President Wickremesinghe in his own words is a man on a mission. His mission ‘…to steady the Lankan ship which just brief year ago was floundering.’ A time when miles-long queues of cars formed outside fuel stations. A time when people rushed hither and thither in search of alternatives to LP gas as the item was not available.
We were in the midst of 12-hour rolling power cuts, industrial closures, loss of employment, NO CASH to feed our kids, leave alone finding finances to continue their education.
Within a scarce five to six months of his taking over the presidency, he had the sagacity to turn a bad situation around, as well as negotiate with bilateral and multilateral creditors to restructure the loans which ran into billions of dollars.
While we still face major problems especially regarding purchase of essential drugs, but are in a much better situation than at the time of his assuming the presidency
During those dark days our country was forced to declare bankruptcy, unable to repay our foreign debt -US$ 46 billion. At that crucial hour when our people were struggling amid critical shortages of essentials; India it was, who extended emergency financial support of around $4 billion, providing relief to our beleaguered countrymen and women.
Today, a year since President Wickremesinghe took office; he is on his first official visit to India, aimed at further advancing and consolidating the long-standing bilateral relations between the two countries.
However, the visit is not merely to tie up business deals and negotiate new economic programmes. His visit is also about balancing geopolitical misunderstandings regarding Sri Lanka’s relationship with China and India’s fear of Chinese encirclement of its (India’s) exposed South, via growing Chinese influence in our country.
India and China are also our largest trading partners with India’s share standing at US$ 4.62 billion or 26%; while China’s share of trade stood at US$ 3.51 billion.
During President Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi a proposal which is scheduled to be taken up, will be for greater connectivity -re a proposed integrated energy grid and setting up of an oil pipeline connecting Nagapatinam in India to Colombo and Trincomalee (Where India is helping restore World War II-era oil tanks) for oil distribution via the Indian Oil company (IOC).
Both countries have also discussed the possibility of replacing the US$ with the Indian rupee as the currency of payment.
Lanka will also be looking to draw more tourists from India, its top source to boost its foreign reserves. The fly in the ointment will be the case of Indian fishermen poaching in Lankan waters.
While this problem could be solved, the more serious problem facing the Lankan president will be balancing Lanka’s relations between India and China, both of whom are wary of each other and Lanka must avoid offending.
While India fears China is attempting to encircle her via the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, China views India’s ever growing ties with the US with alarm. India joining the US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), commonly known as the Quad. The QUAD -a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US- is viewed with suspicion by China who refers to it as the US NATO alliance in the Asia region
So far Wickremesinghe has been able to balance our relations with both powers. On the one hand he has publicly accepted the importance of China’s ‘Belt Road project’ without comprising India’s security concerns. At the same time he has appeased China’s fears that Lanka is falling into India’s orbit by emphasizing the ‘One China’ policy and rejecting connections with China’s breakaway province of Taiwan.
While it is true, India has had a history of helping us at different times, greater connectivity with her via energy programmes and electricity grids may seem good.
But we have to ensure we do not become over dependent on foreign sources for strategic sections of our economy. Dancing to whoever’s tune is ok, but the DANCE must be ours NOT theirs.