by Our Diplomatic Affairs Editor
“All things are ready, if our mind be so.” – William Shakespeare, from Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3 (inspired by a saying attributed to the ancient Greek general Themistocles)
One of the highest officials of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), made a secret visit to Sri Lanka, according to reliable sources in diplomatic missions in Colombo with knowledge of the issue. He was accompanied by a “delegation” led by US Principal Duty Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Jedidiah P. Royal. Furthermore, there are rumours circulating that the United States and India are planning to establish a joint military base in Trincomalee. While there has been no official confirmation on this matter, it is clear that Sri Lanka has become a battleground for a great power competition against China. Before assuming his current role as Director of the CIA, William (Will) Burns served as a diplomat and played a crucial role in American diplomacy. He is also the author of the memoir “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal,” in which he highlights the importance of strategic diplomacy and the use of backdoor channels. It is a really useful read to understand the true colours of diplomacy.
To understand the severity of the current geopolitical crisis in Sri Lanka, let’s examine an incident that occurred recently. Three universities in China, Sri Lanka, and an African country had planned to sign a tri-party Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). However, the Indian consul general office in Jaffna intervened and compelled Jaffna University to cancel the initiative, raising serious questions over “academic freedom.” Furthermore, reliable sources have revealed that India is funding several students’ unions in both the North and East provinces to take actions against Chinese development programs. In a recent interview, a young politician in Jaffna expressed concerns that former LTTE cadres may be receiving arms training in a neighbouring country, raising the possibility of a repeat of the tragic history. All of these developments suggest that a great game is being played to undermine the relationship between China and Sri Lanka. Key players in Sri Lanka must be very cautious in their analysis of this geopolitical situation, as there is a risk that Sri Lanka may become a vassal state controlled by the India-USA alliance against China. If Sri Lanka fails in its diplomatic strategy, it could face an unprecedented crisis, worse than prevailing economic meltdown.
China and Sri Lanka have a long and interesting history of diplomatic relations that dates back to the early 15th century, when the Chinese Great Admiral Zheng He made a visit to the Kotte Kingdom on the island. Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, was a Chinese explorer and admiral who is credited with exploring and mapping many parts of the Indian Ocean, including Sri Lanka. During his visit to Sri Lanka, Zheng He established friendly relations with the local rulers and introduced Chinese culture and traditions to the island. This visit marked the beginning of a long and enduring relationship between China and Sri Lanka, which continued for several centuries.
The Kotte Kingdom was a powerful Sinhalese kingdom that emerged in the 15th century in Sri Lanka. It was founded by a regional leader named Alagakkonara, who managed to establish his dominance over the region. However, by the mid-16th century, the Kotte Kingdom began to decline due to internal conflicts and external pressures from foreign invaders. The kingdom was weakened by a series of wars with the Portuguese, who eventually succeeded in capturing the capital city of Kotte in 1565. This marked the end of the Kotte Kingdom and the beginning of Portuguese colonial rule in Sri Lanka. After the fall of the Kotte Kingdom, the Sinhalese people migrated to the central hills of Sri Lanka and established a new kingdom in the city of Kandy. The Kandy Kingdom was established in 1590 and became the last independent kingdom in Sri Lanka. The kingdom was able to resist foreign invasion for many years due to its strategic location in the central hills, which made it difficult for invaders to reach. The Kandy Kingdom also maintained strong diplomatic relations with other neighbouring kingdoms, such as the Mughal Empire in India.
Indian influence in Sri Lanka can be traced back to ancient times when Buddhist teachings were brought to Sri Lanka from India. In the 3rd century BCE, the Indian emperor Ashoka sent his son Mahinda to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism. From then on, Sri Lanka became a hub of Buddhist learning, and Indian scholars and pilgrims regularly travelled to the island to study and worship at the Buddhist sites. In the 11th century, the Chola Empire of South India invaded Sri Lanka and established a short-lived empire on the island. However, Indian influence in Sri Lanka reached its peak during the Kandy Kingdom, when the kingdom maintained close relations with the Mughal Empire. The Mughals were interested in Sri Lanka’s strategic location and trade opportunities, and they established diplomatic and commercial ties with the Kandy Kingdom. The Mughals also helped the Kandy Kingdom to resist the Portuguese, providing military aid and training to the Sinhalese army. Simultaneously, Chinese diplomatic relationship was diluted. Due to Indian influence and other factors, the relationship between China and Sri Lanka declined for many decades, and this history was even wiped out from local history books. However, after the 1949 Communist Revolution, China again started to focus on building its relationships with other countries, including Sri Lanka. In recent years, China has been a key economic partner for Sri Lanka, investing in major infrastructure projects such as the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City.
While the relationship between China and Sri Lanka has had its ups and downs, the two countries continue to share a strong bond that is rooted in their shared history and culture. Today, China is one of Sri Lanka’s most important economic and strategic partners, and the two countries continue to work closely together to promote mutual growth and development. It is true that there are some competitors who are seeking to reduce China’s influence in Sri Lanka. Some countries, such as the United States and India, have expressed concern about China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka and other parts of the region. In recent years, there have been reports of efforts to limit or curtail Chinese investment and influence in Sri Lanka.
However, it is worth noting that China’s involvement in Sri Lanka has brought significant benefits to the country. Chinese investment has helped to fund major infrastructure projects, such as highways, ports, and airports, which have helped to boost economic growth and create jobs. China has also provided support in areas such as education, healthcare, and disaster relief. While there are certainly concerns about China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka, it is important to remember that the relationship between the two countries is based on a long and complex history that goes back many centuries. Despite the challenges and competition from other countries, China and Sri Lanka should continue to work together to promote economic development and mutual growth in the years ahead. Sri Lanka is passing its moment of “know thyself” through its historical roots.