Big relief for India

India must up its game if it wants to retain its leverage in Colombo. Rajapaksa or Sirisena, China's role is only going to grow in Sri Lanka.

Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempt to make a comeback in Sri Lanka’s general elections for the lower house has ended in defeat. The ruling United National Party (UNP) is likely to fall just short of an outright majority but Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should still command enough support to form a stable government.

The UNP would have to seek the support of potential allies such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has virtually swept the island’s Tamil-majority Northern Province, in order to form the government. This outcome is a triumph for Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who beat his former ally Rajapaksa in a presidential vote earlier this year in January and called early parliamentary polls to secure a stronger mandate for reforms. A total of 196 seats were being contested with a further 29 to be allocated by proportional representation in the 225-seat chamber.

Rajapaksa, who was hoping for a political comeback in the country’s parliamentary elections, conceded defeat by observing that his “dream of becoming Prime Minister has faded away.” “I am conceding. We have lost a good fight,” he said after his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured eight districts, while the ruling United National Party (UNP) won 11 out of the 22 electoral districts in the island.

Rajapaksa, 69, is thought of as a hero by many of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority for crushing a 26-year Tamil uprising in 2009. But his opponents accuse him of running a corrupt, authoritarian and dynastic regime. 

Many in India would be relieved that this defeat will keep Sri Lanka on a path towards loosening of ties with China, which during Rajapaksa’s tenure invested billions of dollars in the country, effectively turning the Indian Ocean island into a maritime outpost. Both China and India have been looking closely at the changing priorities of the Sirisena government over the past few months.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promptly reached out to Sirisena to congratulate him on his victory in the Sri Lankan polls in January and had assured him of India’s continued solidarity and support to the country’s peace and development.

In return, President  Sirisena travelled to New Delhi on his first state visit abroad, resulting in a civil nuclear energy cooperation pact. The ouster of Rajapaksa has indeed given an opening to India in the island as the government of Rajapaksa had become ever more confident of disregarding Indian concerns.

Modi visited Sri Lanka in March 2015, the first in 28 years by an Indian prime minister, and it came at a time when China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka had suffered a setback. The Sirisena government had publicised its desire to correct Rajapaksa’s tilt toward China and has already made some significant overtures toward India.

The Sirisena government has stressed it will take a “different approach” than the previous Rajapaksa government, which allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo in September 2014, raising hackles in New Delhi. Sri Lanka also suspended a $1.5 billion Chinese luxury real estate project in Colombo, the biggest of several Chinese investments in Sri Lankan ports and infrastructure.

Although the Sri Lankan government suggested that the project lacked transparency and did not comply with environmental standards, India, too, had expressed its concerns. And yet, where India has to balance its domestic sensitivities and strategic interests, China faces no such constraint in developing even stronger ties with Sri Lanka. This will continue to shape China’s role in Sri Lanka in the coming years.

Sri Lanka matters because the Indian Ocean matters. Though India’s location gives it great operational advantages in the Indian Ocean, it is by no means certain that New Delhi is in a position to hold on to its geographic advantages. China is rapidly catching up and its ties with Sri Lanka are aimed at expanding its profile in this crucial part of the world.

China’s growing clout
Chinese footprint had been expanding in Sri Lanka. Chinese military supplies to Sri Lanka are estimated at $100 million per year, with China supporting Sri Lankan defence forces in boosting its capabilities for high-technology aerial warfare, and restructuring and reorienting the military.

China emerged as the largest foreign finance partner of Sri Lanka in 2010, overtaking India and Japan, and its third largest trading partner in 2012. Sri Lanka is also committed to join the Maritime Silk Road initiative of Beijing which is a vital strategic project for China in the Indian Ocean. For China, Sri Lanka is a gateway port up the western coast of India and further west to Iran, an important oil exporter to China.

China’s backing was crucial for Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war against the LTTE. Chinese support has also been invaluable for Sri Lanka to confront US-backed resolutions at the UNHRC. As a result, the two nations now have a declared ‘strategic cooperation partnership’.

For China, its ties with Sri Lanka give it a foothold near crucial sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean, as well as entry into what India considers its sphere of influence. China is financing more than 85 per cent of the Hambantota Development Zone, to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery, an international airport and other facilities.

Indian policymakers will be mistaken if they think that a change of regime in Colombo will lead to a dampening of Sino-Sri Lanka ties. China’s role is now firmly embedded in Sri Lanka – economically as well as geopolitically. India will have to up its game if it wants to retain its leverage in Colombo. Rajapaksa or Sirisena, China’s role is only going to grow in the island nation. After all, the stakes are just too high in the great game that is being played in the Indian Ocean.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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