Sunday, March 9, 2008

Foreign Aid, the Asian Way?

Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, put it plainly when he said that Sri Lanka’s “traditional donors,” namely, the United States, Canada and the European Union, had “receded into a very distant corner,” to be replaced by countries in the East. He gave three reasons: The new donors are neighbors; they are rich; and they conduct themselves differently. “Asians don’t go around teaching each other how to behave,” he said. “There are ways we deal with each other — perhaps a quiet chat, but not wagging the finger.”

The Tamil Tigers, for their part, have succeeded in getting themselves classified as a terrorist group in many countries, including the United States, Canada and the European Union, making it harder for the guerrillas to raise money abroad.

At the same time, according to Mr. Kohona, Chinese assistance has grown fivefold in the last year to nearly $1 billion, eclipsing Sri Lanka’s longtime biggest donor, Japan. The Chinese are building a highway, developing two power plants and putting up a new port in the hometown of the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka also buys a lot of weapons from China and China’s ally Pakistan.

Chinese diplomacy in South Asia, grounded as it is in a policy of “harmony” and deep pockets, is of obvious concern to India. So are the sentiments of Tamils at home. Overt support from India for the Sri Lankan counterinsurgency program can be explosive among India’s Tamils. But coming down hard on the government here could push Sri Lanka deeper into China’s embrace.

“There is little choice,” said Ashok Kumar Mehta, a retired general who was a leader of an Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka nearly 20 years ago. “India’s policy is virtually hands off.”

Mr. Kohona, the Sri Lankan foreign secretary, noted that India’s contributions had also grown, to nearly $500 million this year. India is building a coal-fired power plant and Indian companies have been invited to build technology parks and invest in telecommunications. New Delhi, like Washington, has shut the tap on direct military support, but it can still help with crucial intelligence, particularly in intercepting weapons smuggled by sea.

The picture in Sri Lanka is emblematic of a major shift from 20 years ago, when India was the only power center in the region. Now come China’s artful moves in India’s backyard. As C. Raja Mohan, an international relations professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, points out, China has started building a circle of road-and-port connections in India’s neighboring countries, and it has begun to eye a role in the Indian Ocean, as its thirst for natural resources makes it more important to secure the sea lanes.

That offers countries like Sri Lanka ample opportunities. “Now the smaller countries have increasingly turned to China to influence India’s strategic interests, and thus silence it on human rights issues,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. She cited Burma, where, in the 1990s, India pressed for democracy and watched the military junta sidle up to Beijing. “Now India is concerned about China’s role in Sri Lanka because of control over the Indian Ocean,” she said.

Iran is the latest entrant. Late last year came the promise of a whopping $1.6 billion line of credit, primarily to help Sri Lanka buy Iranian oil.

-Take Aid From China and Take a Pass on Human Rights

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