China and Sri Lanka Part One
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 9 2017.
China and Sri Lanka Part One
Donald Trump seems to be determined to annoy as many people as he can. He has made a good start on antagonising China. The appointment of Peter Navarro, who has forged a career out of condemning China, to the newly- created National Trade Council does not bode well. Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, published a book called: Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action.
This seems like a good time to examine Sri Lanka’s relationship with the PCR (People’s Republic of China). February 7 was the 60th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between this island nation and China.
Professor KM de Silva, in his monumental History of Sri Lanka, describes how this island punched above its weight in ancient times. Sri Lanka, despite its diminutive size, belonged to the big league along with the ancient hydraulic civilisations such as China.
The economic potential of the Anuradhapura region was increased by proximity to the Mahaweli River. Mahasena’s Minneriya tank, plus many smaller tanks and irrigation systems built between the fourth and ninth centuries, helped sustain a considerable local population as well as producing a substantial agricultural surplus for export. The port of Gokanna (Trincomalee) played a part in the development of commercial relations with China and South-East Asia which enhanced the economic potential of the region.
Sri Lanka’s strategic position on the sea route between China and the west meant that from the early days of the Christian era there would have been trade between the island and China which would have been bolstered by religious affinity. However, up until the eleventh century the cohesion that comes from strong diplomatic and political ties was lacking.
The Buddhist connection helped to forge links between the two countries. There is evidence that Sinhalese nuns went to China in the fifth century and helped in the ordination of women there. In 411 AD, the famous Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa Hsien visited the island and stayed for two years.
However, contacts with Chinese Buddhism were occasional and tenuous.
During the Polonnaruva Kingdom, Sri Lanka was a vital link in the great trade routes between east and west. The unity imposed on the Muslim world by the Caliphs and the peace imposed on China during the T’ang and Sung dynasties allowed trade between China and the Persian Gulf to flourish. Sri Lanka’s geographical position helped it to benefit from this.
In the early fifteenth century, under the Ming dynasty, seven powerful fleets from China visited the ports of the Indian Ocean demanding tribute and obedience to the Chinese Emperor. The Muslim explorer Zheng He (often known as Cheng-ho) was a Hui court eunuch and fleet admiral during the early Ming dynasty. On Zheng He’s, first visit to Sri Lanka in 1405, his objective was to take back the tooth relic from Kandy. In 1284, Kublai Khan had sent a similarly unsuccessful mission for the same purpose. Zheng went back to China disappointed but also aggrieved and he returned five years later to capture the Sinhalese king, Vira Alakesvara, his queen and several notables and took them as prisoners to China. The king was eventually released but his humiliation meant that he could not recover his throne. In 1411, the Chinese emperor sent a nominee to the Sinhalese throne but he was swiftly eliminated by Parakramabahu who began a reign of 55 years.
Relations with Communist China
Fast forward to the Communist Revolution – Ceylon was among the first countries to recognize the PRC. Ceylon and the People’s Republic of China accorded each other diplomatic recognition in January 1950.
In 1952, Dudley Senanayake had just formed a new government when Ceylon faced a world shortage of rice.
The country entered independence saddled with a colonial plantation economy which was susceptible to fluctuations in world conditions. The country faced a foreign exchange crisis in 1952 caused by a dramatic fall in export prices after the end of the Korean War and the price of natural rubber declined by 36%. The Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 further consolidated a cordial relationship with China. The agreement gave the newly-independent Ceylon a large market for its rubber in China, and China supplied China with low-cost rice. This agreement was entered into at a time when China was victim of trade embargoes which cut off imports of strategic materials including rubber.
After SWRD Bandaranaike became prime minister in April 1956, the two countries established full diplomatic relations on 7th February 1957 and set up embassies. A number of bi-lateral agreements strengthened political, economic, trade and cultural bonds. Ceylon/Sri Lanka supported the PRC’s “One China” policy, which Trump is now undermining, and efforts to give the UN’s China seat to the PRC. The USA did not establish diplomatic relations with the PRC until 1979; Japan in 1972; UK in 1972 and France in 1964.
Mao Zedong died on September 9 1976. September 18, the day of Mao’s last rites in Peking, was also declared a day of national mourning and a public holiday in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government declared an eight-day period of mourning to coincide with observances in China. A condolence book was opened by the Chinese embassy.
Mrs Bandaranaike and China
The premiership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike further consolidated the gratitude of the PRC towards Sri Lanka. Her commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement provided the country with a great deal of international support and respect. She said: “Underlying the policy of non-alignment is the belief that independent nations, although small and militarily weak, have a positive role to play in the world today. This attitude is completely different from that of washing our hands of these matters, which was perhaps the idea behind the classical theory of neutralism. That was non-involvement — remaining in splendid isolation.”
The world’s first woman prime minister fully understood the importance for Sri Lanka of good relations with both India and China. She had close personal friendships in both countries and was distressed when the Sino-Indian war broke out in 1962. The Chinese Government were feeling somewhat victimised and expressed the view that the Colombo Conference countries were functioning as judges rather than mediators. Mrs Bandaranaike’s mediation efforts were helped by her husband’s and her own history of support for the PRC and her close personal friendship with Chou En-lai.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike paid her first official visit to China in 1962, and made further visits in 1972 and 1977. China was isolated at this time and did not regain its UN seat until 1971. The Chinese government appreciated Mrs Bandaranaike’s visits and she forged close personal connections with the Chinese leadership. At her request, relics of the Buddha were brought to Sri Lanka from China on loan.
Chinese aid, which was on more favourable terms than aid from other countries, started during Mrs Bandaranaike’s premiership. She personally supervised the plans and construction of the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall). Built between 1970 and 1973, the convention center was a gift from the PRC in memory of her husband SRWD Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon from 1956 to 1959.
JR and China
Although he led Sri Lanka into a closer relationship with the west, President JR Jayewardene visited China in May 1984. During JR’s rule the USA was Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier and China accounted for only 30%. In the 80s, India strongly objected to Sri Lanka’s evolving relationship with the US, Pakistan, China, as well as Israel. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, JN Dixit, cited JR’s foreign policy as the primary reason for Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987.
Premadasa was president of Sri Lanka at the time of India’s disastrous military intervention in 1987. India’s actions, the imposition of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and the 13th Amendment and the forced merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces as well as the invasion by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force, drove Premadasa towards China. As prime minister, he had visited China in 1979 and received a warm welcome. By the late 1980s China had become Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier, accounting for 58% of all weapons imports, providing warplanes, artillery and tanks. Premadasa invited a senior Chinese political leader to his party-political events and China played a big part in his economic policy.