An ‘Emerald’ in the String of Pearls

$300 Million for the world’s emptiest airport, a bigger and better free trade agreement, a multi speciality hospital, import of top quality medicine and a yoga session with our Health Minister.

All this to a tiny island Country that has allegedly killed close to 600 (numbers range from 85 to 1000s) of your own Countrymen for fishing (yes, fishing) and carried out one of the largest genocide in modern history.

Moral? Definitely not.

Rational? Looks like it might just make the cut.

Graham T Allison, in his book Essence of Decision explains a concept called ‘The Rational Actor’, a model that explains international events by recounting the aims and calculations of nations or governments.

A Government’s policy falls under the ‘Rational Actor’ bucket if there are arguments that would permit interpretation of details of the Government’s behaviour as a value maximising choice (Graham T Allision, Essence of Decision)

A quick visit to Sri Lanka (visa on arrival is available for Indians and ₹1 = 2.40 LKR) is enough to understand China’s growing influence in the Country. Be it the multi Billion dollar port city in Colombo or the Hambantota Port development or the Norocholai power plant, China has been pouring in Billions of dollars and abundant workforce into Sri Lanka and is basically ‘building’ the island nation at this point of time. During my time at Kitulgala (an adventure hotspot in West Sri Lanka), a local even told me about how Chinese Tour Guides have literally taken over in major hotspots much to the angst of the Locals.

The Twists and Turns

China’s influence over Sri Lanka has been steadily increasing over the last few years and things went over the critical threshold when Sri Lanka ceded control of the port at Hambantota to a company called China Merchants Port that is owned and managed by the Chinese Government. While, the Political Leaders within the Country started seeing this move as a big step towards losing Sovereignty, India woke up with a start to realize that we have to make some swift moves ourselves to prevent the complete Chinese take over of Sri Lanka, a Country that plays a very strategic role when it comes to Naval dominance in the Indian Ocean and is one of India’s long time ally.

India, in need of a comeback had options in its table. The world’s emptiest airport, an ‘used only once’ 34,000 seat cricket stadium in the middle of nowhere, add a bunch of high value items into the existing free trade agreement or start over something new to increase its influence in the island. We went ahead with a $300 million purchase of the world’s emptiest airport not because we already anyways play way too much cricket with Sri Lanka (and defeat them handsomely) but because that airport deal, however nonsensical it might look, was the most rational investment that India could make at that point of time to keep the Chinese influence in check.

Graham Allision would have called India’s decision to purchase that airport as an act to bring around a situation of stable balance, a sort of Holy Grail when executing or following the Rational Actor model of foreign policy. The stable balance situation is in a way a Mexican standoff like scenario where the balance is maintained between two Countries and as rational players both the parties are okay with the status quo because the alternative will be suicidal.

With the Airport in India’s bag and the Port in China’s, nobody actually wins (Sri Lanka in a way does). India can use that airport as an air base but an air base will do little to build on its stance as the Guardian of the Indian Ocean and nor is this particular airport tailor made for military operations and China can never boast of a massive naval base if India has an airbase that is barely 20 kilometers away from the port and yet the act can be called Rational as it does push the needle towards equal disbursement of Power, at least when it comes to the Hambantota region.

As Sri Lanka continues to enjoy the limelight or ‘strategic promiscuity’ according to its Central Bank Governor, questions are being asked in their Country as well as in India as to understand at what level does it become way too much?

The guard rails of actions that fall under the rationality bucket is fast approaching and China with its investment and clout looks far ahead in the race. A Sri Lankan Minister quoted that while China is a friend, India is like a brother and with a Tamil speaking Defence Minister now in the hot seat, is it time for India to step up and act like the big brother that it is and prevent this emerald from joining the string of pearls? or rationality just cannot be an answer while dealing with moves like the ones that Chinese are making across the Indian Ocean?

Indian foreign policy in the next decade is going to be an area where proactive strategical moves have to be made across the world while ensuring that the Dragon up north doesn’t go completely ‘Dracarys’.

References —

  1. Allison, G. T. (1971). Essence of Decision. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

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