I sat in a luncheon with a diplomat at the lawn of India Habitat Centre, an aristocratic club in the Indian capital. The diplomat was dead against Pakistan. The problem was that he never wanted giving importance to Pakistan at all. He said, “You the news media always go on shouting Pakistan, Pakistan. Pakistan has not that power for which India will have to worry.” The gentleman, while chewing Lamb Burger, went on, “let Pakistan manage its own economy first. It can think about India later on.” I humbly said, “Look, as a diplomat you have a vast experience. But, I think presently the South Block is keeping a close watch on the activities of Imran Khan. As there is less concern, the Indian foreign policy deems that there is no work to do in this pandemic period. Now there exists the happy hours of diplomacy. Then it will probably be a mistake Sir.”
From February 22 to 24, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan will remain busy in touring Colombo. What is the background of his two-day visit? Pakistan is beset with multifarious internal problems. Not only economic problem or that of vaccine diplomacy, but the country’s opposition politics has also turned dangerous for Imran Khan. His relationship with the army is also not comfortable. Then, what is the urgency of his abrupt Colombo tour in such a circumstance? Against this backdrop, why will Imran Khan visit Colombo? A lot of people have opined that Imran Khan had taken an initiative to bring a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. The Arab countries’ relations with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) bear significance to Pakistan. The friendly ties are about to diminish. That means Pakistan also got detached from the OIC. If Pakistan loses Saudi Arabia’s goodwill then it will feel endangered in the Islamic world. In such a period, economic, religious and military understanding is of utmost importance. Keeping the understandings in mind, Riyadh maintains a distance with Islamabad. In this period, Imran Khan will do the damage control exercise by visiting Sri Lanka. This is the conception of a good number of people. Imran Khan will sit in dialogue with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He will also talk to Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. Some other Sri Lankan leaders will also meet the Pakistani president. The Government of Sri Lankan will provide him with an opportunity to formally address a parliament session that Imran Khan thinks as a special honour to him.The Pakistan-Sri Lanka bilateral ties were once very cordial. India, in no circumstance, can forget it. In 1971, Sri Lanka sided with Pakistan. When Bangladesh Liberation War was going on in full swing then Sri Lanka allowed its airspace to fly war planes from the then West Pakistan to earstwhile East Pakistan. Then India asked Sri Lanka to desist from such act. India even protested saying aeroplanes are not allowed to fly during war period. India imposed a ban on it urging Sri Lanka to comply with it. Sri Lanka permitted Pakistani planes to take fuel from Colombo. At that time, Pakistani war planes flew over Sri Lanka for 174 times. There was a good military understanding between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Then Pakistan maintained a deep relationship with Sri Lanka. India got informed from various sources that an effort is underway to revive the military understanding between the two countries following Imran Khan’s tour.
In May, 2008, Sri Lankan Army chief Sarath Fonseka visited Pakistan with a special intension to purchase Al-Khalid 22 Main Battle Tank at a cost of 100 US dollars. He took another list of military hardware worth 65 US million dollars that was handed over to Pakistan for future programmes of its military system. Imran Khan intends to revive the military bonding.
During luncheon, that very diplomat answered in the negative. Actually, it is not so. Sri Lanka has a deep relationship with China. China is helping Sri Lanka in many ways. Even the eastern coastal port that India wanted from Sri Lanka, will be jointly modernised with Chinese assistance. As per various news sources, China has got the offer, not India. However, to maintain a balance, Sri Lanka has offered its western coastal port to India. Despite an effort for maintaining balance, it is an assumption that for the time being it is not possible for Sri Lanka to go against India. Sri Lanka too wants to keep alive the Sino-Pak axis.
Since long, an effort was underway for diplomatic consolidation among the neighbouring states through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Then is it going to be ruined due to Chinese actions? Is it the reason behind a bid to purchase C-130 Hercules aircraft for Sri Lankan Air Force? Taking US-Pakistan expertise, they are utilising those in their country. They are also going along with Sri Lanka for commercial purposes. However, it can be said that in the US, Biden’s administration is at ease. Rather, Biden’s administration will not openly wage a war against China which former US President Trump did. But, the US policy on China issue will remain tough enough. At the moment, Biden does not want to take a line of surrender or an understanding with China. So, it is a complex situation. In this complex situation, another issue has become very important. It is of a racket of drug trafficking. India has information from diplomatic sources that the gang is active in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Drug smuggling is going on from Pakistan to Sri Lanka through Makran coast. As many as 41 drug offenders have now been imprisoned in Sri Lanka. Lots of Pakistani drug lords are operating from Sri Lankan soil. Regarding the matter, there is little publicity. But, Indian intelligence is very active. Indian diplomats are much concerned about the issue. So, China has strategically backtracked a little bit. They have admitted about deaths of their people. China openly wants to go for an understanding through talks. But, India is not in a position to believe it entirely. It thinks China might play an aggressive role at any moment after moving back from its previous stance. In such a situation, it is essential to observe Imran Khan’s visit from the Sino-Lanka point of view.
In 2009, human rights issue was a major issue in case of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Then Sri Lanka was criticised by the United Nations and the European Union. Again, Sri Lanka, being a part of the Sino-Pakistan axis, might fall in trouble in future. But, India is sufficient enough to make Sri Lanka aware about the danger. At the moment, China and Pakistan will try to corner India by working closely with each other. There is little doubt about it among the Indian diplomats.
Against this backdrop, Indo-Bangladesh ties have come into prominence once again because of the latter’s geo-strategic position. At the moment, when the Sino-Pak axis is moving forward to make friendship with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh is emerging as the best friend of India from among its neighbours. The Indian prime minister’s Bangladesh tour is imminent. It is assumed that a future guideline on the diplomacy of the sub-continent would come out from the visit.
The writer is a senior journalist of India
Translated by Z A M Khairuzzaman