Sri Lankan strongmen and Chinese initiatives: India’s neighborhood is as bustling as ever

On October 25, 2018 Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena suspended Parliament (till November 16, 2018) and sacked his Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, replacing him with Mahindra Rajapaksa (who served as President of Sri Lanka for a decade, from 2005 till 2015). Sirisena had wrested power from Rajapaksa in 2015. Wickremesinghe decided to battle it out, saying that Sirisena’s decision was illegal since none of the conditions under which a Prime Minister can be removed, under provisions 46(2) and 48 of parliament were applicable to the current situation. Rajapaksa announced that the President will reconvene Parliament on November 5, 2018.

Rajapaksa has been gaining ground in recent months

First, Rajapaksa, who had been written off totally, set up a new political outfit, SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna), which performed well in the local elections of February 2018.

More recently, Sirisena, who was initially considered Pro-China, accused Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) of meddling in Sri Lanka’s affairs and plotting his assassination. He supposed to have denied this in a conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As President, Rajapaksa had a close relationship with China (there were allegations of a Chinese company even providing financial assistance for his campaign) and New Delhi was relieved to see his back.

The strategically important Hambantota Port Project was awarded to the Chinese during Rajapaksa’s presidency. China provided assistance to the tune of $190 million, and Sri Lanka had to lease out the project for a period of 99 years to Beijing in 2017, since debts to Beijing are mounting (total Sri Lankan debts to China are estimated at $13 billion). The Hambantota Project is now presented as a symbol of what has been referred to on more than one occasion as China’s debt trap diplomacy.

It would be pertinent to point out that the project had first been offered to New Delhi in 2010, but India declined stating that the project was not economically sustainable.

It would also be pertinent to point out here that, after his removal, Rajapaksa has made some statements in favor of close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. Indian PM Narendra Modi has met him on both his visits to Sri Lanka. In September 2018 Rajapaksa was himself in New Delhi.

How to approach the China factor

While there is no clarity as to how long this new arrangement will last in Sri Lanka, there are some broader issues which need to be dealt with.

The first question which arises is: should New Delhi view China’s involvement with suspicion or work jointly? While there is absolutely no doubt that, in recent years, India too has tried to come up with its own responses to the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia. This includes promoting greater connectivity within South Asian countries through the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) framework on the one hand, while also exploring synergies with Japan in order to check Beijing’s growing clout on the other. This includes not just cooperation under the umbrella of Japan’s PQI (Partnership for Quality Infrastructure) initiative, but also in areas like infrastructure and energy (two key instances being the metro project in Dhaka, where India’s Larsen & Toubro and Japanese companies are working jointly for developing Line 6, as well as an LNG terminal in Sri Lanka where Petronet and Japanese companies are making a joint investment to the tune of $300 million).

During Wuhan Summit one of the important issues discussed was that India and China will work together in Afghanistan (only recently both countries set up a joint training program for Afghan Diplomats). Pakistan has been trying to obstruct any big ticket cooperation between both countries, and that is cited as one of the main reasons why Beijing is shying away from any big ticket investments into a joint project in Afghanistan.

If Japan and China can work together in connectivity projects (Japan has even expressed its willingness to join the BRI), as was discussed during Abe’s recent China visit, New Delhi and Beijing too can explore certain instances where they work together. It would be pertinent to point out that the Global Times made an interesting argument in favor of New Delhi and Beijing working in tandem for Sri Lanka’s infrastructural development. While this may appear to be a pipedream currently, in the long run it can not be ruled out given the changing geopolitical equations.

Apart from this, there are clear lessons for New Delhi: that it should not put all eggs in one basket, and realize that certain leaders will have good relations with China. A former Diplomat, Ashok Kantha, who was India’s envoy to Sri Lanka, made the point that India needed to stop looking at domestic politics from a lens of ‘Pro-India and Pro-China’, as this is too simplistic.

While India was apprehensive about the election of K.P. Oli as Nepalese Prime Minister, he has been speaking about close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. During his visit to China in June 2018, Oli spoke about the possibility of Nepal emerging as a bridge between China and India.

In conclusion, New Delhi has to watch out for it’s own interests in South Asia, and should certainly ensure that no country has a stranglehold, but paranoia will be of no use. India needs to come up with viable alternatives to the BRI, while also being open to cooperation, as and when feasible. Apart from this, New Delhi needs to realize that countries in the neighborhood will give precedence to their own interests and even if they do maintain close economic linkages with China, it is not always targeted at India.

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