The two cannons on the famous Galle Face promenade in Sri Lanka’s capital once overlooked the lapping waves of the Indian Ocean. Now they stare at sand and rubble, as a Chinese-funded project aimed at creating a new $1.4 billion city is gobbling up the sea and adding acres of new land to erect high-rise buildings.
Earlier this month, Sri Lankan voters gave a final thumbs down to the man who introduced his country to a raft of such expensive, ambitious projects ostensibly aimed at rebuilding the country after a long, bloody civil war against Tamil rebels.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the once powerful president, lost his bid to become prime minister in a parliamentary election after refusing to learn hard lessons from his loss in January’s presidential bid. The once seemingly invincible, almost God-like Rajapaksa who delivered peace and hope to the war-battered nation was seen as divisive and close to China at the cost of Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour India.
His loss in the presidential election was seen in part as a victory for a geo-politically nervous India, a second chance for New Delhi to re-establish its influence in a backyard which was threatened by Rajapaksa’s increasing closeness to Beijing.
Chinese investments in the big-ticket infrastructure projects, which also included a sea port and an airport in Sri Lanka’s south and other developments, were only one concern for India. President Maithripala Sirisena, who defeated Rajapaksa in January and cobbled together a rainbow coalition under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, was quick to put a halt to the projects and launch investigations against the former head of state and his family.
The other was Rajapaksa’s clear intention to play the two Asian giants against each other for his benefit. The view that his return as prime minister — he contested despite opposition from a section of his party — would encourage the Chinese to pop the champagne was also mostly correct.
While the cork may not have popped, let us not forget that Sri Lanka’s hands are now tied when it comes to its dealings with Beijing.
Buried under billions of dollars of Chinese debt, Colombo has little option but to go along, albeit at a pace slower than earlier.After all, Chinese money did prop up the war-battered economy, create jobs and help the government end the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Chinese know that while the wicket might be sticky at this point, the pitch will eventually help the ball turn their way.
A commentary in the state-owned Global Times after Wickremasinghe’s return as premier for the fourth time last week was self-explanatory. “Although partisan politics may have a certain effect on bilateral ties, it’s inappropriate to exaggerate the influence. To consolidate high-level strategic cooperation with China has gained bipartisan backing in Sri Lanka’s parliament. No matter which party takes power, it will maintain a good relationship with China,” it said.
Indeed, Wickremasinghe himself is on record saying that he would deepen investment ties with China. And while Sirisena made India his first destination after becoming president, his second stop was Beijing.
Rajapaksa’s proximity to China increased only because India dragged its feet over sensitive political issues due to coalition pressure on the previous government in New Delhi led by Manmohan Singh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government doesn’t need to crumble under pressure from parties in Tamil Nadu as it has a comfortable majority in parliament.
But it still needs to remember that while Rajapksa re-calibrated Sri Lanka’s foreign policy—with a shift away from India in the past decade—Colombo’s ties with China didn’t start with him. No doubt they deepened dramatically during Rajapaksa’s time but the relationship between the two countries goes back a long way.
China is also capable of arm-twisting Sri Lanka if it falls too much out of line and Beijing feels its interests are not being balanced with that of India, or its investments are under threat. The Global Times commentary warns that in the Sirisena government’s efforts to recalibrate its foreign policy and seek a balanced approach in handling relations with big powers, China cannot be ignored.
“It’s only the outsider’s wishful thinking that partisan politics will stagnate or even turn back China-Sri Lanka relations. China will not depend on any single party to maintain the bilateral relationship,” it said, adding that Colombo was expected to gradually resume the suspended foreign-invested projects for the needs of economic development.
While India needs to look after its interests and ensure it remains engaged with Colombo to keep control over what it considers its sphere of influence, there is little it can do to wean Sri Lanka completely away from China.
The chances that the two cannons on Galle Face green will see more of sand and rubble instead of waves from the ocean are, therefore, pretty high.
Rahul Sharma, a former newspaper editor, is President, Rediffusion Communications and Vice President of Public Affairs Forum of India. He runs lookingbeyondborders.com, a foreign policy blog. Views are personal.
Credit for featured image of Galle Face cannon: Kesara Rathnayake, Flickr CC 2.0