Is Lanka trifling with 1.4 billion Chinese people?

Questions are often raised about the impact of current Sino-Lanka relations on the future direction which Lanka will take.  This query is hypothetical because leaders of countries change directions to adapt to ongoing changes and even presidents for life can be changed by governing bodies. 

by Gamini Weerakoon

‘Eight hundred million Chinese people are not to be trifled with’ was one stern warning — in a series of numbered warnings — sounded by newly independent China attempting to unite mainland China with the island of Taiwan under control of Chinese warlord Chiang Kai Shek. Chiang had been driven out of mainland China by the Communist government and was attempting to re-enter mainland China. We cannot recall the exact dire words in the colourful language in the repeated warnings made in the 1950s and the ‘60s.

Now, in what appears to be a developing historic comedy, little Lanka seems to be attempting to trifle with China with a population of 1.4 billion and has become an economic superpower.

An order for a shipment of urgently required organic fertiliser had been made by the Agriculture Department and samples of the shipment examined by the Lanka Agricultural authorities have been found to be unfit for use, it being alleged that the samples were contaminated with bacteria harmful to Sri Lankan soils. A letter of credit for the shipment has been made through the People’s Bank which has refused payment following a court order made on a public petition.

Some Sri Lankans, including a few journalists, have considered this issue as one involving the sovereignty of the nation and are beating war drums while hounding the ship which is said to have brought the fertiliser in question.  The ship has been denied entry to Lankan ports but is sailing in seas close to Lanka’s maritime boundaries with TV channels daily tracking its moves.

This can be considered a volt-face in relations between the two countries, especially considering close relations Rajapaksa governments have had with China. It could be recalled that China was one of three countries that regularly supplied us armaments in our 30-year-old war whereas some others did the converse — even arming and training our enemies.

We refrain from commenting on the business protocol followed in the fertiliser deal, the politics involved or its legality. It is an issue to be determined by science and science alone on the condition of the fertiliser. And may it be so.

News reports in the past week indicate the fertiliser comedy is drawing bigger and bigger audiences.

It becomes nuttier when considering Lanka’s indebtedness to China of many billions of dollars of which this writer has lost count. It becomes fruitier and nuttier because President Gotabaya Rajapaksa probably because he is a military man, does not want to obey the dictates of anyone — not even the IMF — and China wittingly or unwittingly has become our IMF.  The difference is that the IMF imposes conditionalities to loans China does not — only the rates of interest of China are much higher! It’s like the poor Lankan villager trying to get a loan. Banks, even state banks, will want ‘security’ or in banking lingo ‘collaterals’ but the ‘Kade Mudalali’ will give spot cash at high rates of interest with no collaterals and has ways and means of recovering the loans in the event of default.

The mighty Chinese government of Xi Jinping will not care to bother about this minor ‘ fertiliser deal’ but a sustained effort by some ardent ‘nationalists’ to raise a stink over it would naturally not be welcomed.

It is quite unlikely that Sino-Lanka relations will be adversely affected by this fertiliser dispute.  The relations sink much deeper such as into geopolitics and existential problems for Lanka. The absence of an acknowledged China expert within the ranks of the Rajapaksa government to explain it all is felt very much.

Bandula Gunawardana, the Trade Minister, can be considered the only person knowledgeable on Chinese thinking considering that he has a doctorate from the prestigious Confucius Institute although it would be an online degree since Gunawardana has not been a resident student on a Chinese campus. But the expertise of Gunawardana is of little or no use since his duties are mainly concerned with administration of ‘Arthika Madhyasthana (Trade Centres), CWE, Cooperatives and other matters confined to trade. He is entrusted with further functions as well such as the construction of the Maharagama Mahinda Rajapaksa Sports Stadium which has probably been stalled by COVID-19.

Questions are often raised about the impact of current Sino-Lanka relations on the future direction which Lanka will take.  This query is hypothetical because leaders of countries change directions to adapt to ongoing changes and even presidents for life can be changed by governing bodies. Lanka has had the healthy democratic tradition of throwing out incumbent governments but making not so sagacious decisions by re-electing those thrown out after a period of recuperation in the Opposition.

There are interregional rivalry of nations and universal problems such as corruption.

On the issue of the fertiliser deal, it has been alleged that huge commissions were involved in the Chinese organic fertiliser deal. Corruption and making millions of fast bucks, too, have been alleged in the Nano Fertiliser deal with India.

Comrade Vasudeva Nanayakkara, for once, made a declaration that this writer can agree with. Speaking in parliament on corruption, he held that corruption was universal. Even if Mahasakaraya (the greatest of gods in the Hindu pantheon) was involved in a deal, a commission cannot be avoided, he declared.

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