Colombo, Sri Lanka – Is Sri Lanka becoming a geopolitical battleground between China and India?
Over the past five years, Sri Lanka’s traditionally close relations with nearby India soured as the government of former president Mahindra Rajapaksa focused on strengthening ties with China in its bid for rapid economic development.
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But now, after elections in January ushered in a new government under President Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is pivoting back towards India.
Sirisena visited India last month, meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and signing an agreement that laid the foundation for the two countries to explore and develop the peaceful use of nuclear power.
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“Several months ago, the idea of Sri Lanka under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa signing a nuclear agreement with India would have seemed a dream,” said Arjuna Fernando, an economist with the Council of International Relations, a Sri Lanka-based foreign policy think-tank.
“India had clearly demonstrated the lack of trust they had for the Rajapaksa regime.”
According to Fernando, the extent to which India opposed the Rajapaksa government could be gauged by its support for US-sponsored resolutions against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Humans Rights Council.
“India has played the role of big brother to Sri Lanka since independence in 1948. To have voted in favour of a resolution against Sri Lanka was [an] indication they felt they no longer had a defining influence over the nation,” Fernando said.
Wooing Chinese investment
Sri Lanka, whose armed forces face accusations of having committed war crimes during the final stages of the country’s 1983-2009 civil war, found itself increasingly scrutinised in the international arena. In an attempt to avoid this scrutiny and speed up the island nation’s post-war development, Sri Lanka’s former government turned to China.
“An increasing number of loans were obtained from China due to their lack of regulations that would have otherwise accompanied World Bank or IMF loans,” said Fernando. “China’s government is less concerned about ensuring propriety and more focused on establishing their influence. Such an attitude was beneficial to the former regime.”
Relations with India were damaged during the previous regime, and we are now looking to improve them. This does not mean we will cut off ties with China.
Many members of the former government are fearful that this pivot will be accompanied by Sri Lanka prioritising relations with the West.
Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to France, told Al Jazeera the new government, in addition to cosying up to India, has sidelined China in favour of close ties with the US and UK.
“It would have been both sagacious and ethically correct for Foreign Minister [Mangala] Samaraweera to visit Beijing after his visit to our neighbour New Delhi … before he visited Washington, DC,” Jayatilleka said.
The former diplomat, who openly supported and canvassed for Rajapaksa during the recent elections, expressed concerns that Sri Lanka was rapidly moving towards “an emergent Indo-US axis”.
Later this year, Sirisena is expected to visit the US, making it only the second state visit to the United States by a Sri Lankan head of state. The previous such visit took place in 1982.
Since the new government took office, several Chinese-funded projects have come to a halt, including the controversial Colombo Port City. Funded by China, this project would have seen the China Communications Construction Company, a private Chinese firm, emerge with control of more than 108 hectares of reclaimed land.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking to media, explained that work had been halted on the project because environmental impact assessments and financial feasibility reports had been ordered. During the election campaign, Wickremesinghe told the press the project would be cancelled as it posed a threat to national security.
Although the prime minister insisted that the Sri Lankan government would continue to cultivate relations with China, the halting of its largest investment in the country does not bode well.
“Sri Lanka’s relations with India were damaged during the previous regime, and we are now looking to improve them,” Ajith Perera, Sri Lanka’s deputy minister for external affairs, told Al Jazeera.
“This does not mean we will cut off ties with China, however, it is a priority that Sri Lanka and India return to a close relationship.”
Members of the Rajapaksa administration have criticised the new government’s stance, accusing it of jeopardising economic development in Sri Lanka. Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, the former minister of investment promotion, told Al Jazeera the former government appreciated the support China has extended to the country for decades.
“Having emerged from a three-decade-long conflict, Sri Lanka was looking to develop and China was ready to help. During this time we never altered our relationship with India. As with all nations, disagreements arose – but we always recognised India as our neighbour and long-time ally,” Abeywardena said.
India-China tensions increased during Rajapaksa’s tenure as Sri Lankan president.
Late last year, a Chinese submarine docked at Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port, despite India warning that such a move was inimical to India’s interests. According to the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord between the two countries, no port in Sri Lanka shall be made available to another nation’s military.
The apparent breaking of this agreement came under intense criticism from India, as well as from Sri Lanka’s then-opposition.
Amid Sri Lanka’s rapprochement with India, China has stepped up its efforts to retain influence in the country.
The Chinese recently extended an invitation to Sri Lanka’s president and foreign minister to visit in March. However, the dates of the president’s visit have yet to be finalised, as the country prepares to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi starting on Friday.
The prime minister’s visit to Sri Lanka will be the first by an Indian head of state in 27 years – a clear sign of New Delhi’s renewed efforts to regain influence.