Change of guard in Sri Lanka

China’s in­vest­ments in Sri Lanka are part of her plan to es­tab­lish port fa­cil­i­ties in the IOR in garb of com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity, where Chi­nese Navy ves­sels can start berthing for ‘rest and re­coup’.


an­uary 2015 saw the change of guard in Sri Lanka with new Pres­i­dent Maithripla Sirisena and new Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wikra­mas­inghe, lat­ter hav­ing held the same post ear­lier —he was Sri Lanka’s Prime Min­is­ter from May 1993 to April 1994 and then from De­cem­ber 2001 to April 2004.

That for­mer Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa was dou­ble tim­ing In­dia with a heavy tilt to­wards China was quite ob­vi­ous. Ra­japaksa’s first visit abroad as Prime Min­is­ter was also to China. In an in­ter­view with In­dian me­dia, the new Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­re­mas­inghe has said that his gov­ern­ment will re­dress the pro-China tilt of the pre­vi­ous regime un­der Ra­japaksa who played the China card to In­dia and the West.

Un­der the Ra­japaksa regime, China in­vested an es­ti­mated $6 bil­lion in Sri Lanka, some of it in strate­gic in­fra­struc­ture projects like ports and air­ports; China has in­vested $4 bil­lion in in­fra­struc­ture projects since 2009, lent $490 mil­lion in 2012 and com­mit­ted an­other $1.6 bil­lion last year. Wick­re­mas­inghe says his gov­ern­ment will be scru­ti­n­is­ing all such for­eign and lo­cal con­tracts and ac­tion will be taken wher­ever cor­rup­tion is found. The re­view in­cludes the Colombo Port City project launched dur­ing Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s visit to Sri Lanka last year.

Re­call­ing the ef­forts made by Wick­ra­mas­inghe dur­ing his two pre­vi­ous tenures as Prime Min­is­ter to strengthen re­la­tions with In­dia, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi said he be­lieves fu­ture work with the new Sri Lankan Prime Min­is­ter will bring the two coun­tries even closer. Sri Lanka’s new For­eign Min­is­ter Man­gala Sa­ma­raweera vis­ited New Delhi on Jan­uary 18 and has met In­dian Prime Min­is­ter, Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter and the the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor. Sa­ma­raweera said he was in In­dia “to re­store ties that were some­what strained in the last few years.” That Sa­ma­raweera chose to travel to In­dia less than a week af­ter a new cabi­net was in­stalled in Sri Lanka in­di­cates the shift­ing pri­or­i­ties in Colombo. Prime Min­is­ter Wick­ra­mas­inghe too has said that the new gov­ern­ment will take an even-handed ap­proach and bal­ance its re­la­tions with the two friendly neigh­bours China and In­dia.

On Jan­uary 21, 2015, Sri Lanka and In­dia ex­changed fish­er­men de­tained by each at the In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Bound­ary Line (IMBL) off Kankas­an­thu­rai; 10 Sri Lankan fish­er­men with two boats and 15 In­dian fish­er­men were ex­changed. For­eign Min­is­ter Sa­ma­raweera said Sri Lanka will work upon re­turn­ing bal­ance about 87 boats seized by Sri Lankan au­thor­i­ties.

China’s in­vest­ments in Sri Lanka are part of her plan to es­tab­lish port fa­cil­i­ties in the IOR in garb of com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity, where Chi­nese Navy ves­sels can start berthing for ‘rest and re­coup’. Sim­i­lar ac­tiv­ity is on in Myan­mar, Bangladesh, Sey­chelles, with Gwadar in Pak­istan in close prox­im­ity of the strate­gic Strait of Hor­muz. Th­ese ports are de­vel­oped at costs that the host coun­try will not be able to re­pay the loan for decades. So, China will ex­tract the re­pay­ment in strate­gic terms—typ­i­cal case of the prover­bial camel’s head in­side the tent. Why else would China in­vest $500 mil­lion in the Colombo In­ter­na­tional Con­tainer Ter­mi­nal (CICT) if not for us­ing it for mil­i­tary pur­poses when re­quired? Not with­out rea­son a Chi­nese nu­clear pro­pelled sub­ma­rine with es­cort war­ship docked at Colombo last Novem­ber.

China’s ob­du­racy is re­flected in the se­cret mem­o­ran­dum is­sued by the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) Gen­eral Lo­gis­tic Depart­ment Direc­tor, say­ing “We can no longer ac­cept the In­dian Ocean as only an ocean of the In­di­ans...We are tak­ing armed con­flicts in the re­gion into ac­count.” This, de­spite In­dia never said In­dian Ocean be­longs to In­dia. Sig­nif­i­cantly, all Chi­nese projects have PLA troops un­der garb of devel­op­ment work­ers, tech­ni­cians, etc, Ham­ban­tota re­ported hav­ing one com­pany of PLA.

Get­ting back to Indo-Sri Lanka re­la­tions, sig­nals em­a­nat­ing from Sri Lanka to re­bal­ance for­eign re­la­tions au­gur well for In­dia, even as China can be ex­pected to con­tinue in­vest­ing in Sri Lanka.

Pres­i­dent Sirisena is sched­uled to visit In­dia next month, his first visit abroad af­ter be­com­ing Pres­i­dent. It is also un­der­stood that a re­cip­ro­cal visit by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi to Sri Lanka will fol­low closely there­after. This would be visit of an In­dian Prime Min­is­ter to Sri Lanka 28 long years af­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi in 1987. Such high level visit would surely help im­prove re­la­tions in­clud­ing pro­gress­ing the vexed is­sue of de­vo­lu­tion of pow­ers to Sri Lankan Tamils un­der the 13th amend­ment of the Sri Lankan Con­sti­tu­tion.

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