July 31, 2014 12:00 am JST

Japan trying to cool Sri Lanka's ardor for China

SATOSHI IWAKI, Nikkei staff writer

COLOMBO -- Immediately after the end of the World War II, Sri Lanka opposed a proposal by the Soviet Union and other Allied nations to divide Japan into separate occupation zones, which helped Japan stay in one piece.

     At the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951, the late Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene, then finance minister of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known, called on other countries to abandon their claims to war reparations from Japan, quoting Buddha's teaching: "Hatred ceases not by hatred but by love."

     Jayawardene argued that a completely independent and free Japan was critical to the future of Asia and helped bring the country back into the international community. The full text of his speech can be found at a library in Colombo.

     Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is slated to visit Sri Lanka soon. Abe will undoubtedly express his appreciation for Sri Lanka's past assistance to Japan, but a more important task will be to convey Japan's strong concern over China's strategic muscle-flexing. He will be trying to pour a bit of cold water on the island-nation's growing love affair with China.

Pearl choker

In Hambantota, once a remote village on Sri Lanka's southern tip, construction of a large port is picking up speed, thanks to Chinese investment. When complete, the strategic deep-water port will be able to handle ships as large as an aircraft carrier.

     The project has caught the attention of military observers worldwide, given that it follows Chinese assistance to Pakistan on the port of Gwadar, Bangladesh's largest port of Chittagong and the port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.  These facilities have been described as China's "string of pearls" aimed at encircling India. They also give Beijing a leg up in its maritime expansion. These developments are sufficiently alarming to Japan and India that the two have forged a security pact.

     According to Japanese government sources, Abe's visit will be an opportunity to cut the string of pearls and dissuade Sri Lanka from drawing too close to China. At a recent press conference, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa downplayed Japan's concerns, saying it is worrying unnecessarily.

Civil war fallout

But China is a major aid donor to Sri Lanka and has been its largest financial backer in recent years. Tokyo announced plans to extend $497 million in financial assistance to Sri Lanka in 2013. That year, Beijing offered $517 million.

     "As long as the United Nations criticizes Sri Lanka for failing to address human rights violations, it is inevitable that the country will tilt toward China, which has the power to veto U.N. resolutions," said Chintamani Mahapatra, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

     In 2009, during the last phase of Sri Lanka's long and bloody civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, government forces indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, including hospitals. The government blamed the separatist rebels for using civilians as human shields, but an estimated 40,000 people were killed in the final push, many of them civilians.

     That provoked criticism from Western countries, some of which have large communities of Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants. Canada and India boycotted a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka last year, insulting Rajapaksa.

     Abe plans to stop in Bangladesh during his upcoming South Asian tour. Bangladesh and Japan are competing for a nonpermanent seat from Asia on the U.N. Security Council, which will be vacant in the fall of 2015. Abe will be trying to persuade Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to withdraw Dhaka's candidacy.

     From Bangladesh, Abe is likely to go directly to New York to announce Japan's campaign for this seat at the U.N. General Assembly in late September.

    Japan hosts few Tamil workers and it has continuously provided financial support to Sri Lanka. If Japan gets a seat on the Security Council and a bigger voice in U.N. decisions, Sri Lanka may alter its China-centered foreign policy.

     But before anything else, Sri Lanka must address its human rights problems, which is a prerequisite for attracting more investment from the West. The question is whether Japan can encourage Sri Lanka to drop its hostile stance toward its critics and cooperate with an international inquiry into alleged human rights violations. If it can do so, Japan will fulfill the wishes of the visionary Jayawardene, who passionately supported Japan's postwar return to the international community. It will also return the favor of Sri Lanka's friendship with Japan.