External Affairs

India May Not Like It, But Sri Lanka Can’t Move Completely Away from China

Photo of marine sand being pumped by a ship at the commencement of "Colombo Port City” at the Colombo, September 2014. Credit: Flickr/Mahinda Rajapaksa CC 2.0

Photo of marine sand being pumped by a ship at the commencement of “Colombo Port City” at Colombo, September 2014. Credit: Flickr/Mahinda Rajapaksa CC 2.0

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.

Mahinda Rajapaksa briefing President Xi Jinping of China about the graphical illustrations of the “Colombo Port City” project at the official commissioning ceremony in September 2014. The port city project is the largest foreign-funded investment in Sri Lanka's history.

Mahinda Rajapaksa briefing President Xi Jinping of China about the graphical illustrations of the “Colombo Port City” project at the official commissioning ceremony in September 2014. The port city project is the largest foreign-funded investment in Sri Lanka’s history. Credit: Flickr/Mahinda Rajapaksa CC 2.0

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

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  • puniselva

    ”Rajapakse who delivered peace and hope to the war-battered”
    He brought only the war to an end, but continued to oppress the Tamils – Sri Lanka has been in a post-war situation for 6yrs. There has been no structured dialogue on devolution of power, good governance and reform between ethnic communities and political parties.

    Wickremasinghe-Sirisena government is offthe track of its promised Good Governance – almost all the ills of Rajapakse regime are still there: The Inevitability of the Banana Republic, Prof Sasanka Perera, 29 August 2015, groundviews.org

  • K M Ajir Kutty

    The author’s contention that the wrongs of history cannot be corrected by imposing another wrong on it is cent per cent true. We do not know if it was after the Delhi MP Maheish Girri petitioned the Prime Minister that the New Delhi Municipal Council (N D M C) took the unfortunate decision to change the Aurangzeb Road in Luyten’s Delhi to Dr A P J Abdul Kalam Road. However, it is to be noted that Certain Hindu fringe elements such as the Shiv Sena Hindustan have of late openly tried to deface road signs bearing names of Muslim rulers in Delhi. And the Delhi administration’s decision to give in to the unjust demands of the fringe elements in a way is quite unfortunate, indeed.Mughal emperors or Hindu Kings all had ruled this country taking into account the political expediency they were called upon to deal with. Emperor Aurangzeb or Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, when we consider the contributions each one madel, we have to consider it in toto, warts and all. It not impossible to paint a darker image of Aurangzeb; but then his asceticism and living from hand to mouth as a ruler are worthy of emulation. Like Sher Shah Suri, Akbar, Shivaji and Ranjit Singh, Aurangzeb too had
    liberally employed the followers of other religions, particularly in the revenue administration and army.

  • srivanamoth

    Frankly it is not realistic to expect SL to be tied to either India or China because it has had relations with both countries for decades. Even after the new government came into power it is re-orienting or recalibrating its policies and approaches rather than dumping a project involving 6.4 B $ loan from China even though not on the best terms and also given that foreign funds are in short supply. Even now despite a change of government the foreign exchange situation of SL is not bright with more foreign loans being invited to back the economy especially to meet domestic daily needs, a factor which was ignored by the former government which went in for prestige projects irrespective of benefit/cost considerations. Thus the Hambantota harbour and Southern airport schemes built on the Chinese loan are running at losses. The real priority of settling war displaced people in the north and east is languishing for want of support tied to income and employment generating small scale industrial income generating activities in that region.

  • tharindu11

    Don’t just talk, invest in Sri Lanka or get out! If India does not like Colombo Port city, they can build another port city off Mt Lavinia!
    Enough talk! Put money where the mouth is!