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India at UNHCR: Neither pragmatic nor principled

March 26, 2013 15:45 IST

India’s highly problematic move in backing an anti-Lankan resolution at the UNHCR will now make India even more marginal in the island nation with some grave long-term damage to its vital interests, says Harsh V Pant.

After all the drama, India finally voted with 24 other states last week in favour of the controversial United Nation Human Rights Council resolution on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. In fact, New Delhi was pressing for as many as seven amendments to the draft resolution but given the time constraint had to remain content with the original draft.

The main aspect of Indian intervention was the need for the institution of a credible and independent investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights abuses. In his remarks, India's permanent representative to the UNHRC in Geneva, Dilip Sinha said that "as a neighbour with thousands of years of relations with Sri Lanka, we cannot remain untouched by developments in that country and will continue to remain engaged in this matter."

He underscored, the "inadequate progress by Sri Lanka in fulfilling its commitment" to the UN council, and called upon the nation to fully implement the 13th amendment. "India has always been of the view that the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka provided a unique opportunity to pursue a lasting political settlement, acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka, including the Tamils," Sinha suggested.

If last year, New Delhi had tried to amend the West-sponsored resolution to make it less intrusive, more balanced and more respectful of Sri Lankan sovereignty, this year it was trying to do the opposite: bringing in amendments to make some words in the resolution stronger. It reportedly pushed for seven written amendments in six paragraphs of the resolution. But if this was aimed at the domestic political landscape, it clearly failed to have any impact as both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have accused the United Progressive Alliance government of "diluting" the US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC by not moving any amendments demanded by it.

As a consequence of this domestic political posturing, India today has not only marginalised itself in the affairs of Tamils in Sri Lanka but has also made sure that one of its most important neighbours will move further into the arms of China. After repeatedly opposing country-specific resolutions at the UNHCR and other such bodies, India has now set a dangerous precedent which will come back to haunt India. India’s foreign policy stands today bereft of both principle and pragmatism.

As it is Sri Lanka has been rapidly slipping out of India’s orbit. India failed to exert its leverage over the humanitarian troubles that the Tamils trapped in the fighting were facing. New Delhi’s attempts to end the war and avert humanitarian tragedy in north-east Sri Lanka proved utterly futile.

Colombo’s centrality between Aden and Singapore makes it extremely significant strategically for Indian power projection possibilities. After initially following India’s lead in international affairs, even demanding that the British leave from their naval base at Trincomalee air base and air base at Katunayake in 1957, Colombo gradually gravitated towards a more independent foreign policy posture. And it was India’s enthusiasm for China that made Sri Lanka take China seriously but after the Chinese victory in its 1962 war with India, Colombo started courting Beijing much more seriously.

And now China has displaced Japan as Sri Lanka’s major aid donor with an annual aid package of $1 billion. Bilateral trade between China and Sri Lanka has doubled over the last five years with China emerging as the largest trading partner of Sri Lanka. China is now supplying more than half of all the construction and development loans Sri Lanka is receiving.

Chinese investment in the development of infrastructure and oil exploration projects in Sri Lanka has also gathered momentum. China is providing interest free loans and preferential loans at subsidised rates to Sri Lanka for the development of infrastructure. It is the first foreign country to have an exclusive economic zone in Sri Lanka. China is involved in a range of infrastructure development project in Sri Lanka -- constructing power plants, modernising Sri Lankan railways, providing financial and technical assistance in launching of communication satellites.

China is financing more than 85 percent of the Hambantota Development Zone to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery, and international airport, and other facilities. The port in Hambantota, deeper than the one at Colombo, is to be used as a refueling and docking station for its navy.

Though the two sides claim that this merely a commercial venture, its future utility as a strategic asset by China remains a real possibility to India’s consternation. For China, Hambantota will not only be an important transit for general cargo and oil but a presence in Hambantota also enhances China’s monitoring and intelligence gathering capabilities vis-à-vis India.

Indian has expressed its displeasure about growing Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka on a number of occasions. In 2007, India’s then National Security Advisor openly criticised Sri Lanka for attempting to purchase Chinese-built radar system on the grounds that it would ‘overreach’ into the Indian air space.

Yet Sri Lanka has emerged stronger and more stable after the military success in the Eelam war and the two elections at the national level. To counter Chinese influence, India has been forced to step up its diplomatic offensive and offer Colombo reconstruction aid. With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam now out of the picture, Indian government is hoping that it will have greater strategic space to manage bilateral ties.

However where New Delhi will have to continue to balance its domestic sensitivities and strategic interests, Beijing faces no such constraint in developing even stronger ties with Colombo. As a consequence, India is struggling to make itself more relevant to Sri Lanka than China.

Colombo matters because Indian Ocean matters. The ‘great game’ of this century will be played on the waters of the Indian Ocean. Though India’s location gives it great operational advantages in the Indian Ocean, it is by no means certain that New Delhi is in a position to hold on to its geographic advantages. China is rapidly catching up and its ties with Sri Lanka are aimed at expanding its profile in this crucial part of the world.

India’s highly problematic move at the UNHCR will now make India even more marginal in Sri Lanka with some grave long-term damage to its vital interests.

Harsh V Pant