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Sushma Swaraj’s gumption and India’s abiding arrogance
Published Date: 12/07/2018 (Thursday)

By Malinda Seneviratne

The Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, addressing top diplomats posted in neighbouring countries (July 3, 2018), opined that India should not focus on competing with China on resources. That’s sensible considering resource-mismatch. She also said that India must closely watch all Chinese activities. That’s sensible too, considering India’s economic and strategic interests in the region. This (and what follows) has been reported in the Hindustani Times of July 8, 2018.   

‘Debt trap’ is not something that naive leaders of nations walk into blindly

 She has also said, ‘India must push ahead with full vigour its own work, presumably in neighboring countries. That also makes sense if ‘work’ is about building houses, bridges, roadways and railways, or if it is about trade agreements that are mutually beneficial and not heavily tilted in India’s favour nor scripted in ways that India can interfere in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs.   

‘Work’ on the other hand can include things like violating airspace, dropping dhal, helping out a terrorist organization that India helped create, funded, trained and armed. Work could also mean something like the Indo-Lanka Accord, clearly an abrasive encounter which left Sri Lanka scarred, courtesy of a) giving a new lease of life to the LTTE and dragging for a further 22 years a war that took a heavy toll on the country and the citizens.   

Let’s be generous and assume that Swaraj was talking about hospitals, ambulances and sharing of technology. I don’t think anyone would object.   

Here’s the rub, though. Swaraj says that India ‘must educate friends in the neighbourhood about how a certain kind of engagement with Beijing can have negative consequences for them.’ The Hindustani Times describes the discussion Swaraj had with the diplomats as follows: ‘The broad sense in the meeting was that in Pakistan, China’s economic and political dominance had only grown; in Bangladesh, while the Chinese have made huge economic commitments, many in Dhaka were wary of the ‘debt trap’ Sri Lanka found itself in; in Sri Lanka, while the government remained politically friendly to India, its economic ties with China had continued apace.’   

Let’s limit this discussion to Sri Lanka. We can understand India’s apprehension about China’s economic ties with any country in her neighbourhood. The concerns about ‘growing economic and political dominance’ is understandable. The observation regarding Sri Lanka’s ties with China is a statement of fact. Nothing wrong in that. Dhaka being wary of the ‘debt trap Sri Lanka found itself in’ is an observation too. Nothing wrong with that, except of course that term (debt trap) needs to be fleshed out a bit, especially the ‘trap’ part of it.   

The New York Times article about a Chinese state-owned company getting the previous regime ‘to cough up a port’ mentioned the term. It’s not new though. ‘Debt trap’ is not something that naive leaders of nations walk into blindly. In many cases, the trap is seen but concerns of personal gain have frequently outweighed the interests of the particular country and citizenry. The literature on the pernicious role of the Bretton Woods institutions and how the trappers used coercion, threat and bribes to obtain agreement for representatives of those intended to be trapped is extensive. Much has been coughed up in the past 74 years.   

  The broad sense in the meeting was that in Pakistan, China’s economic and political dominance had only grown; in Bangladesh

 In short ‘debt trap’ is not news. The identity of the ‘trapper’ is only of academic interest. India’s concern is the identity given economic and strategic ramifications, Sri Lanka’s concern should be about the fact of entrapment, but that again, as pointed out, is old news. It is not that Sri Lanka was unfettered a la debt before China moved in.   

‘Trapping’ is not only about debt. It can come in the form of trade agreements. It can also take the form of arm-twisting weak leaders lacking both imagination and confidence in the people to extract constitutional amendments that serve the arm-twister. That’s what India did in July 1987. Rajiv Gandhi, who bragged that it marked ‘the beginning of the Bhutalization of Sri Lanka,’ trapped Sri Lanka in a constitutional amendment (13th) that gave credence to Eelamist myth-modelling as per the boundaries (drawn by the British and not supported by history) demarcating an imaginary ‘traditional homeland’ and, as things turned out, a long drawn struggle to eliminate terrorism, an exercise which, as pointed out, cost Sri Lanka much.   

 India has always treated her neighbours as though they were poor cousins, to be ‘looked after’

 What’s most objectionable about Swaraj’s position is the condescension. She wants her diplomats to tutor the neighbouring countries. Sure, it’s not that the leaders of the countries mentioned (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) are rare intellectuals also endowed with courage and enjoying the full backing of the respective peoples, but this stated need ‘to educate’ them is clearly out of order, especially considering Swaraj is the minister in charge of external affairs and was addressing a group of diplomats. Nothing diplomatic there, but even if she had couched her directives in ‘diplospeak’ it is still obnoxious and objectionable.   

India has always treated her neighbours as though they were poor cousins, to be ‘looked after’ since ‘they are helpless and can’t take care of themselves’ or worse, treat them like glorified slaves relegated to menial work to serve their rich and powerful cousins who they can address as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ but who nevertheless operate as lord and lady.   

So, India knows what’s best for Sri Lanka or is it that India knows what Sri Lanka should or should not do to deliver what’s best for India? I believe it is the latter. That’s fine, because India should (as it always does) look after India’s interests. However, Sri Lanka doesn’t need India to tell what’s best for Sri Lanka.   

Perhaps Sri Lanka should re-think all relations with all countries. I say ‘all countries’ for a reason. For example, the current regime believed that the West would bail it out, but as things turned out the regime found out that the West was broke. So they opted for the Chinese debt trap or rather to remain fettered to China rather than to the West (the preferred slave-master).   

However, the traps agreed to and the getting out of such traps should be Sri Lanka’s business, not India’s. And not least of all because India hasn’t really been a friend. It has always been a pound-of-flesh friend who, unlike China, wanted Sri Lanka to inhabit India’s version of Sri Lanka’s reality.   

Sucks. To put it bluntly.   


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