island. It was able to make major inroads into Sri Lanka as part of its pet project of the Belt and Road Initiative. It developed the Hambantota port, which has been now leased to the Chinese for 99 years for US Dollar 1.2 billion as a debt swap. This claim is often disputed to say that the lease was done to only to generate money for servicing the country's external debt and not the repayment of the Chinese loan. However, there can be no doubt about the fact that Hambantota, located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, will have substantial Chinese control.

The Colombo Port City Bill will soon become an Act and give China an additional 269 hectares of reclaimed seafront off the Colombo port in the country's south-west with next-to-nil oversight from the GOSL. China will have full control to the extent that it can even regulate the movement of people and the Yuan will be a certainty since any currency will be allowed tender,

Sri Lanka occupies a strategic position in the Indo-Pacific due to its geographic location. China is heavily dependent on oil from the Arabian Gulf – 80% of its oil imports are sourced from there and transit through the Straits of Malacca, one of the most strategically important geopolitical chokepoints in the world. Control of the Hambantota port is a strategic asset for China in mitigating the vulnerability of its trade and energy in what experts refer to as its Malacca Dilemma. China's Malacca Dilemma is its apprehension that India will be able to block the western approaches to the Malacca Straits since they are in close proximity to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and USA and its allies in the Pacific being able to block the eastern approaches, thus crippling the movement of its merchant as well as naval shipping. The Malacca Straits, at its narrowest, is less than two miles wide and an effective chokepoint.

It is not as if the lion's proximity to the dragon started with the Rajapaksa regime, nor as if the main Sinhala opposition is opposed to it. When the Maithripala Sirisena / Ranil Wickremasinghe government came to power, there seemed to be a pro-India tilt, and it only seemed so. The Sinhala state, as usual, continued to play between China and India. It was obvious that the change of guard did not greatly impact the Chinese investments, despite their coming under some ostensible scrutiny. In fact, the Hambantota port was leased to the Chinese during this period. When the Rajapaksa brothers returned stronger than ever, initially, they made all the seemingly right noises for Modi's Bharath. India was the first country they both visited after assuming office. The President's visit had been preceded by Dr. Jaishankar, the Indian External Affairs Minister, visiting Sri Lanka a week earlier. On another occasion, Mahinda also commented that the extent of Chinese investment was perhaps a mistake. These moves were only a feeble attempt to allay India's apprehensions to some extent.

All of the Chinese ventures boil down to the fact that China has been expanding its footprint in the Indian Ocean. The availability of a base would enable China to establish a more sustained presence. Hambantota and Colombo are less than 300 miles from the Indian mainland, about 400 miles from Chennai and are less than an hour's flying time away. So India will have to face the evolving truth that its main adversary on the North is practically moving to its backyard. This has only been facilitated by the myopic foreign policy of the Government of India, which joined hands with the same China and even Pakistan in carrying out a genocidal war against the Tamil Eelam people.

India is only adding to its folly by shielding in effect the Sinhala state from the wrath of justice. Instead of morally supporting the Tamil people in their struggle for remedial justice, India only intends to use the Tamil national question as a pawn in its geopolitical game. India, which has the primary Tamil nation within its own boundaries, should have taken the lead in the international forums in echoing the voice of Tamils. It was not to be, and India is paying the price.

China has made no secret of its intention to dominate the Indian Ocean through its fast-expanding navy and strategic initiatives like the BRI. Strategic experts are aghast that a permanent naval presence in close proximity to India would undermine India's own position in the Indian Ocean and its ability to shape the geopolitical outcomes in the region. They advise the Indian authorities, therefore to pay far more attention to securing its maritime frontiers and its regional interests with a synergistic foreign and security policy.

So it appears peoples and nations have no place in the game plans of the Indian state and its advisors. For them, the political aspirations of the nation of Tamil Eelam and the genocide of the Tamil people are not even factors in their calculations. Even considering the geopolitical aspect of the problem, the Tamil coastline is longer than the Sinhala one in the island. Add to this the Tami coastline in India, the strategic weight of the Tamils cannot be ignored for all time by the powers, present and prospective.

The Tamil nation, even in this situation where it is in the process of fighting to retrieve its sovereignty, should devise its own foreign policy based on peace and justice and strategize its approach to the Indian Ocean on the basis of making it a zone of disarmament and peace. Such a foreign policy and approach should earn the support of all the peoples of the region and facilitate their march to justice.

- Thiagu

(This article was published in Fortnightly Magazine 'Abel', May 29, 2021)


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