Sri Lanka to allow Chinese submarines to visit, says PM Wickremesinghe

Sri Lankan Prime Minister said, in an exclusive interview with the Straits Times, that the country would allow future visits from Chinese submarines, provided it was not too often.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister said, in an exclusive interview with the Straits Times, that the country would allow future visits from Chinese submarines, provided it was not too often. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Sri Lanka will allow future submarine visits by China provided they are not too frequent, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, touching on a hot-button issue with India that may have contributed to a government change in Colombo early this year.

"We have put out the criterion for visits by naval ships. Under that, ships including submarines from all countries can visit Sri Lanka. As far as we are concerned if it is a friendly visit we will inform the neighbouring countries and we will spread out the (frequency of the) visits," he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

"The problem with the last visit by a Chinese submarine was that India claims it was not informed. So far, from what we found out, that seems to be correct."

The 66-year-old Mr Wickremesinghe returned to power earlier this year as prime minister of a national unity government led by President Maithripala Sirisena, who is from the rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party. A political blue-blood of the United National Party, which he has led since 1994, Mr Wickremesinghe left for Colombo yesterday after a four-day visit here that included meetings with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and the ministers for foreign affairs, finance and trade.

In January, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unexpectedly ousted in snap elections after a Cabinet revolt led by his longtime ally, Mr Sirisena. Mr Rajapaksa later accused India's external intelligence agency, R&AW, of working with the US and Britain to orchestrate the events.

Mr Rajapaksa had angered New Delhi by moving steadily closer to China and last year's submarine halts by the Chinese Navy were seen as a tipping point in the relationship.

Mr Wickremesinghe suggested that some of the mistrust could have been avoided if India had been kept in the picture about the visit by the Chinese submarine, which was en route to deployment in the Gulf of Aden. In addition to upsetting India, which is leery of Chinese military activity in its backyard, the issue got wider notice because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Colombo when one of the submarines called.

He offered a cautious assessment of relations with New Delhi, saying "ties with India are improving".

In future, Sri Lanka will set out definite criteria for calls by foreign naval ships.

"You should send your Singaporean submarines and frigates sometimes," he quipped. "You have very good frigates."

Sri Lanka's quarter-century of ethnic conflict came to an end in May 2009 when the military, after a string of battlefield successes, put down the insurrection led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam with jaw-dropping brutality. By some estimates, as many as 40,000 may have perished in the final month of the conflict, mostly civilians used as shields by the Tigers. The dead included Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his family.

Mr Wickremesinghe said while no firm estimates of deaths are available, his own sense was that the numbers may be fewer than thought.

The government's top priority now is national reconciliation. President Sirisena had called an all-party conference on the issue and the government was considering setting up a Missing Persons Office.

However, he indicated, allowing foreign judges to join Sri Lankan judges in special courts to try war crimes, as suggested by a UN human rights report, may be trickier.

"Already, foreign judges have participated in our commissions of inquiry. In the last two commissions foreign judges actually formed the panel that advised the councils. So, the question is, do we go up to that point or do we go further and have a foreign judge sitting on the bench that will go on for some time," he said.

The next priority was to restore the democratic institutions that, he said, had suffered under Mr Rajapaksa. This was one of the reasons why the government was pushing to end the executive presidency with a Cabinet system of government.

"The Chief Justice was unceremoniously thrown out by him," Mr Wickremesinghe said. "The rule of law had suffered. We had a proud record of democracy. Ours is the oldest parliament in Asia - our legislative council was formed in 1835."

Sri Lanka's economy has accelerated since the end of the civil war and Mr Wickremesinghe said he thought average growth rates of 7 per cent are achievable. At the same time, the economy is also feeling headwinds from the China slowdown and the prospects of interest rate hikes in the West, which could impact on his country's ability to repay loans. Beyond that, the government is considering the next steps for economic reform.

"The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is going to make a change in the Asian regional economy. All countries have to take note of TPP," he said.

"And then, there is China and India. We are looking at our own location, and our natural resources and human skills. We are doing an Economic and Technological Cooperation Partnership with India. A Free Trade Agreement with China will follow and hopefully, also with Singapore after that."


Q&A with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

Q: On what brought him to Singapore

A: I had the opportunity of meeting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam - I've known him earlier - as well as the ministers for foreign affairs, finance and trade, among other meetings.

Q: On the outcome of his talks

A: We discussed possible areas of cooperation. We are trying to convert the Western Province of Sri Lanka into a Megapolis. Singapore's CESMA did the planning in 2004 (when I was prime minister) but it was not followed up by President Rajapaksa. Now, we have got them to revise the plan. It will be available by the end of the year. We also want them (Surbana-Jurong Pte Ltd) to do the Master Plan for Trincomalee. Already, the Japanese and Indians are interested in that region. Aside from Trincomalee harbour, there is also potential for power generation and manufacturing. The Japanese and Indians are present in thermal power generation in Trincomalee. There are also immense possibilities to develop tourism.

The Megapolis idea stems from having larger cities as a catalyst for economic growth. The benefit is that technology then also starts going to different other regions such as the North-Western Province. Similarly, we are looking at reconstruction of the North and East, mainly for agriculture. Once that is done, investments will flow. We have had (Singapore's) Prima for years. Now, we have the Shangri-La Hotel there.

Q: On his top priorities as PM

A: Certainly, national reconciliation. That is the first priority. Then, to re-establish the democratic institutions that had got weakened and were malfunctioning under Rajapaksa. For instance, the Chief Justice was unceremoniously thrown out by him. The rule of law had suffered. We had a proud record of democracy. Ours is the oldest parliament in Asia - our legislative council was formed in 1835.

Q: On economic policy

A: We, in the United National Party, have a pro-people image and we feel that people can only prosper through a market economy. So, we are looking at the next stage in economic reform.

We are looking at a world that is rapidly changing; there is globalisation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is going to make a change in the Asian regional economy. All countries have to take note of TPP. Vietnam may become more competitive than China after TPP. And then, there is China and India. We are looking at our own location, and our natural resources and human skills. We are doing an Economic and Technological Cooperation Partnership with India. A Free Trade Agreement with China, hopefully, also with Singapore.

The FTA with Singapore will (likely) come about once we finish with India and China. We have an FTA with India but we have to upgrade it to economic and technological collaboration. We are looking at (India's strengths in) software, and Indians are looking at what they can get from us. The new Indian government is favourable to it. The sequencing of the FTAs is because we have limited staff to negotiate. The China FTA should be through by next year, after that Singapore talks should hopefully begin. And then, we will look at how we become competitive vis a vis the TPP.

Q: On growth prospects

A: What we have now is economic growth that's coming from construction, foreign remittances and public sector spending. That is not enough. We need real growth in agriculture, services and manufacture. As well as the financial services. Once the world economy picks up we should grow at 7 per cent or more. Right now, we are being affected by China's economic rebalancing and the prospect of rising interest rates in the West. We have borrowed a lot from the West, and that money has to be returned.

Q: On the need for an IMF bailout

A; Not at the moment. The restrictions on car imports put in place recently were because police were up in arms saying the road capacity is insufficient. Coming into Colombo is taking too long. I can't see us going to the IMF at the moment. But let's see how the international economy moves. That could impact our decisions.

Q: On the UN report on human rights violations at the end of the civil war

A: We are discussing it. President Sirisena has called an all party conference. We are thinking of a Missing Persons Office. Special cases... what are the ones that require further investigation and should be referred to the Truth Commission? Truth Commission, in many cases will forward the reports to the Compassionate Council, which can decide whether they qualify for amnesty. (In other cases, there will be) a judicial mechanism for initial inquiry and thereafter, (it will go to) the Supreme Court for the final verdict.

Q: On reluctance to appoint foreign judges on war crimes tribunals

A: We aren't reluctant to take foreign judges. It is (the manner of) participation of foreign judges. So, we have to decide how it is to be done. Already, foreign judges have participated in our commissions of inquiry. In the last two commissions foreign judges actually formed the panel that advised the councils. So the question is, do we go up to that point or do we go further and have a foreign judge sitting on the bench that will go on for some time. It is not a question of their participating; they have already participated. The question is, whether as an adviser or a judge.

Q: His personal stand on the issue

A: Let's see how the Bar and civil society reacts to it. The question of their participation is already accepted, (as I said) it is the manner of participation that's being discussed. Even in an advisory capacity he will sit on the Bench. There are one or two views. In any case, the bulk of the cases go to the Truth Commission. And from there starts the role of the Compassionate Council. They will be the key people . A judicial mechanism with foreign judges participating will perhaps go into a few cases. But they will deal with far less than cases with the Truth Commission.

Q: Final estimate of casualties in the last month of the war

A: No one knows. Even the Human Rights Commission couldn't say. There are no definite figures. (But it) looks like it could be less than 40,000.

Q: On relations with President Sirisena, who is from another party

A: There is no problem. The issue is to get some of the other (ministers) to work together. So many conflicting interests. Besides our two main parties, there are smaller parties (in the coalition).

Q: On whether he's going soft on the Rajapaksas

A: People want to know the truth. Punishment is a different matter. There is a general view that truth must be known. Some people have been prosecuted. One brother, Basil Rajapaksa, was brought to court and remanded but released on bail.

Q: On ties with India and China

A: We have told India what our policies are. We have an agreement that neither nation will do anything to harm the security interests of the other country. Subject to that, we carry on with our work. We are taking part in maritime security in the Indian Ocean. In peacekeeping operations with the UN. We sent an army contingent to Nepal when the earthquake took place. With China we have no military relationship but we have a strong economic relationship.

We have told India that China and we have a long relationship. Chinese economic investments are welcome in Sri Lanka. We did have some problems with China on infrastructure projects. (But) that's a bilateral issue between Sri Lanka and China. It doesn't involve India. We support India's entry into Security Council. That aside, we run our own domestic and foreign policy. Our economic policies are more open than India.

Q: On Chinese submarine visits that so upset India

A: We have put out the criterion for visits by naval ships. Under that, ships including submarines from all countries can visit Sri Lanka. As far as we are concerned, if it is a friendly visit we will inform the neighbouring countries and we will spread out the (frequency of the) visits. The problem of the last visit (by a Chinese submarine) was that India claims it was not informed. So far, from what we found out, that seems to be correct. The Chinese had told Sri Lanka, in advance. The submarine arrived, went out and returned. Not only India, but the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe was in Colombo when it happened. So, it became an issue. So, (now) we will have our own criteria. You should send your Singaporean submarines and frigates sometimes. You have very good frigates.