Tiny Sri Lanka found itself in the faintly odd position of being feted by two superpowers last week, as new Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing. Coming on the back of last month’s Sri Lankan Presidential elections, which turfed out long-term China ally Mahinda Rajapaksa, the meeting gained significance due to China’s interest of Sri Lanka as part of its “String of Pearls” policy – wanting to have the island on friendly terms and able to use it as a naval base. Not surprisingly, that does not sit especially well with India, just an hour away from Sri Lanka’s west coast.
The seduction of Sri Lanka by China has been an on-going process for much of the past ten years, and all of it under ex-President Rajapaksa’s reign. There have been significant infrastructure developments in Sri Lanka during this period, and especially over the past five years; a Southern Expressway has been built, reducing the time from the capital Colombo to the tourist areas of Galle and the sun-drenched south-east coast from five hours to just 90 minutes. The main Port of Colombo has been refurbished at huge cost and paid for by China, although the Chinese do now consequently own a large majority stake in its operations.
On similar grounds, China has built an entirely new Port and Airport at Hambantota, the area where Rajapaksa originates from. These efforts have been controversial; The Hambantota Port is strongly rumored to be unworkable, with the Chinese stating marine obstacles could be removed that Japanese geologists had previously claimed in an earlier study were insurmountable. Construction has continued regardless. The new airport – which would, if operational, reduce flying times to Sri Lanka from numerous Asian countries by 30 minutes and bring tourism into that lucrative south-east part of the country – has so far been a white elephant, an international airport whose only visitor so far was the ex-President, flying in to open it. Thus far, infrastructure problems have stymied any commercial use. This does not in fact bode well for China, the new President Maithripala Sirisena, and his New Democratic Front party, which won these elections on the back of a turning of tides against Rajapaksa; and rumors of corrupt deals. Unfortunately for Beijing, some of those are said to be linked to Chinese investment in the country.
However, new President Sirisena has a way to go before claiming an outright victory over his predecessor. These elections were for the appointing of the President only and full Parliamentary elections are to be held within the next 12 months – during which time Rajapaksa could make a political comeback.
This all means China will be holding its breath for a while. Incoming President Sirisena has postponed further investment projects with China while he looks into allegations of corruption by his predecessor. Public and media disquiet about Sri Lanka having sold what are perceived as national assets to China – port facilities and land – are growing.
Consequently, China’s calls in Beijing last week for a ‘trilateral’ relationship between itself, Sri Lanka and India seem rather optimistic. The development of a “Maritime Silk Road” to include all three nations has been cold shouldered by India, waiting to see how Sri Lanka deals with Beijing, and especially in light of corruption allegations surfacing. If these do surface and are proven to have involved the Chinese when it comes to some of the deals that were done with Rajapaksa, India may well find Sri Lanka more than pliable in coming back into Delhi’s orbit rather than the current China adventures Sri Lanka has been having. President Sirisena seems not to want any nonsense on his watch and has a vested interest in damaging his opponent. If allegations of state level corruption come out of Sri Lanka and implicate China, then the whole of the Indian Ocean can fall back into Indian protection. The country has its own nuclear submarines and a navy that wishes to reassert itself.
Meanwhile, the country may hold more cards to play as concerns China’s credibility over bilateral investment dealings and reputation than Beijing realizes. There is already an undercurrent of political unhappiness against China, if the country is shown to have been complicit in arranging financial transactions. Paying off individuals for assets belonging to the nation could therefore become quite a problem for China.
Sri Lanka is somewhat uniquely positioned in Asia to be able to make a choice, if pushed, between China and India, and it may just wish to exercise that. The country is also strategically located with direct access to the entire Indian Ocean as well as on towards the Arabian Gulf. Alternatively, Sri Lanka may wish to quietly move away from what are increasingly being perceived as non-benign and corrupt influences upon its own economic and democratic institutions. For its part, China, given its own longevity of the one party state, seems to have forgotten that allies can be voted out of or removed from office.
China’s relationship with Sri Lanka and what it does to now protect it has become a strategically important issue. It may take rather more than statements about a “maritime silk road” to get it back on track, and especially with India waiting patiently in the wings.
Chris can be followed on Twitter at @CDE_Asia.
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