It is somewhat strange when a visiting Prime Minister’s visit to a foreign country mostly consists of announcements from the hosts on what won’t be happening. It is even stranger when the visitor begins a sales pitch on a project that is not even that of his own country.
Imran Khan’s first visit to Sri Lanka as Prime Minister of Pakistan, was all of this and less. A positive note was that he was allowed to fly over Indian airspace, a gesture that Islamabad itself denied India earlier. The visit, as a whole, seems to have been an exercise by Islamabad to produce some deliverables. Colombo, on the other hand, just concentrated on keeping the whole thing as quiet as possible. The media remained uninterested, judging perhaps that Islamabad had little to offer. And so it turned out.
Why Sri Lanka Cancelled Imran Khan’s Address to Parliament
Prime Minister Khan’s planned address to the Sri Lankan parliament seems to have been cancelled by the hosts, officially due to the pandemic, but more likely to avoid annoying Delhi, already in high dudgeon over the cancellation of Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal that was a project together with the Japanese.
There could have been additional reasons. The mercurial Khan would certainly have held forth on Kashmir and, even worse, on the Muslims of Sri Lanka, protesting that their dead from the pandemic should not be cremated, as per the standard directives of COVID-19 prevention in the country.
Khan seems to see himself as the leader of the Islamic world, ticking off even the Prime Minister Macron of France several times. Any of these issues would have been embarrassing for the top leadership of Sri Lanka.
As it turned out, Pakistan’s PM came to make his case on a very different issue. In his media interaction, a visibly uneasy Khan, sold the case for the China -Pakistan Economic Corridor ‘as part of the Belt and Road Initiative’, offering Sri Lanka connectivity to Central Asia. That’s strange, because the Pakistani High Commission made no mention of CPEC at all, merely stating the usual anodyne statements on expected MOU’s on Technology, Investment, education and such ‘deliverables’ which every mission depends on.
Sri Lanka Already Close to China, Pakistan Has Little Role to Play
Apart from the fact that Colombo sits astride some of the busiest sea lanes in the world, Colombo is already seen as an important part of not only the maritime leg of BRI, but also—according to Chinese sources—a major beneficiary of the Silk Health Road.
Besides, just weeks ago, the power of BRI was evident when protestors from 23 unified trade unions managed to block India’s ECT terminal, which incidentally lies next to the fully Chinese operated CICT terminal. To make matters worse, the Sri Lankan cabinet thereafter awarded a renewable energy project 50 km from the Indian coast to a Chinese company, adding to the already huge portfolio estimated at about USD 14 billion. In December last year, the Chinese company that was part of the Hambantota port bagged the first contract in the planned Port City for USD 1billion.
In short, Colombo already hemmed in by the Chinese, will hardly be tempted by the vague promises of the CPEC project, which seems to offer access to Central Asia. Pakistan itself has hardly anything it can buy from Colombo, as a rather lacklustre trade relationship shows. A Free Trade Agreement signed in 2002 with the aim of raising trade to USD 2.7 billion merely reached $460 million after eighteen years. It is no surprise, then, that the Joint Communique merely repeats the CPEC offer. Clearly, the Sri Lankans didn’t know what to say.
Pakistan’s Defence Equipment Assistance to Sri Lanka
Predictably, Islamabad offered a USD 50 million credit line for defence equipment, which is its strong spot in bilateral relations, with a history of providing Sri Lanka with badly needed equipment to fighting insurgency. This was at a time when President Gotbaya Rajapaksa was Defence Secretary, and clearly there are some good memories there. Reportedly, sales included tanks as well as equipment for the air force.
Pakistan has used this undoubtedly timely sale on every occasion to underline a ‘loyalty’ bonus. Pakistan’s Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan was in Colombo last year, just before Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi, offering assistance. Pakistan and China would like to sell Colombo its coproduced JF-17's, but Delhi reportedly had the strongest objections.
More recently, Pakistan also offered computer training equipment to the Sri Lankan army to equip its Peacekeeping Training Centre. Both sides were uniformed. After all it’s the army which provides the gifts. And it helps that Pakistan’s High Commissioner is a retired Major General.
How Can Imran Khan Assist Sri Lanka — A Victim of Pak-based Terror Outfits?
Ironically, Khan also offered assistance on terrorism. Not only did the Sri Lanka cricket team come under terrorist attack in 2009 in Pakistan, but the carnage that was the Easter bombing had a definite Pakistani link.
One of the suicide bombers was Zahran Hashim, who had visited Pakistan in 2018. Separately, India had probably given early warning of attacks not only on the churches but also on the Indian High Commission itself. These were ignored. India had for the first time accused specific diplomats in the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo of being embroiled in planning 26/11 type attacks in South India. There’s more, such as the recent seizure of 100 kg of meth off the Sri Lankan coast involved in mid-sea transfers of narcotics in operations running from Pakistan.
Stranger still, was Khan extolling the value of Pakistan’s ‘Buddhist heritage’ and suggesting a tourism circuit to encourage Sri Lankan travelers. Most would think twice. Buddhist heritage sites have been attacked by not just the Pakistani Taliban, but also defaced by workers in Mardan, who smashed the relic, calling it “unislamic”. There is, however, an MoU on tourism, which probably made it to the list woefully short of deliverables.
In sum, Colombo may be uncomfortably close to Beijing, but at least it is understandable given the cash benefits flowing in diverse ways. That doesn’t apply to Pakistan, which unfortunately has little to offer either bilaterally, or regionally in SAARC. In bilateral visits, either the host or the visitor has to have something to offer. In this case, Pakistan has nothing in its kitty, and Colombo seemed uninterested. Sri Lanka has got other fish to fry.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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