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Politics | With the Rajapaksas back in power in Sri Lanka, how will the China factor play out?

The recent developments in Sri Lanka imply that South Asia is turning into another theatre of US-China rivalry and attenuation in India’s pre-eminent position in the region.

December 18, 2019 / 02:10 PM IST

Jabin T Jacob

The victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential elections in Sri Lanka in November and the subsequent appointment of his older brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister have created some concerns in India that the island nation might be returning to a more pro-China foreign policy.

It is important to look into these concerns more carefully.

One, it is not as if the Sri Lankans under former President Maithripala Sirisena, and successor to the older Rajapaksa, was able to pull his country completely out of the Chinese embrace. As is well-known it was during Sirisena’s tenure that the country had to sign over Hambantota to China in 2018 for a 99-year lease. Also other major Chinese investments, such as the Colombo Port City and the Norochcholai power station, continued unhindered.

Since Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the 2015 presidential elections, Beijing has used a combination of public diplomacy and significant financial contributions to blunt criticism against the Hambantota lease. Over the past four years, China has organised visits by nearly all of the 225 members of the Sri Lankan parliament – a significant effort at cultivating the smaller nation’s political elite. In a speech at a conference titled ‘Dialogue of Asian Civilizations’ held in May in Beijing, then President Sirisena managed not to refer to India once while highlighting “the guidance and example provided by a country like China”.

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In essence, the Sri Lankans find it both useful and necessary to engage with the Chinese for a variety of reasons.

Two, however, China is probably coming to the end of its ability to move into countries simply on the strength of its financial muscle; the fact that it offers an alternative to regional hegemons such as India in South Asia, or that it offers a less-sermonising alternative to the United States or the European Union in places like Africa. The 99-year lease on Hambantota has been the equivalent of a shot heard round the world and cited as a negative example even in close partners such as Pakistan when discussing projects in the the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Gotabaya’s call to renegotiate the Hambantota lease with China suggests that the Rajapaksas seem to have learned from the debacle and might seek to be more careful in their dealings with Beijing.

Three, the older Rajapaksa’s defeat at the hands of Sirisena and the fact that the younger Rajapaksa chose to make his first official state visit to India at the end of last month, reflect India’s continuing political and diplomatic clout in the island nation.

However, this influence based on traditional factors such as geography and cultural ties is clearly on the wane given India’s well-known inability to follow up promises of economic development assistance with speed or to conduct itself with greater sensitivity to its smaller neighbours.

Sri Lanka’s priorities as made clear by Gotabaya are education, food security, poverty alleviation and eradication of terrorism. Given the state of its economy, Sri Lanka is in no position to turn down money and technological expertise from any corner and its leaders will welcome competition for Sri Lanka’s attentions from the different powers now engaged in or increasing their presence in the Indian Ocean.

Four, therefore, Sri Lanka now has other suitors besides China that India will have a much harder time of objecting to or undermining.

The most notable of these is the US, which is offering Sri Lanka and the wider region opportunities to partake of its own new infrastructure financing schemes aimed also, no doubt, at challenging Chinese dominance in this regard. Washington is also pushing strongly for a Status of Forces Agreement with Colombo that would allow US military personnel immunity from local laws and providing $39 million to modernise Sri Lanka’s coastal maritime radar system as well as for training and equipment for improved surveillance response and interdiction. Why India could not provide such a service or bear the small cost that it entails is worth thinking about.

The Pakistanis are not far behind either, perhaps functioning as a cat’s paw for China. Earlier in December, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was the first from any country to visit after the Sri Lankan Cabinet formation. While praising his host’s anti-terrorism efforts, he also called for strengthening defence cooperation and further intelligence sharing as well as for Sri Lanka to make more use a $200 million credit line offered by Islamabad.

For several years now, Pakistan has also smartly packaged its own Buddhist heritage and Sri Lankan monks have been part of festivals and other exchanges in places such as Taxila.

Taken together these developments imply South Asia is turning into another theatre of US-China rivalry and attenuation in India’s pre-eminent position in the region. It should be evident that despite India’s very articulate criticism of China’s BRI, it is also not in a position to make the best of doubts and concerns that arise in host countries as a result. There is only so far that mere talk can take Indian diplomacy.

Given that China has both more money than India and diplomatic capacity that matches that of the US, it will remain a significant player in Sri Lanka. New Delhi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy is in need of fresh ideas and new foundations as well as, of course, more resources.

Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida and Adjunct Research Fellow, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal.
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