Nov 15, 2016

Regime Change? Reading China Right

The spat Chinese Ambassador Yi Xianliang had with Minister Karunanayake last week, not only led to speculative news reports, more in the form of “predictions” than in the form of “news” with the Foreign Ministry intervening.

Rarely do Chinese envoys meet the media to talk about Chinese interests in Sri Lanka or in the region. Yet when they do, does it necessarily mean a “regime change” is in the offing in Sri Lanka as speculated in the media?

The question that was not asked and answered is “why should China need a regime change now?” Why did they wait this long to decide on a regime change? This requires a global tour on power politics and its economics.

China is a big power after the 2008 global economic meltdown. It is racing ahead of the West that dominated the post WW II world led by the US. With US presidential election now over, the US would be a much divided society beyond economic woes. Obama may have steadied the home economy with a reduced budget deficit by half -- it was 47 per cent during the George W Bush presidency. He managed to bring unemployment to 4.7 per cent though with a reduced GDP growth at 2.3 per cent. Obama is thus rated as one of the successful post-WW II presidents. With Black Americans now feeling more liberated and established, they are also fighting it out on the streets. In Ferguson, Baltimore and recently in Milwaukee, clashes with police left cars burning and shops looted. According to the Washington Post, since January 2015 police have shot 1,502 dead and of them 354 are Black Americans who are only 14 per cent of the population. All between 12 and 65 years say other reports with over 100 men shot, confirmed as unarmed.

Donald Trump’s Republican election campaign has done more to divide this restless US society than to heal the already festering wounds. He may not be popular for what he says about women, illegal immigrants and Islamic fundamentalism. He may frustrate moderate Republicans to stay home without voting. Yet he has created a new “hate” mind-set that can incite more clashes in a society that has not been able to pacify the already grieving communities. That would be the home baggage the incoming US President will have to carry. Elsewhere, the US is embroiled in civil wars and armed conflicts with the US as the leading arms dealer in the present conflict-ridden world with an economy that depends very much on military hardware and weapons industry.

The EU too has not come out of their economic woes since the 2008 global meltdown. “Brexit” is only one issue. Except Germany and the few Nordic countries, West Europe has not fared too well in post recession years. “Indeed, euro-zone GDP in the final quarter of 2015 was still below its pre-crisis peak of early 2008…” wrote ‘European Economic Guide’ on February 18 this year.

The dominating UNP political leadership of this “Unity” government was incompetent in reading this “Western incapacity” right, when it promised the Sri Lankan voter, all Chinese projects the Rajapaksa regime signed into would be thoroughly investigated for corruption. They were over-confident of Western aid, when they gave a flat “no” to the controversial Colombo Port City project.They pinned all their hopes on Western allies to go full throttle “anti-China” during the 2015 presidential election. But, the allies in the West were unable to provide the support this Maithripala-Ranil government needed to break away from China.

In South Asia, Modi’s India is also slipping into a Rajapaksa type crisis economically and is into political instability. Modi’s pre-election hype of having turned around Gujarat into an economically vibrant State and would be so for India, fizzled out in less than two years. Ashok Sajjanhar summed up Modi’s two-year performance in “The Diplomat” thus, “Although overall inflation has been arrested, the prices of food items have soared. This is one of the biggest shortcomings of the Modi government. Another is its failure to provide jobs to the youth. Macro-economic indicators like FDI, inward remittances, and a high-level GDP growth of 7.5 per cent don’t mean much unless they are translated into lower prices for essential commodities and more jobs for young people. Meanwhile, India’s exports have declined continuously for the past 20 months because of shrinking international demand.”

The Modi government has blundered on political stability as well by pushing on an aggressive anti democratic, militaristic path with impunity. The prestigious voluntary organisation, People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) in a statement dated, November 1, 2016 on “fake encounter killings” in the Eastern States and in particular Chandigarh said, “A noticeable feature of these killings, as in many other recent killings, is that the security forces end up eliminating or killing all members of the alleged militant group claiming that there was no alternative. Such practice of eliminating all militants is resorted to leave no eyewitnesses to the fake encounter alive. This unbridled power exercised by the security forces with the connivance or complicity of the State or Government has substantially criminalised the security forces dealing a death blow to the rule of law and the criminal justice system.”

“The Modi government has evidently scrubbed out nuances in its reading of the situation and is wholly blaming Pakistan for the crisis. Whether or not it is by design, such an approach suits BJP’s political and ideological purposes perfectly. The BJP politically cannot do any of the things that Kashmir needs right now.” wrote Sushil Aaron in the ‘Hindustan Times’ on September 7, 2016. On the much hyped “national security” platform with “Hindutva nationalism” that Prime Minister Modi relies on to keep his image afloat, Kashmir valley with around 15,000 injured and 12,344 admitted to hospital, some 300 including schoolchildren blinded in the eye from pellets and over 8,000 including some 1,000 from Sri Nagar alone arrested. But youth with increasing women participation still on the streets (PUCL Fact Finding Mission Report) is more than serious trouble.With Pakistan projected as the “culprit” and a hostile neighbour, India needs to keep Kashmir rebellion as an internal conflict and the international community away. Thus in every sense, Kashmir is more important to India than Sri Lanka with Chinese funds.

China seems to have read all this perfectly right. They did not therefore react nor respond adversely to any of the early anti-Chinese rhetoric of this coalition leadership. Not even when the Colombo Port City construction work was stopped losing a million dollars a day for the Chinese company. They probably knew a year’s wait was what needs this “unity” government to come “China” way. It did happen that way with President and the PM between them making three official visits to China during the past 18 months.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is on record saying that his “unity” government will continue with all Chinese projects the Rajapaksas began. Colombo Port City is back with a name change and extended acreage. Even the Mattala airport his government thought only fit to store paddy, would be an international airport on a private-public partnership with a Chinese company. So is Hambantota harbour the UNP parliamentarians went to inspect when in the Opposition. Now the government has negotiated with Chinese counterparts to establish an industrial zone on 1,600 acres of land adjacent to the harbour. That in fact is nothing new. An industrial zone was already there in the initial plan. What may have changed like with the Colombo Port City is the extent of land promised and conditions on which Chinese companies may operate. This open shift towards China may not be to the liking of Western allies of the “unity” government. They yet have to keep this government fed to retain their influence. As the President recently said, the Western allies not demanding an international probe on war crimes anymore as agreed in the OISL Resolution 30/1, seem one compromise. The EU making promises on Sri Lanka regaining GSP plus facility is yet another.

Yet China’s hand seems economically more important and without substitutes. With no deviation from what President Jayewardene designed and modelled as a free market economy with total dependence on foreign investments, China is back with this “unity” government now as a “captive” recipient of Chinese aid. For this government too whether in “unity” or with squabbling, there is no better option to live through the next few years till the next election decides its future. What more would China need? A regime change? Hardly necessary anymore.

- Kusal Perera