A financial crisis of an unprecedented magnitude is currently unfolding in Sri Lanka. With vanishing foreign exchange reserves and soaring currency inflation, the catastrophic consequences of the crisis are felt across the social spectrum of the country.
As Sri Lanka’s sovereign credit rating has been downgraded to “junk” level by international rating agencies, it cannot gain access to private lending from open market. The country has already been servicing billions of dollars of debt to China. This has left Sri Lanka with only two choices, either a relief package from IMF or monetary assistance from Indian government. Amidst this economic chaos, the governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank offhandedly dismissed the option of IMF bailout relief package. “Well, we don’t need relief if we have an alternative strategy“, he said in an interview.
SRI LANKA’S RELUCTANCE TO APPROACH IMF
Sri Lanka is nonchalantly discarding engagements with IMF as it had already reckoned India’s propensity to politically subjugate Tamil population even at the cost of losing its neighborhood to Chinese influence. This deeply ingrained Tamil-phobia in Indian foreign policy has been exploited by the Sinhalese government to its advantage for several years now. As they expected, India has released two lines of credit totaling more than a billion and half dollars in the past few weeks to assuage their debt crisis. It is absolutely certain that there will not be any tangible political gains for India from these lines of credit. Whatever contracts that have been indicated to be offered to Indian government (or private Indian investors), will be retracted or annulled in the near future. Interestingly, Indian bureaucracy is also acquainted with such turn of events, as it had happened several times in the past, and yet it has continued to assist Sinhala government incessantly.
THE STRATEGIC ROLE OF DEMOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION IN A BUFFER ZONE
An inalienable attribute of a hegemon (regional or global) is its ability to impose (to some degree at the least) unilateral policies on neighboring countries at will. In south Asia, India is a self-proclaimed regional power. But there’s not a single country in its neighborhood where it is able to perform such hegemonic maneuverings and establish itself as an emerging power. This dire state of affairs is the outcome of decades of disastrous foreign policies, conceived not by rational perspectives but rather by racist proclivities.
When Soviet Union collapsed, Russian federation inherited the legacy of erstwhile Russian empire. The smaller countries that declared independence from Soviet Union at the end of cold war are seen by Russia as a buffer zone that separate Russia from outside world. Russia does not tolerate any western involvement in these countries. Before Russia could re-organize itself to the new world order, the NATO had already expanded eastwards by consolidating some of the post-soviet republics under its ambit.
Putin’s rise to power in Russia has drastically changed the geopolitical equations of Eurasian region since then. America’s inclination to include Ukraine, a large and strategically positioned country in eastern Europe, instigated a series of concerted diplomatic and military response from Russia. This geopolitical turmoil precipitated an economic crisis in Ukraine. Russia intervened with financial aid when the prospects of IMF intervention increased. Russian aggression had made it obvious for Ukraine that it could either be a neutral country in the delineated buffer zone or an ally of Russia and uncompromisingly demonstrated the futility of a third choice by effortlessly annexing the Crimean region. Crimea is largely populated by Russian people. Such “concentrated presence” of Russian population in the post-soviet republics is a major tool in the foreign policy of Russian federation. Russia uses them as a leverage in destabilizing a country in the buffer zone whenever it drifted towards west.
Contrasting this with the geopolitical situation in South Asia, the failure of Indian foreign policy is evident everywhere in its neighborhood. The demographic composition of this region was very advantageous for Indian union at the time of the European exit from subcontinent. The island near the southern tip of Indian subcontinent is home to two ethnic groups: Tamils and Sinhalese. While Tamils were very sympathetic to Indian Union, the Sinhalese always had a cynical view about their neighbor.
The demographic imbalance between Sri Lanka and Indian subcontinent is seen as a potential threat by the Sinhala political establishment as they persistently worry about the possibility of India annexing their country.
A significant concentration of financially commanding Tamil population was present in Burma. One academic study has estimated that more than a quarter of the arable lands in Burma was owned by Tamils. A demographic asset of such great value would have been used pragmatically as a geopolitical leverage by any aspiring hegemon, as in the case of Russia, except for Indian Union. When Burmese dictatorship assaulted and expelled Tamils out of the country, India unhesitatingly spectated the tragedy. India not only remained mute during the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka, it also equipped the Sinhalese government in destroying the Tamil resistance and subsequently the de-facto Tamil nation state in the island.
SIGNIFICANCE OF TAMILS FINANCIAL EDIFICE
In a conclave conducted in India, a former prime minister of Sri Lanka cautiously expressed his observations on the influence of twentieth century Tamil traders: “The proliferation of culture alongside trade led to the creation of robust networks. A good example of that was the multinational network of the Nattukottai Chettiars which spanned Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Vietnam until the mid-twentieth Century. They had over 1500 businesses in Myanmar before World War II. The integrated financial network of the Nattukottai Chettiars has yet to be matched in the ASEAN and the BIMSTEC countries”. In these words, one could assess the geopolitical value of the powerful Tamil population in south Asian region. The exclusive consideration about Tamil population here is validated by their significant presence in the countries that had recently received extensive funding for major projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
South Asia is a fairly complicated political subset of Asian landmass. Three nuclear powered countries share borders with each other. A sense of suspicion and skepticism, if not overt hostility, dominate the outlook of relations between China and India. As nuclear capabilities and demography endowed with market potential negate the prospects of major armed confrontation, the rivalry between these two countries takes place predominantly in the diplomatic realm.
IMPLICATIONS OF CHINESE OVERTURES TO TAMILS
With its ambitious connectivity project, Belt and Road initiative, traversing the vast expanse of Eurasian land and water, China aims to secure its energy supply as it gradually strengthens its position as global hegemon and a major player of Indian ocean region. Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are the principal recipients of Belt and Road Infrastructure projects in south Asia that aim to connect China with maritime transit routes of Indian ocean. By funding these projects, China has also effectively built a system of parallel financial institutions that gives a viable alternative for the multilateral funding organizations such as world bank, IMF, and Asian development bank.
China is a primary source of external debt for Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Entrenched in racism and hatred of Tamils, India has created a potential fault line that could be utilized by any extra regional power in the near future. China gained a reasonably unchallenged access to the strategic areas of Indian ocean because of India’s self-destructive foreign policies.
Provided the widely acknowledged intellectual acuity of Chinese diplomacy, it might not be a stretch of imagination to posit that some recent developments in Sri Lanka such as the cancellation of a Chinese firm’s clean energy project in the Tamil homeland region in response to a monetary offer from India and a Colombo port container terminal deal with an Indian private firm could be the machinations of a nexus between China and Sinhala government intending to squander India’s line of credit for recognizably void contracts.
China might have already gauged that, insecurity and paranoia about India in the collective consciousness of Sinhala population would prevent any sustainable engagement between the two in the long term. Having already consolidated the Sinhalese population, China has now indicated that it is firmly positioned in the Indian ocean region to capitalize on the deep-rooted Tamil phobia in Indian foreign policy through recent rebalancing overtures to Tamils. As Tamils and Chinese have cultural relationship stretching back to thousands of years, these diplomatic outreaches could rekindle the history of Tamil-Sino relationship, in the result of which India would stand empty handed by losing the entire Indian ocean region to China due to its imprudent animosity towards Tamils.