Sri Lankan bloody crescendo

Dangerous games

Brahma Chellaney

DNA newspaper, March 9, 2009

The 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka has built up to a bloody crescendo. Yet the killing of a growing number of non-combatants and the plight of large numbers of displaced or trapped Tamils has generated a muted international response.One country, however, continues to make hay while Asia’s longest civil war rages on little-noticed battlefields.

In Sri Lanka, as in Burma, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia and elsewhere, China has been an abettor of human-rights abuses. Chinese military and financial support has made possible Colombo’s no-holds-barred campaign to score a decisive military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

But with secretary of state Hillary Clinton publicly emphasising that the global financial, climate and security crises are more pressing priorities for US policy than China’s human-rights record, Beijing has little reason to stop facilitating overseas what it practices at home –repression.

Sri Lanka is just the latest case underlining China’s blindness to the consequences of its aggressive pursuit of strategic interests. No sooner had the US ended direct military aid to Sri Lanka last year over its deteriorating human-rights record than China stepped in to fill the breach — a breach widened by India’s hands-off approach towards Sri Lanka since a disastrous 1987-90 peace-keeping operation there. Beijing started selling larger quantities of arms, and dramatically boosted its aid fivefold since 2008 to almost $1 billion to emerge as Sri Lanka’s largest donor.

In recent months, Chinese Jian-7 fighterjets, anti-aircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other supplied weapons have played a central role in the Sri Lankan military successes against the Tamil Tigers. Beijing has even got its ally Pakistan actively involved in Sri Lanka.

At Beijing’s prodding, Pakistan –despite its own faltering economy and internal disorder — has boosted its annual military assistance loans to Sri Lanka to nearly $100 million while supplying Chinese-origin small arms and training Sri Lankan air force personnel in precision guided attacks.

China has become an enabler of repression in a number of developing nations as it seeks to gain access to oil and mineral resources to market its goods and to step up investment. Still officially a communist state, its support for brutal regimes is driven by capitalist considerations. But while exploiting commercial opportunities, it also tries to make strategic inroads.

Little surprise thus that China’s best friends are pariah or other human rights-abusing states. Indeed, with its ability to provide political protection through its UN Security Council veto power, Beijing has signed tens of billions of dollars worth of energy and arms contracts in recent years with such problem states — from Burma and Iran to Sudan and Venezuela.

In the case of Sri Lanka, China has been particularly attracted by that country’s vantage location in the centre of the Indian Ocean — a crucial international passageway for trade and oil. Hambantota — the billion-dollar port Chinese engineers are now building on Sri Lanka’s southeast — is the latest "pearl" in China’s strategy to control vital sea-lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific Oceans by assembling a "string of pearls" in the form of listening posts, special naval arrangements and access to ports.

While Beijing has aggressively moved in recent years to construct or modernise ports in the Indian Ocean rim, none of the port-building projects it has bagged in recent years can match the strategic value of Hambantota, which sits astride the great trade arteries.
China’s generous military aid to Sri Lanka has tilted the military balance in favour of government forces, enabling them to unravel the de facto state the Tigers had run for years.

After losing more than 5,600 square kilometres of territory, the Tigers now are boxed into a sliver of jungle area in the northeast. But despite the battlefield triumphs, the government is unable to define peace or outline a political solution to the Tamils’ long-standing grievances. The Tigers, after being routed in the conventional war, are gearing up to return to their roots and become guerrilla fighters again.

With an ever-larger, Chinese-aided war machine, the conflict is set to grind on, making civil society the main loser. That is why international diplomatic intervention has become imperative.

India, with its geostrategic advantage and trade and investment clout over a war-hemorrhagic Sri Lankan economy that is in search of an international bailout package, must use its leverage deftly to promote political and ethnic reconciliation rooted in federalism and genuine inter-ethnic equality.

More broadly, the US, European Union, Japan and other important players need to exert leverage to press Beijing to moderate its unsettling role and to make Colombo accept a ceasefire.

The writer is a strategic affairs expert.

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