Sri Lanka: Rebalancing The India-China Act And More – Analysis


By N. Sathiya Moorthy*

The comments and observations made by Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in New Delhi in what was the maiden overseas official visit by any top functionary from the new government in Colombo is a further reflection on their intention to rebalance relations with India, post-poll – reiterated earlier by President Maithripala Sirisena broadly and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in relatively clearer terms.

Yet, Indian observers – as different from the government of India — need to be cautious and careful at the same time, not to read more than what the new Sri Lanka government has promised, and is capable of promising – particularly on ‘China ties’, which had come under avoidable strain under the previous leadership of president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The fact that Samaraweera readily spent three hours on a Sunday weekend to discuss bilateral and multilateral issues with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, that too, on the eve of the first session of the Sri Lankan parliament for the new government, is also indicative of the seriousness with which Colombo is approaching the India relations. Given the less-understood realities of Sri Lankan politics for one, and the intra and extra compulsions within the state structure and otherwise, Indian observers will have to be as much pragmatic as they will have to be patient.

Sri Lanka’s China links may not be as long and historic as that with immediate Indian neighbour. Nonetheless, there have been pit stops where it tends to pause and check. It may be in the absence of such review that the Rajapaksa government walked farther than required – and expected. The milestones include the 1952 ‘rice-for-rubber deal’, when Mao’s Communist China sold rice at lower than international prices in return for rubber purchased from a drought-hit Sri Lanka at higher than market rates. At the height of the ethnic war, China is reported to have sold weapons to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when none was forthcoming from elsewhere (starting with India) – without demanding or quoting a price.

The post-war Sri Lankan engagement with China has been mostly on the economic, and more so, investments side. Those investments, however much controversial from the Indian perspective, particularly in terms of geo-strategic priorities, came at a time when none wanted to invest in Sri Lanka and no nation but China had the funds and intention to invest in Third World nations and in such big doses. No third nation, starting with India and including the US and other Western friends of the new government in general and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in particular is going to underwrite repayments to China. Nor is anyone of them going to sign on cheques for Sri Lanka to pay China for the war time weaponry purchases, which involve undisclosed sums.

‘Win-win situation’

In a statement after Ambassador Wu Jinaghao called on Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the Chinese embassy in Colombo claimed in a statement that the latter had invited more Chinese businessmen to invest in Sri Lanka and also talked about improving bilateral ties to ‘mutual benefit’ and a ‘win-win situation’. Amid the political predicament in which President Sirisena is placed and the near silence that the Sri Lankan polity had maintained through the China engagement under president Rajapaksa, it needs to be seen how long, how much and how far would they walk, particularly in the reverse.

In context, the Chinese embassy also claimed that at a later day meeting with Ambassador Wu, President Maithripala Sirisena assured China that his ‘national unity government’ was willing to implement the consensus reached during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Sri Lanka last September. President Sirisena was a senior member of the Rajapaksa government at the time, and the Chinese statement said that he “also pledged to strengthen pragmatic cooperation in all fields with a view to enhancing bilateral ties”. The president also emphasised that Sri Lanka valued the friendly ties with China dating back centuries.

In his meeting with President Sirisena, Ambassador Wu reciprocated the friendship and goodwill extended and observed that China always attached great importance to its relationship with Sri Lanka, which he described as a ‘time-tested partner’. He also pledged China’s commitment to the development of a ‘strategic cooperative relationship’ between the two countries, the spokesperson said. Though Sri Lanka’s continued participation in President Xi’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Route (MSR) project did not seem to have figured in Ambassador Wu’s talks with the top two in the Sri Lankan administration, there have not been any adversarial comments from either, before or after assuming office.

Given the post-poll atmosphere in Sri Lanka and the ‘western liberal’ thought about Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), which in turn had been backing President Sirisena since his emergence as the common opposition candidate, the new government seems to be indicating a ‘rebalancing’ of the one-sided China relations thus far. Yet, there are issues and concerns that nations have to address in ways that indicate continuity with change – or, change with continuity. How the new dispensation is able to address such essentials of statecraft will take time for them to absorb and act upon.

As a pragmatic leader, with ready acceptance of ‘market economy’ principles and coming to power when the nation’s economy can do with greater impetus, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would be more than careful in scrapping projects, funded by China or any other, unless it is seen as wholly unfeasible and/or threatening the nation’s security or its geo-strategic relations with India in particular and the rest of the democratic world, otherwise. In the interim, India and Indians can expect Sri Lanka not to provide the likes of berthing facilities for Chinese submarines, as had happened on two occasions under the Rajapaksa leadership in 2014.

Seen by the Sri Lankan government of the day as a part of the ‘five hub’ development programme outlined in president Rajapaksa’s ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ manifesto for his first electoral outing in 2005, the ‘naval and maritime’ hub did make the Indian neighbour uncomfortable at times. The ‘submarine’ berthing, though reportedly with prior intimation to India made more news when China sought to explain that they were meant for checking Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean – the kind of operations in which navies do not deploy such vessels.

Port city, a test case?

The test case relates to the Colombo Port City Project, which Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had wanted scrapped, in statements both in parliament and outside ahead of the presidential polls, citing environmental clearance issues. After assuming office, he however said that they would not scrap the project but would revisit environmental issues before taking a decision. China too seems eager and willing to reciprocate in kind.

The state influenced media opinion in China has been in favour of cooperating with the new Sri Lankan government in reviewing ongoing contracts. The China Communications Construction Corporation (CCCC), contractors for the project, has since offered to cooperate with Sri Lanka in reviewing environmental clearance issues for the project. A detailed news report in Colombo-based Daily Mirror has also pointed out how the project (like the Hambantota port and Norchcholai power projects, also involving China) had evolved over the long term, and taken some concrete shape in the late ‘90s (under president Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, CBK).

According to the report, several feasibility studies, both by local academics and overseas investors, had been done before the project was taken up. It also recalled that a Singaporean firm had got involved earlier but could not proceed with it, owing to high costs. The waterfront project became feasible only after it was linked to the Colombo Port expansion project, which again is under China’s care, after India did not show interest even at the tendering stage. In this context, the Daily Mirror report also indicated how CCCC had engaged Western firms as project consultants.

Continued dependence

The power change in Colombo, however, may have lessened Sri Lanka’s continued but immediate dependence on China – and also Russia, among others – at least on the political and diplomatic front. With the US-led West insistent on ‘credible’ if not ‘independent’ investigations into ‘war time accountability issues’, the Rajapaksa government ended up ever more dependent on China with its veto power in the UN Security Council and a few stops to pull in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). With the peaceful power transfer, the West may go easy on the UNHRC probe and expect the new government to stand by its post-poll proposal for a ‘credible, domestic probe’ and at the same time working with the UN.

When the probe is effected to the satisfaction of the international community (read: West) and also the Tamil polity nearer home, Sri Lanka’s dependence on China – and also Russia – may become less. This could not only ease pressure on India on this score, but also ensure that India would not have to deploy the legitimate ‘sovereignty’ clause that it had to employ at UNHRC-2014, to abstain from voting on the US-sponsored resolution, after backing the earlier versions in the two preceding years, which in turn had recognised Sri Lanka’s ‘internal mechanisms’, which Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has said, his government would insist upon.

On the ethnic issue and the rest, Indian concerns regarding a ‘new Sri Lanka’ under a new leadership would as much relate to the decisions and indecisions of the common Western friends of the two South Asian neighbours under the changed political circumstances in both over the past year. On the strategic security issues, India may be happy if Sri Lanka addressees traditional Indian concerns, which have become more relevant after China set its foot towards acquiring super power status and a dominant role in the vast and varied Indian Ocean neighbourhood.

As and when those legitimate concerns get addressed, India may be watching with interest and curiosity, though not outright anxiety, as to how the new Sri Lankan leadership handles larger geo-strategic concerns, where the US is the key player in what essentially is the ‘traditional sphere of Indian influence’. As National Security Advisor A.K. Doval indicated in his keynote address at the annual Galle Dialogue, hosted by the Sri Lankan Navy, in late 2014, keeping Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’ would serve the interests of the riparian nations all across than warding off one or the other of non-territorial big powers.

*N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected]

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