Imran Khan’s Colombo visit against the backdrop of strengthening ties between China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka needs to be closely watched
Amidst ongoing domestic problems in Pakistan and the opposition's combined threat to close ranks against Prime Minister Imran Khan, the PM is arriving in Sri Lanka on February 22 on a two-day visit aimed at strengthening bilateral ties. Imran Khan is believed to be euphoric with this upcoming visit as, of late, Pakistan had a series of battering with foreign policy reverses whether in dealing with the Organisation of Islamic Council (OIC) or in its relations with the Arab countries which were once friendly to Pakistan. Worse, it has lost the goodwill with Saudi Arabia with which it always had an excellent rapport on economic, religious and military ties. Riyadh is maintaining a safe distance from Pakistan for a variety of reasons.
Against this backdrop, Imran Khan's two-day visit (February 22-24) to Sri Lanka is seen as part of an exercise to do a bit of damage control in the declining features of Pakistan's foreign policy. While in Colombo, Imran Khan is scheduled to meet President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena among other Sri Lankan leaders. The Sri Lanka Government's decision to invite Imran Khan to address the Parliament session may appear merely ceremonial but Pakistani PM is more than happy with this 'honour'.
Sri Lanka and Pakistan have always nurtured a close bilateral relations. Not long ago, during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka had allowed planes from West Pakistan to East Pakistan when the Bangladesh liberation struggle was in full swing. India protested as it had banned those flights. Sri Lanka permitted refuelling and overflying as many as 174 times.
Further, military ties between Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been deep and Imran Khan's forthcoming trip is very likely to further strengthen military relations. Pakistan continues to train Sri Lankan military personnel in Pakistan in various spheres. In May 2008, the then Army Chief, Sarath Fonseka was on a special mission to Pakistan to buy 22 Al-Khalid main battle tanks worth USD 100 million. Additionally, a list of other military hardware worth USD 65 million was given to the Pakistani military for future procurements. Touching upon the military bonding between the two countries, it would appear important to mention that Sri Lankan military officers regularly go to Pakistan for training and their basic courses. There is a special tie-up between the two countries for Lanka's Air Force's maintenance works, especially of transport planes C-130 Hercules. The US doesn't like Pakistan lending US expertise in this regard as the license holds good only for domestic maintenance. Helping Sri Lanka for commercial reasons is clearly a breach of contract. But such is the military bonhomie between the two countries. It doesn't end here. Many top Sri Lankan military officials have been decorated with highest military awards by Pakistan. These are clear measures to woo Sri Lanka to continue to wean it away from India. It will also not be out of context to note that a decade ago when the Somalian pirates were active in seizing ships on the high seas and extorting ransoms, many retired naval officers of Sri Lanka had launched a flouting armoury in the Indian Ocean to protect and give safe passage to the ships plying in the vulnerable areas. Crucially, there were a large number of retired Pakistani senior naval officials who were inducted. This shows the deep rapport on misgivings.
Military deals apart, Sri Lanka's exports to Pakistan grew from USD 47 million in 2004 to USD 105 million in 2018, which is phenomenal and almost double. Imran Khan, according to Foreign Ministry sources in Islamabad, will try to reinforce the trade ties as well. Pakistan has been consistently investing in agriculture, information technology, textiles and real estate. Pakistan is likely to step up its sale of cement and sugar which Sri Lanka already buys in considerable quantity. On its part, Sri Lanka will try to push further for sale of Sri Lankan tea and betel nuts. Pakistan is currently importing tea from Kenya, but according to experts, Sri Lankan tea could be commercially more viable. Also, not very long ago, Sri Lanka had requested Pakistani personnel to provide personal security to its Air Chief. This looks extraordinary.
Now, it's important to notice why the Pakistani Prime Minister has chosen this time to visit Colombo. There seems to be backing from China as it has always been known to support the present Sri Lankan Government due to its geopolitical and strategic interests as also to weaken India's proximity with Sri Lanka as they share a common culture and history. Chinese interests in Hambantota are well known. Sri Lanka mistakenly considers China as its natural ally.
India, of course, did the right thing by sending its External Affairs Minister to Colombo soon after the Rajapaksa Government assumed office. The new Sri Lankan regime assured that Indian interests would be of paramount importance. Pakistan PM's visit seems to be at China's behest or a kind of a proxy move. This is likely as China and Pakistan are working concertedly to tackle India and this visit could be part of their agenda. This looks more plausible as Pakistan and Sri Lanka are perceived to be moving away from the US and getting closer to the axis of Russia and China. Hence, a tripartite nexus between Sri Lanka, China and Pakistan looks to emerge on the horizon. The United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have all been supportive of Pakistan. China is believed to be taking an exceptional interest in the country's affairs. It has recently increased its number of Defence Attaches in its embassy in Colombo to four. There are also unconfirmed reports that there was a subtle Chinese hand when a memorial in Jaffna erected in memory of Tamil heroes was vandalised, allegedly at the prompting of the Government quarters.
After the loss in elections in 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa had blamed the Indian Government or more specifically, the Indian intelligence agencies for his and his party's rout. That may be lingering on the mind of those at the helm in Colombo now. They are missing the Chinese game plan which includes using Pakistan to further its growth in political interests. Imran's visit is part of the whole script. Under these circumstances, Indian agencies and the Foreign Ministry need to watch Imran Khan's visit more closely, especially, the likely implications and extent of Sino-Pak designs vis a vis India.
The drug nexus between Sri Lanka and Pakistan is equally worrisome. Most favoured drugs smuggling route from Pakistan to Sri Lanka is Makran coast. There are as many as 41 drug offenders presently in Sri Lankan prisons. Many Pakistani drug lords are operating from Sri Lanka. This merits more publicity in the media space so that people, in general, know about these undesirable linkages.
It is expected that the new US administration will also watch Imran's visit with interest as it has several fallouts and a well-defined Chinese angle as well. The US has been severely critical of the Rajapaksa regime for its human rights abuses during the campaign to finish off the LTTE in 2009. So are the UN and the European Union( EU).
China and Pakistan being hand in glove for sinister designs are more than visible in the public domain. This calls for a more concerted watch on Imran's Colombo visit and his interactions. To a possible extent, it should be played down as Imran wants to be in a win situation when he stands threatened with the FATF restrictions and ensconced with several domestic challenges. He is using this opportunity to bolster his sagging image.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal