Big power rivalry could make or break Sri Lanka. It all depends on how deftly the country plays its cards.
It is like being cought between the devil and the
The island state of Sri Lanka’s geostrategic position has attracted all kinds of diplomatic courting from a host of regional players such as China, India and Japan. Under the tenure of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Colombo paid a great deal of attention to China and accepted Beijing’s development assistance. These friendly relations changed since the Sri Lankan elections in January this year that brought Maithripala Sirisena to office.
The Sirisena government has
shown no hesitation in changing the country’s pro-China stance to repair what it claims was the damage done to Sri Lanka’s relations with India, the United States and the European Union. In addition, other major megaprojects being funded by Beijing also came to a standstill and the tenders cancelled. The Chinese government was quick to realize the repercussions of such moves and, as a consequence, China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs made an official visit to Sri Lanka in February this year. Despite this, relations between Colombo and Beijing were dealt another setback after the Sirisena administration recently declined to grant permission for Chinese vessels to dock in Sri Lanka.
However, ties between China and Sri Lanka may be on the mend in the wake of the China-South Asia Technology Transfer and Collaborative Innovation Forum in Kunming, China. Among the various dignitaries who attended the forum, Dr Sarath Amunugama, the Sri Lankan Minister for Higher Education and Research, was also a participant. According to Amunugama, Sri Lanka and China have reached an agreement to provide assistance to China’s science and technology sector. Two universities, namely Moratuwa and Jaffna, alongside the Technical Institute, will be provided assistance by China. Interestingly enough, the minister also implied that Sri Lanka’s new ally may also help them realize their desire of developing nuclear technology in the country since he believes Sri Lanka is fully equipped with the right petroleum resources.
It is worth mentioning that China has worked hard to develop and strengthen ties with Sri Lanka, especially during the nine years of President Rajapaksa’s rule. The latter’s visit to China in 2007 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka was an important turn. Sri Lanka was part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s South Asian tour in September 2014, which further highlighted its importance. Colombo realized Beijing’s significance beyond bilateral formalities during its crucial battle with the separatists belonging to the Liberation of Tigers Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Beijing provided valuable military, economic and diplomatic support to Colombo in the final battle with the LTTE. According to media reports, China fulfilled the request for almost all the weapons on the wish list of the Sri Lankan government, which proved crucial in defeating the insurgency in 2009. China’s support continued in the post-war period as well. A section of the international community reacted to the excessive use of force and human rights violations by the Sri Lankan military during the civil war but it was China that deterred any measures against Colombo.
Furthermore, China became the country’s leading investor. In the wake of the civil war that hit the Sri Lankan economy badly, Beijing extended various loans and initiated mega projects. Major projects with Chinese help included a $ 361 million investment in Hambantota port, $ 1.4 billion for port city Colombo, a $ 500 million China-owned container terminal at Colombo port, a $ 455 million coal power plant, highways, expressways and a theater. It was in this context that the former Sri Lankan president reshaped the country’s foreign policy and began to develop closer ties with China. During his term, two Chinese submarines and warships visited Sri Lankan ports though India raised its concerns over these developments.
Beijing argues that it won projects through open international bidding. India lost out to China in those deals due to lack of interest and finance. It was only after Beijing started the construction work that New Delhi began to raise concerns. Moreover, as a sovereign state, Sri Lanka could develop ties with any other country and invite naval ships to visit its ports. Indian war ships call on ports of various countries on a regular basis. The Indian reaction was an attempt to bully a smaller neighbour to dictate its foreign policy. New Delhi has already taken control of foreign and defence policies of another smaller neighbour, Bhutan.
Against this backdrop, it is to be seen what the future direction of Sri Lankan policy would be. Whether it continues with the current policy of a tilt towards the India-US bloc, changes its inclination towards China or follows a relatively neutral path, will be clear after the technology transfer and assistance coming from China. A lot will also depend on whether China helps Sri Lanka develop its nuclear assets, a move that is not likely to sit well with India and the United States. China, India and the US are undoubtedly engaged in a strategic game to control Asia. In this backdrop, the strategic position of the smaller state such as Sri Lanka becomes crucial in establishing an effective strategic and economic strategy that works for all.
A lot will also depend on whether China helps Sri Lanka develop its nuclear assets.