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By Dr. Sarala Fernando
My earlier articles had drawn attention to the imminent problems faced by Chinese State Owned Entreprises (SOEs) now laying a new footprint in Sri Lanka and the damage that is being caused by mischievous media reports and political opportunism to an old, multifaceted bilateral relationship which hitherto had been described as “robust” and “reliable”. This article suggests how adverse publicity could be transformed by the deployment of thoughtful public diplomacy for “win win” outcomes.
Both the Port City and new economic zone in Hambantota are facing growing challenges from the public and environmental lobbies, controversies which no doubt are being fanned by opposition political entities. However, is the government at last coming to grips with the heart of the debate that there is a limit to the exploitation of the natural resources of our small island? There were hopeful signs with the recent government announcement of a halt to the initiation of new highways and road projects signalled for the first time by the publicity given to a government body refusing permission for a new road on grounds of the geological vulnerability of the surrounding areas. With the drop in export income, infrastructure development has been critical to fuel national growth but thankfully for the safeguarding of the rapidly depleting natural resources of this country, it seems a new direction in raising revenue will focus on public-private partnerships or putting up loss making enterprises for sale. While some argue that this is like “selling the family silver”, others ask how long the governments can continue to meet such losses and point to successful divestures involving leading local entrepreneurs as the way forward.
The conflict between the local people and the fight to preserve natural resources in the face of large scale foreign investment is not new in South Asia. The case of the latest dispute on whether the Narmada river resources should be utilised by two giant foreign enterprises Pepsi and Coca Cola had been taken to court in Tamil Nadu and even though the court had ruled against the petition, the public campaign to ban the consumption of the two products would have brought huge losses for the companies . So common sense dictates that the Chinese companies coming into Sri Lanka should engage in win- win public diplomacy which calls for “listening” and “building relationships” with the local campaigners.
Take for example the recent damaging rumour circulating widely that the Chinese economic zone coming up in Hambantota had asked the government “to get rid of some 400 elephants” now roaming the area. Why not instead use all the experience in China on conservation of indigenous species like the panda, to fund and manage in partnership with Sri Lankans, an elephant conservation sanctuary in the South on the lines of what has been done in Malaysia, drawing on the experience, knowledge and support of the local conservationists? There are well known Sri Lankan experts who reside and work in the South who would be glad to advice on such an enterprise which would be a draw for the large Chinese tourist contingents expected to come through Mattala. However, needless to say, the guiding objective should be to put the welfare of the animals first rather than raising revenue for the government.
An equally pressing problem is the issue of water sharing in the south with huge inequalities opening up with the proposed accelerated economic projects planned around the port in Hambantota. The Chinese, blessed with an enormous land mass with different regional zones, have a great deal of experience in the area of water where knowledge and experience gained have identified different solutions depending on geological and other ground realities. There is scope for twinning of provinces and for Sri Lanka teams to learn from China on both the supply and distribution of water for hydro power, irrigation and drinking water. There is moreover a lot of information already available in various research institutions in this country, earlier reports and studies which could be gathered together by a research team where farmers and women who are mostly running water community built organizations (CBO’s) should also be invited. Instead of exchange visits which have become political “goodies”, why not use digital conversations and public meetings, which could be organized by local NGOs in areas worst affected by the water crisis. It will however be a big leap for China to shift from dealing with governments to making contact with NGOs and women leaders! Unlike other big donors who have set up “Peace Corps” or retiree volunteers to connect with the local people, the Chinese still appear wary of such approaches.
A well known problem is that public diplomacy is sometimes confused with public relations and branding which usually are modes of one way communication. If new Chinese investment is to succeed in Sri Lanka it will need to fashion an entirely new campaign of public diplomacy which calls for “listening” to the views of the local people and trying to “build” long-term relationships apart from the immediate goals of bringing home the projects and reaching profitability. This may not be so easy given that in the past Chinese diplomats and business people have been used to dealing only with governments and politicians but the developments in rapid communications today call for much more sophisticated approaches towards foreign investment propelled development.
The other point to take into consideration is the well known sensitivity of India to growing Chinese investment in Sri Lanka especially in strategic assets like ports. So why not invite Indian companies to join in the so called Chinese Economic Zone, perhaps even open it to Japanese and Korean companies so that a framework of cooperation would be built to guard against the constant sniping and adverse media reports? Pushing this concept further, why not bring in German companies which have expertise in environmental protection technology and the Nordic companies which have proven their skills in managing the environment alongside heavy industries. The Chinese have expertise in solar and renewables which could make the new economic zone a show piece and finally lay to rest the lobbies in the Ceylon Electricity Board still calling for more coal fired plants which have adverse effects on the environment and run counter to our climate change obligations on carbon emissions. Mischievous media reports have resulted in many people believing that the Chinese Norocholai coal fired plant was a second hand plant foisted on Sri Lanka. This is not true. However few are aware that some of the Norocholai problems arose from difficulties encountered in the transmission to the local distribution system. This is a problem that is being experienced throughout the country when modern infrastructure is being grafted on to antiquated existing systems. Take for example the Yal Devi train which bucks and sways wildly on part of the journey on the old track while it suddenly runs smooth on the new track laid by the Indians after Anuradhapura. However, Yal Devi which has Chinese carriages is an interesting example of the potential for India-Sri Lanka- China cooperation where there is still ample room for improvement!
(The writer is a retired Foreign Service diplomat)