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Saturday, February 16, 2019
Jul 18 2016 - China has been dealt a major setback this week at the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, a tribunal established as way back as 1899 and to which 121 member states are signatories. The tribunal this week ruled in favour of the Philippines over the sovereignty of small but strategically significant and resource rich islands in the South China Sea. The tribunal held that China had “no legal basis” to its claim for “indisputable sovereignty” over these islands and dismissed its “historic rights” argument – something that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister (who is making similar claims over the Palk Strait) might take note of.
That the Philippines could have had the moral support of the United States to take this matter up at the world arbitration court is an inference one can easily make. China now rejecting the order as a farce and “only a piece of paper” displays the archetypical big-power attitude in ignoring the global rule of law that hitherto has been the exclusive preserve of the West.
Since the initial knee-jerk reaction, however, China has climbed down from defiance to wanting to discuss matters further with countries in the South China Sea region.
Sri Lanka got it right last week when the Chinese Foreign Minister made a surprise overnight visit to Colombo to lobby support for its South China Sea policy ahead of the tribunal order. The Prime Minister was to tell the visiting Minister that as an Indian Ocean country, Sri Lanka respects the UN Law of the Sea Convention and the freedom of navigation in international waters reflecting the country’s national interest without taking sides. It was the same during talks the Sri Lankan counterpart who asked that the issue be resolved by negotiations, so much so that, our Political Editor wrote last week how when the Chinese interpreter translating her Minister’s remarks at a press conference referred to Sri Lanka’s “supports” for China’s position, the Minister corrected her to say, “understands”, not supports.
On the one hand, China is genuinely concerned that the US has extended its maritime presence to the South China Sea joining hands with countries sharing coastlines in these seas fearing China’s rise as a global power. On the other, China itself has been extending its maritime footprint not only in the South China Sea which its opponents refer to as the ‘nine-dash line’, but to a ‘Maritime Silk Route’ concept that includes Sri Lanka and goes as far as East Africa.
In this context, China’s Colombo Port City Project clearly had designs other than economic. It was an unsolicited project — i.e. a project proposed by China. It is understandable why emotions ran high in India, especially when the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration agreed to give the Chinese free-hold property within the Port City and when nuclear submarines of the Chinese Navy started showing up at the Colombo harbour, India had had just enough with the former Government. With the Sri Lankan Premier, the Chinese Foreign Minister not just wanted to realign the relationship between the two countries that had strained over several controversial unsolicited Chinese projects begun by the former Administration like airports and harbours, but the two also discussed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflow from China to Sri Lanka before the visits of the Chinese President and Premier in 2017 to Sri Lanka.
China has clearly not given up on Sri Lanka and financing unsolicited projects in Polonnaruwa under the Maithripala Sirisena Administration is not for nothing.
Foreign observers as compromise
Two US State Department officials arrived in Colombo this week, hot on the heels of the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit. The duo’s visit was described in diplomatic circles as “routine”, to show that the new-fangled relationship with the US under the present dispensation in Colombo was on track; one, to update the February Partnership Dialogue that was held in the US capital and the other to update themselves on the UNHRC Geneva Resolution and to see how well Sri Lanka was coping with implementing it.
That the US-SL Partnership Dialogue has yet to ‘take off’ at least in the area of substantial trade or FDIs favouring Sri Lanka seems to have begun to sink in to Sri Lankan leaders. Privately, at least, they ask themselves the question, why the Americans don’t walk the talk. One of the more contentious areas that the US visitors walked into, however, is that of foreign judges being part of the ‘domestic mechanism’ that the Government has committed itself to in the Geneva Resolution, to probe allegations of violations of International Human Rights Law.
There still remains a certain amount of confusion within the Government of National Unity in that the President is unequivocally opposed to foreign judges, while the Foreign Minister is equally adamant that the President’s opinion is only a view. Though sticking to the ‘domestic mechanism’ nomenclature, he says what it means is open for discussion. Into this debate has come the latest recruit to the Foreign Minister’s party. He was the Army Commander who saw the battle with the LTTE through in the last phase of the war. He says ‘foreign observers’ will be permitted. This might seem the ultimate acceptable compromise between the two positions.
The US visitors were coy about saying too much specifically on the subject and thus being accused of rocking the boat in the midst of this debate. Back home in the US, reconciliation between the minorities, particularly the ‘Blacks’ and the Establishment ‘whites’ has now reached a nadir. Old wounds have reopened. The human rights of the minorities are now, and again, the subject of killings, street protests, public debate and election campaigns. One might think that it was one reason for the two senior US diplomats to keep a low-profile role this time and not preach too much on Human Rights and Reconciliation given the goings-on in their own country.
Added to that is the worldwide demand, re-ignited after the Chilcot Report in Britain, calling for the then leaders of the US and Britain to be tried for crimes against humanity by unleashing the mayhem we witness in West Asia and parts of Africa today – 13 years after the illegal invasion of Iraq.
Hillary Clinton, the likely next president of the US, recently said she would be giving tax concessions to US companies that invest their businesses in the US and heavily tax those who start businesses in other countries. She criticised the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) Agreement grouping several Pacific Rim countries and said she would review other FTAs (Free Trade Agreements) which were not in favour of the US. What then of the US-Sri Lanka Partnership and FDIs from the US?
One could not envy the Government, cash-strapped as it is, pressured to implement tough fiscal decisions on the orders of the International Monetary Fund and having to face mass protests all over the country. It seems to be caught between a rock and hard place dealing with China and the US.
This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka
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