Recent attempts by Colombo to counter New Delhi’s role in its affairs has involved renewing ties with Beijing and consolidating its close relationship with Islamabad, powers determined to diminish New Delhi’s influence in the region.
Colombo’s plan to re-engage with Beijing was made plain in April this year when Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, during his visit to Beijing, announced that the Chinese funded Colombo Port city Project, suspended in 2015 would go ahead and the cooperation between China and Sri Lanka would intensify and go far beyond that. The Colombo-Beijing axis suffered a set-back following the defeat of President Rajapaksa by his trusted colleague Maithiripala Sirisena in January 2015. On becoming President, Sirisena promptly suspended the Chinese funded Colombo Port City Project, banned Chinese ships docking in the port of Colombo and appointed Ranil Wickramasinghe, the leader of the pro-Western United National Party (UNP) as Prime Minister. This was despite the UNP being the opposition in parliament. These actions were were rightly regarded as signifying a definite shift away from Beijing and towards Washington.
Both Washington and New Delhi concerned with the growing Colombo-Beijing axis under Rajapaksa’s rule welcomed the ‘regime change’. Washington’s concern was driven by China’s untrammelled access to Sri Lanka, a highly strategic location in the Indian Ocean. In December 2009, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chaired by John Kerry noted that Sri Lanka’s strategic drift (towards) China will have consequences for U.S. interests in the region and the United States cannot afford to ‘‘lose’’ Sri Lanka and called for increasing US leverage vis-à-vis Sri Lanka by adopting a multifaceted, broader and more robust approach to secure US interests.
New Delhi was concerned that Beijing’s growing influence over Colombo had significantly weakened India’s self-proclaimed role as the regional power. New Delhi was worried about the port being built by China in Sri Lanka at Hambantota sitting directly astride the main east-west shipping route across the Indian Ocean denying India the advantage it had hitherto taken for granted. Also, during the Rajapaksa Presidency, Colombo had pointedly ignored India’s expressed concerns by allowing Chinese ships and submarines to dock in Colombo. It paid little heed to New Delhi in conceding autonomy to the Tamils which New Delhi promoted as a political solution to a conflict that had caused Sri Lanka’s civil war. Instead, under Rajapaksa Colombo had intensified its persecution of Tamils.
Following the regime change, Colombo was awash with visits by high ranking US diplomats. These US visitors during 2015 included: Secretary of State, John Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Thomas Shannon. Colombo was highly receptive to these visits. It was also supportive of a new constitution to replace the existing Presidential Constitution and further empower the pro-Washington Ranil Wickramasinghe, who in August 2015 had strengthened his own position by winning the General Elections. Colombo’s reasons for reviving its ties to Beijing are therefore clearly not designed to undermine its relationship with Washington.
Colombo’s main purpose in re-engaging with Beijing is to minimise New Delhi’s role in the island’s affairs. This is in keeping with the historical fears and perceptions entertained by Colombo about New Delhi’s expansionist agenda. It has been argued that the major reason for Colombo’s escalating expenditure on defence even after having comprehensively defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009 is to build up its forces as a deterrent against any future actions by New Delhi.
In addition to renewing its alliance with Beijing, Colombo now appears reluctant to cooperate with New Delhi on projects which it had earlier agreed to implement. The most prominent being the construction of a sea bridge and tunnel connecting the two countries. As a matter of fact Colombo’s reluctance is confined just to those projects which involve the Indian state and not those initiated by the Indian private sector. Colombo has also rejected the idea of transforming the constitution into a federal model as promoted by the Indian Prime Minister Modi when he told the 225 member strong Sri Lankan parliament in March 2015 of his belief in corporate federalism as the means to equitable political representation to different ethnic groups, particularly the Tamils.
In a joint statement released at the conclusion of Prime Minister Wickramasinghe’s visit to China, it was reiterated that there was the need for both Beijing and Colombo to continue to working together on defence and security related issues. Colombo’s actions to counter New Delhi are, however, not confined to renewing its ties with Beijing but also entering into vital agreements with Pakistan, India’s arch rival in the region. In April this year Sri Lanka and Pakistan signed six agreements, including one on atomic energy as Sri Lanka looks to build its first nuclear plant.
New Delhi’s inability to proactively deal with the spectre of Colombo countering India’s influence by re-engaging with Beijing has prompted Indian political analyst Brahma Chellaney to observe that this is in part because Indian diplomacy still lacks teeth.
*Ana Pararajasingham has a master’s degree in management from the University of Technology, Sydney, and works as a Management Consultant.