Why Rajapaksa's revival in Sri Lanka would be great for China

Much would now depend upon how India follows up on the promises made during PM Modi’s visit to the island country.

 |  6-minute read |   03-08-2015
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Even in the midst of all political gerrymandering in Sri Lanka as the election fever heats up, China must be one country praying (but do Communist nations pray?) for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return as prime minister after the country elects a new parliament on August 17, 2015. When the Sri Lankan people elected Maithripala Sirisena instead of Rajapaksa in the presidential poll last January, they also derailed China’s strategic gravy train that had been chugging along smoothly in Sri Lanka during Rajapaksa’s second term as president.

President Sirisena, the new incumbent, froze all China-aided mega projects, notably the $1.4 billion Colombo port city project signed during the Rajapaksa-rule, pending their review for procedural lapses and corruption allegations. However since then, both the countries have tried to understand, if not redress, each other’s concerns, as those on the twin issues of high cost of Chinese loans and financial viability of the mega projects. There was a lot of billing and cooing about their friendship when president Sirisena and foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera visited Beijing, kindling hopes of China repairing its relations with Sri Lanka.

Probably China became more optimistic about regaining its position of primacy in the island nation after former president Rajapaksa, China’s favourite Sri Lankan, was chosen by the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition to contest the parliamentary election. There were also other indications of Sri Lanka warming up to China.

The Sri Lankan president, on June 7, 2015, had inaugurated construction work on the China-funded Matara-Hambantota expressway which provides a link to the Colombo-Matara expressway through Galle. China’s ambassador to Colombo had expressed satisfaction over the commencement of work on the project, which would create job opportunities for the people, in an interview to the DailyFT, Colombo. China’s exim bank had funded the $180 million Galle-Matara expressway. Phase two of the Hambantota port project has been inaugurated and on completion it would increase the port's capacity, whereby it will be able to handle 12 ships at a time from two at present.

On the defence front also, there has been no let up in China-Sri Lanka cooperation. Special forces and commandos of the Chinese and Sri Lankan armies have just concluded the three-week long exercise “Silk Route 2015” to hone up their special operations skills. Last month, a Chinese military delegation headed by a major general carried out a review of the ongoing Chinese-funded auditorium complex at the Sri Lanka Military Academy at Diyathalawa.

China also appears to have realised the need for relationship-building with people at the grassroot level. Two Chinese companies - the China Communications Construction Company Limited - which had invested in the Colombo Port City Project - and the China Harbor Sri Lanka Area Company had donated $14,400 towards constructing four wells for providing clean drinking water to the people in war-torn Puthukkudiyiruppu in northern Sri Lanka, the Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

So China was probably not amused to hear Sri Lankan minister for justice Wijayadasa Rajapakshe’s announcement on June 20, 2015 that the Colombo port reclamation project would be allowed to progress only after revising the contract signed by the previous government. Addressing the press, the minister said the government's decision was to prevent any negative impact on Sri Lanka and other neighbouring countries, especially India, before resuming work on the Colombo port project; this indicated Colombo’s positive response to India’s concerns expressed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Sri Lanka in May 2015.

If there was any doubt India was influencing the decision, the minister’s rationale for the decision cleared it. He said “as of the agreements, the outright ownership of over 350 acres of land had been given to the Chinese company. This is totally against the lands ordinance of the country. If the project had been carried out as of that agreement, the Sri Lankans may need a visa to enter that land and obtain permission to use the air space over that land. We would not let that happen. President Maithripala Sirisena, during his visit to China, (had) talked to the Chinese president over the matter. We will only carry forward this project after permanently rectifying its loopholes.”

India which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the port’s traffic had pointed out its strategic concerns at China gaining sovereign control over a large part of the reclaimed land very close to the port. The US, which had been getting cosy with the Sirisena government, also probably had similar strategic concerns.

Though president Sirisena’s government had assured the Chinese of Sri Lanka’s everlasing friendship with China, the fissures in their relationship would take time to heal because Sri Lanka would like to dilute its dependence on China.

Sri Lanka’s external affairs minister Mangala Samaraweera, on a visit to Japan, touched upon this aspect in an interview to the Japanese news channel NHK on June 18, 2015. He said defeated president Rajapaksa had promoted a foreign policy that relied on China, whereas his government was trying to follow a balanced policy with all countries, including China. Though China had overtaken Japan as the biggest source of assistance for Sri Lanka in 2009, the Chinese aid had led to rampant corruption under the previous government. Samaraweera said the Colombo port city project may not have followed the appropriate procedures and was being reviewed. The project is still limping.

Sri Lanka may also be wanting to negotiate cheaper loans to get out of the high interest Chinese debts. In fact, the Sri Lankan central bank governor Arjuna Mahendran has recently said that the government was reviewing the Hambantota hub project and improving the existing harbour and airport facilities in Colombo would be a better option for the economy.

Even if Rajapaksa comes back to power as the prime minister, he may not be able to put the clock back on the Sri Lanka-China relations to the same cosy level they used to be. This was indicated by Rajapaksa in his first-ever question and answer session on Facebook on July 23, 2015. Asked whether he would improve relations with China if elected as prime minister, Rajapaksa said: “Not only China, we will work to improve our relations with all our friends including the West.”

There is no doubt Prime Minister Modi’s initiative to build a win-win relationship with Sri Lanka had created a favourable climate for the Sirisena government to balance its relations with China. So much would depend upon how India follows up on the promises made during Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka. As of now, the signs are favourable; but in the past, India had not covered itself with glory with timely delivery on its promises.

China would never give up on Sri Lanka as it has too big a strategic stake in the Indian Ocean and South Asia. Sri Lanka is an important pivot for China’s power projection in the Indian Ocean as well as an irreplaceable investment destination for the success of president Xi Jinping’s pet project - the 20th century maritime silk route. Last but not the least, Sri Lanka is the vanguard for India’s peninsular defence and power projection in the Indian Ocean.

The writing on the wall is clear: India simply cannot afford to take it easy about building a win-win relationship with Sri Lanka, whosoever comes to power in the island nation.

Writer

Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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