Walking a tight-rope

Neville de Silva considers the delicate balancing act Sri Lanka’s new president will have to perform in order to forge and strengthen the country’s political, diplomatic and economic ties

Barely had Sri Lanka’s newly-elected leader seated himself in the presidential chair when India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, came calling.

Just three days after Gotabaya Rajapaksas hookoff the dust from a gruelling campaign, following his decisive victory at the November 16 presidential election, Minister Jaishankar was hurriedly dispatched to Colombo by Indian Premier Narendra Modi, with a message invitingthe new president to Delhi.

It was an unmistakable sign that Indiais keen to break the diplomatic ice after the freeze that followed the 2015 presidential election, when Mahinda Rajapaksa accused Indian intelligence of involvement in promoting regime change and ousting him from office.In the last months of his term, he demanded the recall from Sri Lanka of an India intelligence officer attached to its diplomatic mission.

It is customary for newly-elected Sri Lankan leaders to make New Delhi their first port of call, though it would not normally have been so expeditious with so much to settle at home.But this time around it was India that initiated the visit, and the new president, a younger brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, readily accepted.

While some might attribute this formal invitation to Narendra Modi’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’ –smacking somewhat of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ sloganising – it was much more than good neighbourliness that sent Jaishankar hurrying to Colombo.

Whether or not Prime Minister Modi believed in that old English saying,‘strike while the iron is hot’, he got in the first diplomatic thrust. Perhaps it was intended to up-end China, a faithful ally in the heyday of Rajapaksa rule, especially when the Rajapaksa siblings decided to crush the minority Tamil insurgency that hadescalated into a conventional war.

During the Rajapaksa years China emerged as Sri Lanka’s strongest diplomatic and economic friend. Some observers expected Beijing to send an important envoy to enhance its relationship under this new Rajapaksa dispensation.

After all, Beijing’s closest ally, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is nowback in power as his younger brother’s prime minister, a position that had acquired more power and influence under the 19th constitutional amendment that the President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe coalition had introduced in the first months after the 2015 election victory.

That amendment transferred substantial power from president to prime minister while blocking Rajapaksa political progress by limiting presidential terms and placing other impediments to stall dynastic rule by Sri Lanka’s most powerful political family.

The Chinese cleverly stayedtheir diplomatic hand, not rushing to head the queue of foreign envoys lining up to congratulate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, though some western countries had in previous years shown a marked distaste for this former defence secretary, now president, accusing him and his high-ranking military officers of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian laws.

There was no need for China to rush, for Beijing had already gained more than a foothold in Sri Lanka, particularly after the crushing of the Tamil Tigers, to which China contributed substantially with arms and financial aid when the west and India had stopped assistance.

The most contentious aspect of China’s presence in Sri Lanka is the Hambantota Port, deep in the country’s southeast and close to the Rajapaksa family’s traditional stamping ground.

Although India and other regional powers are acutely conscious of China’s expanding presence in the Indian Ocean,Sri Lanka cannot be blamed for turning to China.

Diplomatic ties between the two date back to the early 1950s when Ceylon, as the country was then called, withstood US threats to cut off aid to the island nation for striking a trade deal to sellnatural rubber, a war material, to China at the height of the Korean war.

Though many dismissed the Chinese-financed and constructed Hambantota Port as a ‘white elephant’,Beijing saw it differently: as a vital link in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), being constructed in some littoral states in the Indian Ocean and beyond to the African coast.

It was only later that others, interested in free and open navigation in the Indian Ocean, realised the maritime importance of Hambantota’s deep-water port, strategically located close to one of the busiest international sea lanes carrying trade and crucial oil supplies fromthe west to energy guzzling economies such as China, and Japan in the Pacific.

Although India and other regional powers worry over potential military uses for Hambantota Port as the confrontationintensifies among major powers for control of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka argues it cannot be blamed for China’s enhanced footprint in the country. As Mahinda Rajapaksa has often claimed, the offer to construct a new port was first made to India. But Indian dilly-dallying and failure to respond made Rajapaksa turn to his reliable ally, China.

Sri Lanka argues it cannot be blamed for China’s enhanced footprint in the country

During his New Delhi visit last November, President Rajapaksa pledged to try and take bilateral relations to a ‘very high level’.But this is easier said than done. Both in a special message to President Rajapaksa and in the New Delhi talks, India stressed the importance of fulfilling the aspirations of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community. With 70 million or more Tamils in India’s Tamil Nadu state with ethnic and cultural affinities to Sri Lankan Tamils, New Delhi cannot ignore the political implications.

The Colombo Port City Infrastructure development
The Colombo Port City Infrastructure development

Moreover, it was India that insisted on devolution of power to the Tamil community in the 1987 Indo-Lanka treaty that led Colombo to introduce the 13th constitutional amendment, establishing provincial councils to grant power to the periphery.

Rajapaksa was reminded of this commitment, which had not been fully executed. The problem is that the Rajapaksas believe it is socio-economic development rather than devolution that can bring prosperity to the Tamil people.

But if national security is one of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s highest priorities, enduring bilateral relations will have to remain high on the agenda. Sri Lanka needs India’s help to ensure security, especially after last April’s Easter Sunday terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists..

And that is not the only issue that will test the relationship. President Rajapaksa told Sri Lankans that he would maintain a neutral foreign policy and stay away from involvement in big power confrontations in the Indian Ocean.

He fell back on recalling Sri Lanka’s traditional policy of non-alignment, Colombo having been a founder member of this Third World movement. But curiously, India – a prominent founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which for many decades followed this Nehruvian political philosophy – seems to be fast jettisoning it under a new Modi approach that embraces a Trumpian doctrine.

Prime Minister Modi absented himself from the 17th NAM summit in Venezuela in 2016 and the 18thsummit in Azerbaijan in October 2018.This change in India’s longstanding foreign policy direction and apparent abandonment of the Global South in exchange for an American hug brings a non-Indian Ocean power into the region by proxy.

The US has also been desperately trying to lure Sri Lanka into its embrace, dangling various military-related pacts for approval which the new administration wishes to examine carefully.

President Rajapaksa has also said that he wishes to renegotiate with China the 99-year lease that Beijing obtained from the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration in a debt-for-equity deal as Sri Lanka was unable to pay back the loan instalments for Hambantota Port.

It would come as no surprise if Beijing were to make a concession on this, possibly when President Rajapaksa visits China, which will be his next port of call. Although Prime Minister Modi extended a $400 million line of credit for development and another $50 million for enhancing security connections and training, China has deeper pockets.

Beijing needs to maintain its good relations with Sri Lanka now that the Colombo Port City,which is being constructed by China on reclaimed land near the Colombo port, is up and running and is a key link in China’s maritime silk route.With China having a 99-year lease on two-thirds of the 269- hectare project that will be a new financial district, Beijing will be keen to ensure that Sri Lanka’s requests are not simply dismissed.

Right now, Colombo cannot afford to distance itself from China, its all-weather friend. So the coming months and maybe years will see President Gotabaya Rajapaksa engage in a delicate balancing act. But it remains to be seen whether he can satisfy all, especially with the US pushing for a stake in this strategically-located island.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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