First of all, let’s make no bones about the influence Tamil political parties had on India’s vote today at the UNHRC. Without their pressure, the government would likely have abstained or even voted against the US motion calling on Sri Lanka to “keep its promises” on rehabilitating its decimated Tamil population.This is Indian democracy at work. It certainly isn't the work of "churches & mombattiwallahs" as one cynical observer put it.
That said, let’s now weigh what India stands to win or lose with its stance. For starters, Sri Lanka will feel indebted to the Chinese for sticking by Colombo and making efforts to defeat the US motion.
And, miffed at having been told off on the world stage, Mahinda Rajapakse’s government may well go slow on its own promises to do right by the Tamils.
Let’s address the “China threat” first. I believe it is exaggerated. Answer these two questions and you’ll understand why for yourself. One, did Sri Lanka’s affinity to China begin after the US proposed its motion at the UNHRC? Two, would Sri Lanka’s affinity to China have reduced if India voted against the US's motion?
The answer to both questions is an obvious 'no'. In other words, China’s influence in Sri Lanka would not have reduced or ended even if India supported Sri Lanka today.
Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative, to the UN called this an "intervention by powerful countries in the internal affairs of other nations". He forgets that India worked hard to guard explicitly against such outside 'intervention'. New Delhi introduced a last-minute amendment that said any international efforts in Sri Lanka would be "in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the Government of Sri Lanka".
While we’re on the subject of China, let’s remember the term 'geo-politics'. Sri Lanka cannot escape its geography. No matter how diplomatically close Colombo and Beijing get, the two cities will always be 5,000 kilometers away. On the other hand, India will always be just across the Palk Strait. These distances will play on Colombo’s mind every time it thinks about making a clean break from New Delhi.
As someone said today, by the time the Chinese navy gets halfway across the Indian ocean, IAF fighters would returned from their 50th sortie over Sri Lanka. This is an exaggerated situation. No one in their right mind expects, much less wants war, but it illustrates the hard realities of geo-politics.
Then there’s economics. 14% of Sri Lanka’s imports come from India. Indian companies have deep roots in Sri Lanka, creating thousands of permanent jobs. It won’t be easy for Beijing to immediately bridge this gap.
For all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka isn’t going anywhere. It was time for Delhi to call Colombo’s bluff. And it did so. In addition to the 9 votes Sri Lanka’s diplomats cobbled together at the UNHRC, China could manage just 8 more, barely nullifying the 8 abstentions (many abstained after India's stance was made clear). This only solidifies my belief that China’s clout is exaggerated.
Lastly, but most importantly, what of the Tamils? Will Sri Lanka truly go slow? Unlikely. International pressure on Colombo has never been greater to act quickly. The world may have turned a blind eye to Colombo’s excesses during the war to oust the terrorists. But it is now firmly trained on how Colombo takes responsibility to heal wounds and build bridges. That is exactly what the resolution called for. Rajapakse will close himself off to this attention at considerable diplomatic and economic cost. India has ensured that the just, non-violent struggle of Sri Lanka’s Tamils for equality will not easily be forgotten.