Should India be given Colombo Port?
Colombo East Terminal is generating much controversy these days for reasons that should clearly showcase the need for a sovereign government to take a hold of the situation & uphold its sovereign status. No country puts its strategic assets and resources to the auction table. An island nation must realize that its strength comes in its ports in particular as Sri Lanka is placed at the centre of international trade lanes that ply west to east & vice versa. Advisors and policy makers peddling short-term economic dividends only and omitting to take stock of the geopolitical and national security elements are doing great harm to Sri Lanka in the long term.
Is India a trusted neighbor & reliable economic development partner?
In dealing with India, Sri Lanka cannot ignore the history of turbulent relations that includes providing one’s terrain to train, arm Tamil guerilla warfare, medical & logistics services flouting diplomatic goodwill. The feeling among Sri Lankan citizens that India aided and abetted LTTE terror is nothing India can brush aside or force Sri Lankans to forget. The deaths that accumulated over this period will always hold India part responsible. India’s goodwill gestures are always thought of with doubt as a result of the Indo-Lanka Accord that placed an artificially created historical theory purely to secure Trincomalee harbor from a merged North-East while forcing Sri Lanka to tweak its constitution to introduce the provincial council system.
All of India’s post-2009 ventures in Sri Lanka have been viewed by the ordinary public as attempts to secure an upper advantage and monopoly wherein to exert political pressures as and when India sees fit. These ground realities proven by India’s own behavior, is what Sri Lanka’s advisors and policy makers cannot ignore. History is to learn lessons not to repeat the same mistakes. We cannot also ignore the manner India blocked food, medicines and petrol to Nepal simply because Nepal did not change its constitution the way India wanted. Ultimately, hungry Nepalis suffering without basic medical requirements had to have supplies air dropped by China. The last time India resorted to similar airdrop tactics was prior to threatening Sri Lanka not to capture Prabakaran in Vadamarachchi resulting in Prabakaran being flown off to India & kept till the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord. This past cannot be forgotten and India must realize that the distrust against India by Sri Lankans is a result of its own policy & bullying behavior.
All of the above certainly raises concern whether India will apply similar blocks in the future if Colombo Port is under its control. Western province is Sri Lanka’s highest populated area and a blockage of food, medicines and other essentials will certainly impact Sri Lanka.
Should foreign countries be given control of Sri Lanka’s entry points?
The next important consideration to be made is why Sri Lanka is not security its entry & exit points. From our experience with LTTE we know that where the Armed Forces were weak in protecting our island borders, LTTE were able to smuggle arms and ammunition. We also know that it is via these weak entry points that other forms of illegal and illicit smuggling is taking place.
The other more important factor is that with the signing of ACSA in 2017 by the yahapalana government, Sri Lanka has allowed US the use of all our entry and exit points without restrictions (Airports, Harbours and Ports). India & US at one time did not see eye to eye, but today India is the apple of America’s eye being one of its Quad partners in Asia. Sri Lanka’s political and defense establishment cannot put aside the scenarios of both these nations suddenly deciding to turn hostile against Sri Lanka and blocking our entry and exit points. Where would that leave Sri Lanka? The two nations do not have a slate clean resume for us to brush this possibility aside.
What if both countries together or individually block our entry & exit points? What is the course of action that a government proposes to take? These scenarios have to be taken into consideration given both India’s & America’s past records with nations!
Colombo Port & Covid-19
The world is today experiencing an enemy of an unknown kind. Close to 200,000 deaths around the world and even the World Health Organization cannot conclude how it spreads or how it originated. All that we do know is that people are either infected while some dying as a result. Covid-19 has turned entire nations upside down, economies in disarray and require all countries and people to think and live differently. In such a scenario, if a country’s strategic entry and exit points fall into foreign hands how can a nation protect its civilians from harm or diseased foreigners? We cannot forget that colonial mass murders started with small pox and other diseases being introduced to kill natives. These are no conspiracy theories but what actually happened in history. The success of covid-19 in Sri Lanka has been purely on the ability of our armed forces, intelligence agencies and police on the ground to quickly trace the community clusters and segregate them to prevent spreading while health authorities carried out their role. If areas were under foreign control and no access to a sovereign nation within its own country, this is a dangerous scenario. Advisors & policy makers need to take stock of this given that covid-19 is not going away any time soon.
India’s Port Development
In 2017 India announced the development of 12 mega-port projects (via Sagarmala Development Company) allocating $150m to increase Indian port capacity by 30million tonnes annually by attracting international shippers as well as set up supply chain manufacturing operations of domestically produced goods. India will also build new ports in Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Karnataka.
In 2015 the Adani Vizhiniam International Container Transshipment Terminalby port developer Adani Group declared that this port was to ‘counter the growing dominance of Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port for Indian transshipment cargo’.Gadkari also hinted the ‘cabotage protections could be eased to help realize this goal’. Its goal is to handle 200million tons of cargo over next 5 years. Is Sri Lanka aware of this? Has the Sri Lankan Ports specialists thought of counter plans in the event India transfers all of India’s current transshipment handled by Colombo Port to the Adani Vizhiniam Transshipment Terminal? Colombo handled 1.2m TEUs of Indian transshipment cargo in 2014-2015 (1/4 of India’s transshipment is handled by Sri Lanka). Adani will plan to transfer this entire amount to his port. The Adani Group is no small port operator. It has cargo facilities along the East & West coast. It is already considering other avenues in Sri Lanka. The local operated South Asia Gateway Terminals run by a consortium headed by John Keells Holdings started a Build-Operate-Transfer operations on Queen Elizabeth Quay in 1999 – their 30year lease is expiring in 2020 and SAGT is also searching frantically to continue to secure its profit hold.
If Adani Group set up Vizhiniam Transshipment Terminal to counter dominance of Colombo Port, why would India field the same Adani Ports & Special Economic Zone Ltd as India’s nominee for India in the India-Japan-Sri Lanka joint partnership MOC signed in May 2019 to run Colombo East Container Terminal (ECT)? The MOC was to be signed in 6months from May 2019. That no signing took place nullifies the MoC and does not bind Sri Lanka in any way to committing to this venture by the people-rejected yahapalana government.
The unanswered question is why would India nominate the same company to presumably develop Colombo East Container Terminal when that very company is building a massive terminal in India to counter Sri Lanka?The answer is obvious and it is unlikely that ECT would see any development in a project that would end up two’s company three’s a crowd with India & Japan partners of US pivot to Asia ensuring Sri Lanka is tied down in every way from standing on its own feet and then having to watch all of Sri Lanka’s currently handled transshipment divert to India! Can Sri Lanka’s leaders watch this happen or allow this to happen to a strategic port such as Sri Lanka.
https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/gautam-adani-pm-modi-s-constant-companion-on-overseas-trips/story-CMDqyMTSNxoewGpQVqEeDK.html (Gautum Advani-PM Modi’s constant companion on overseas trips)
If India is building a hub to divert Sri Lanka’s currently operated transshipment cargo which began in 2015, it only means Sri Lanka’s Port officials should have by now developed a business plan to counter by finding ways and means to draw the volumes that is likely to be lost for Sri Lanka. Simply turning a strategically viable port into a dead duck is not the solution.
When a port that is of strategic and national security importance as that of Sri Lanka, it is important that the holding and ownership and operating powers are held by the National authorities. We are living in turbulent times. Every country, every lending institution, every ‘friend’ puts its own interest first. It’s about time Sri Lanka did so too instead of always tryng to make the other party happier. In times where countries are out to secure resources and savings for itself, what is Sri Lanka doing to secure its national interests and national assets and resources as well as safeguard the future of its populace not only for the present generation?
Never underestimate your enemy while over-estimating yourself.
By Shenali Waduge