India will be watching the new Rajapaksa regime closely

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Reuters)

The victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the recently concluded presidential elections in Sri Lanka marks the return of the Rajapaksa family to political centre stage. Gotabaya, brother of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the defence secretary of Sri Lanka for a decade (2005-2015) and played a major role in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The elections were fought in the shadow of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. Therefore, national security and the incumbent government’s inability to prevent such a major terrorist attack were dominant themes in the election. With Gotabaya’s victory and the ostensibly rightward shift of Sri Lankan politics, moderate and liberal voices are genuinely worried.

From an Indian perspective, Gotabaya’s return signals the return of a China-friendly ruler in Sri Lanka. Memories of Mahinda Rajapaksa’ rule and the massive inroads that China managed to make in Sri Lanka during his tenure would not be lost on Indian policymakers.

Moreover, Rajapaksa family’s political orientation is seen as overtly pro-Sinhalese and anti-minorities. Gotabaya is accused of committing human rights violations and war crimes during the war (2006-2009). Hence, apart from China’s influence, India would be worried about the domestic political trajectory of Sri Lanka under the Gotabaya.

As the geopolitical competition between India and China heats up in the Indian Ocean, elections in key states such as Sri Lanka and Mauritius have become a matter of interest in the strategic community. In 2018 when the Maldives had a change of government, it was expected that the new government will create a space for expanding India’s influence and consequently, would reduce the role of China. In Sri Lanka, the reverse situation is expected to play out.

Chinese influence in Sri Lanka

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure (2005-2015) was marked by a growing friendship between Sri Lanka and China. India has always been worried about the interest and presence of external powers in the Indian Ocean in general and in Sri Lanka in particular. However, India, at that point, could do little to limit the burgeoning relationship between China and Sri Lanka.

During the final stages of the war against the LTTE (2006-2009), India and the western countries were worried about the human rights violations in Sri Lanka. In this context, the Rajapaksa family needed international support and China was more than willing to offer it. China went even further and offered military supplies and fighter aircraft to the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Since then, China has emerged as a major player in Sri Lankan politics. China’s pattern of accumulating leverage over a country is strikingly familiar across the Indian Ocean and African littoral. China offered massive loans to Sri Lanka, supported political elites (i.e. the Rajapaksa family) and undertook massive infrastructure projects in the country.

Sri Lanka has borrowed so heavily from China that 60 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total loans are from China. It includes loans and/or assistance for Colombo Port City project, Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, the Narocholai Coal Power Plant, the Moragahakanda Multipurpose Development Project etc. Sri Lanka is also a member of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Moreover, Chinese tourists visit Sri Lanka in large numbers. For the tourism-dependent economy of Sri Lanka, Chinese tourists are a major source of revenue. China is also known to use tourism as a tool for leverage over smaller states. Therefore, any Sri Lankan government would be extremely wary of taking an overtly anti-China foreign policy direction.

China-built projects in Sri Lanka, such as, an international airport and a port at a strategically located place in Southern Sri Lanka called Hambantota have raised several pertinent issues about the nature of Chinese loans, capacity of the host state to absorb these loans and the real purpose behind these infrastructure projects. China is routinely accused of creating a debt trap and taking diplomatic advantage out of it.

Both these projects are unable to generate sufficient revenues to pay back for the loans. In fact, the airport at Hambantota was called the ‘emptiest airport in the world’. Therefore, in 2017, China forced the Sri Lankan government to lease out Hambantota port to a Chinese company for 99 years. It sent alarm bells ringing in important Capitals of the world including Delhi.

Chinese control over Hambantota has raised fears about the upcoming Chinese military foothold in Sri Lanka. In response, despite making huge losses, India decided to operate the airport at Hambantota and closely monitor Chinese activities in the Hambantota port.

China already has a military base at Djibouti and in future, is likely to open another base at Gwadar in Pakistan. Hambantota would fit in this pattern and present India with significant security challenges, especially in the maritime domain. China’s acquisition of the port and India’s willingness to operate a loss-making airport is also a clear indication of the nature and intensity of geopolitics that is being played out in the Indian Ocean.

Indian concerns

Beyond this, India will also be watchful when it comes to matters of national security under Rajapaksarule. In 2014, when Gotabaya was a defence secretary, Chinese nuclear submarines had twice visited the port of Colombo despite India’s displeasure. By hosting Chinese nuclear submarines, Sri Lankan government under Mahinda Rajapaksa had crossed the red line from an Indian security perspective. Therefore, India was rather happy to see Rajapaksa go in 2015.

But China had acquired so much sway over Sri Lanka during Rajapaksa's time that the subsequent government led by Maithripala Sirisena (2015-19) was unable to ignore it. They tried to renegotiate some loans and rethink some projects. However, the worsening economic situation only resulted in China retaining its hold over the country.

Way forward

Given the high stakes that are involved in the Indian Ocean, it is unlikely that China will let go of its growing influence in Sri Lanka. In view of China’s trade and energy relationships and consequently growing security interests in Indian Ocean, it would like to keep Sri Lanka in its orbit.

Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic location will continue to attract foreign powers like China and the United States (US) and therefore the tussle between them is likely to be played out in Sri Lanka. In this context, India’s ability to shape Sri Lankan policies will be tested. Moreover, how Gotabaya Rajapaksa engages with China will also be watched.

Since 2017, the Rajapaksa family has been reaching out to India to make amends. India also recognizes that no Sri Lankan government would be able to completely ignore India’s concerns on security. However, India’s real challenge will be to counter Chinese economic influence.

Sri Lanka is probably the most significant state in the evolving Indian Ocean geopolitics. Therefore, political trajectory of this island nation under the new dispensation will definitely determine the course of security competition in the Indian Ocean.

(Sankalp Gurjar is a research analyst with the Geostrategy Program of the Takshashila Institution)

The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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