Sri Lanka acts to ease tension over visits by Chinese subs

Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and his wife Maithree in Colombo in August. His predecessor, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, had angered India by moving closer to China, and last year's submarine halts by the Chinese navy were seen as a tipping point in the
Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and his wife Maithree in Colombo in August. His predecessor, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, had angered India by moving closer to China, and last year's submarine halts by the Chinese navy were seen as a tipping point in the relationship.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Colombo's priority now is national reconciliation and restoring democratic institutions, says visiting PM

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.

LOOKING OUT FOR TRADE DEALS

The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is going to make a change in the Asian regional economy. All countries have to take note of 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 will follow and, hopefully, also with Singapore after that.

MR RANIL WICKREMESINGHE , Sri Lankan Prime Minister For more on the interview with PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, go to http:// str.sg/ZLkP

In January, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unexpectedly ousted in snap elections after a Cabinet revolt led by his long-time ally, Mr Maithripala Sirisena. Mr Rajapaksa later accused India's external intelligence agency, R&AW, of working with the United States 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 received 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 that while no firm estimates of the deaths are available, his own sense is that the numbers may be fewer than thought.

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

However, Mr Wickremesinghe indicated, allowing foreign judges to join Sri Lankan judges in special courts to try war crimes, as suggested by a United Nations 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 is to restore the democratic institutions that, he said, suffered under Mr Rajapaksa. This is one of the reasons why the government is 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 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 that he thought average growth rates of 7 per cent was achievable.

At the same time, the economy is also feeling headwinds from the China slowdown and the prospect of interest rate hikes in the West, which could affect 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'Sri Lanka acts to ease tension over visits by Chinese subs'. Print Edition | Subscribe