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CHOGM: Indian PM's absence to benefit China?

Doubts voiced over India-Sri Lanka ties as Manmohan Singh decides to stay away from Commonwealth summit in Colombo.

Last updated: 11 Nov 2013 10:30
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The Indian PM's decision to abstain is likely to be viewed as a snub by Colombo [Reuters]

Chennai, India - The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) will begin in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo this Friday, but Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won’t be attending.

Singh is the second head of state to announce he won't be going to the summit after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled out citing Sri Lanka's human rights record, particularly the treatment of the country's ethnic Tamil minority.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed concern over the handling of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

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Singh did not comment on why he declined to attend, but political parties in India's southern Tamil Nadu state - with strong ties to Sri Lanka's Tamil community - had pressed the prime minister to take a stand and not show up.

Ever since Sri Lanka's 26-year-long civil war ended, allegations of atrocities by its forces against minority Tamil civilians during the final stages of the conflict have swirled.

About 40,000 civilians were killed in the final five months of the war that finally ended in 2009, according the United Nations. More than 5,670 people remain unaccounted for, it says. Sri Lanka's government has denied any responsibility.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed a panel of experts that recommended the establishment of an international investigation into what happened at the war's end. That was ignored by the Sri Lankan government, however, which instead launched its own "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" that was widely criticised for failing to address serious human rights violations.

Domestic politics

Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is dependent on host of regional political parties, and with fresh parliamentary elections due next year, the need to keep his regional flock together has grown more pressing.

Some of those regional parties - with their own political interests and vote banks in mind - are becoming more bellicose, even to the point of forcing a change in India's external affairs policy. Singh's cancellation of the Colombo visit is overwhelmingly credited to one regional ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Tamil Nadu's provincial assembly had passed a resolution demanding a total boycott of the CHOGM meet, to emphasise India's displeasure with the Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, sits with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a meeting in New Delhi. [EPA]

With the summit becoming inseparable from the "Tamil cause", DMK chief M Karunanidhi recently said: "Tamils in India and the international diaspora expect India to boycott the CHOGM meet in Sri Lanka. What is India going to do?"

Under pressure from such a prominent ally, it appears Singh has finally acquiesced, deciding to send his foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, to Colombo instead.

"I don't think we should look at any one single dimension to this decision. Let's not forget that the prime minister doesn't always go to Commonwealth [meetings]," Khurshid told private television channel NDTV, hours later.

Analysts, however, said they feared India's absence could be exploited by regional rivals such as China and Pakistan.

"Now we are vacating our backyard for the Chinese to rebuild all of a booming post-war Sri Lanka," influential columnist and editor Shekhar Gupta wrote in the Indian Express newspaper, describing Singh's move.

China had provided weapons to Colombo in the final phase of the civil war, and the Sri Lankan government has awarded more than $4 billion worth of infrastructure projects to China, mainly with Chinese loans.

'Greater stakes'

The worries are that the Colombo-Beijing relationship will now get cozier to the detriment of India.

"This could clear the path for China and Pakistan to claim greater stakes in their relationship with Sri Lanka, which is definitely against India's interest," strategic affairs analyst Maroof Raza said.

Colonel R. Hariharan, formerly the intelligence head of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that was sent to Sri Lanka in the late 1980s to enforce peace, said the prime minister's absence could undo India's efforts to build bridges with the island-nation across the narrow Palk Straits.

The IPKF was one measure that India had taken to strengthen ties with Sri Lanka, though many felt it was misguided.

According to Hariharan, India's business ties with Sri Lanka could take a hit as New Delhi distances itself from Colombo.

"India had a lead of more than seven years over China in signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Sri Lanka, but China is making it up at a rapid pace," said Hariharan.

He pointed out that "India-Sri Lanka trade grew from $600m in 2000 to $5bn in 2012. As against this, China-Sri Lanka trade even without an FTA has grown from $658.4m in 2005 to $2.67bn by 2012."

"China-Sri Lanka trade aided by an FTA would retard the growth of India's trade with Sri Lanka," Hariharan said.

China-Sri Lanka ties have grown exponentially in
recent years [Getty Images]

So is China going to gleefully accept what India cedes to it, owing to India's own internal political considerations?

The likes of Gupta, Raza and Hariharan feel that China's footprint on Sri Lanka will increase further.

According to a recent announcement by the Sri Lankan authorities, even one of the major venues of the 2013 CHOGM summit - the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall - is an "outright gift from the Government and People of the People's Republic of China".

With forces pulling him in various directions, the Indian prime minister seems to have buckled and prioritised internal political interest above external affairs.

And pundits see a short-term outlook in this.

"Unlike the Congress-led government in India which is walking on thin ice, the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka is here to stay," said Raza.

"India should understand the long-term implications of upsetting a neighbour whose government is firmly entrenched."

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