Colombo June 28:
Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa has sought to allay Indian concerns about the growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, saying India's role in the island was a permanent feature, unlike other players whose engagement was limited to commercial projects they execute.
"The Chinese will come to Sri Lanka, build some projects and go, but the Indians will come here, they will build and they will stay. This is the difference in our relations with China and India," Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa told reporters in a two-hour long interview at his 'Temple Trees' residence in Colombo last week.
Sri Lanka was a non-aligned country and India its neighbour. "Indians are our relations, and our cultural ties are 2,500 years old," he said. While those ties could not be broken, "It doesn't mean that we won't get commercial benefits from others." He added that even the LTTE had raised the Chinese bogey so that it could get India on its side.
Asked about his invitation to India to set up a diplomatic mission in Hambantota, the southern town in his native district, Rajapaksa said largescale development was in the offing in Hambantota. "It will be a major city. Not only India, other countries, too, will want to have their diplomatic missions there," he said of the town where China is developing a modern port and there are plans to establish the country's second international airport.
The feisty president, who speaks with unconcealed pride about defeating "terrorism", was, however, guarded in his comments on the idea of the proposed comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) with India. "If CEPA is beneficial to Sri Lanka, we will consider it. There is no intention to delay it, but first I must see my country's interest and then the neighbour's interest," he said.
China is executing significant infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, leading policy analysts to wonder whether the island nation was helping the strategic interests of China. Similarly, CEPA, over which several rounds of negotiations have achieved no breakthrough, is seen in Sri Lanka as a precursor to India's economic domination over its tiny Indian Ocean neighbour, even though some economists and the country's central bank support it.
Rajapaksa said he believed in being closer to all countries and winning them over, but he could do it only in his own independent way. "Unfortunately, in the past, our foreign policy was wrong. We antagonized neighbours. I will never do that as I know the consequences," he said, referring to India's controversial intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1980's as it believed that the island nation was then gravitating towards the US camp.
Pointing out that China was only one of several countries which were involved in Sri Lanka's post-war development, Rajapaksa said the China factor was a bogey raised to upset the Indian public and undermine his regime's deepening ties with India. He pointed out that there was an equally shrill campaign about Indian 'domination' over Sri Lanka, and argued that such propaganda is stepped up whenever his country moved closer to its giant northern neighbour.
"During the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, the opposition started a campaign that she had sold the country to China. I feel it is the same cry of 'China, China' now. Others are saying, 'India, India', claiming that we are selling this country to India."