The crucial parliamentary election this week in Sri Lanka — a ‘swing state’ in the sharpening Indian Ocean geopolitics — was a close contest, with no party getting an absolute majority.
Yet the poll outcome was decisive, not merely because Ranil Wickremesinghe seems set to return as prime minister: By thwarting the pro-China ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political comeback bid, it represents a setback for Chinese diplomacy to increasingly encroach on India’s strategic backyard.
This triumph of democracy carries wider geopolitical significance. It also makes Sri Lanka a beacon of hope in a region where democratic advances in several countries have shifted into the reverse.
For example, the democratic transition in the Maldives has derailed. In Nepal, political disarray persists. Pakistan has yet to begin a genuine democratic transition because the military still rules the roost.
Consequently, India, with its deeply rooted pluralistic democracy, confronts the ‘tyranny of geography’ — that is, external threats from nearly all directions.
Strategically located Sri Lanka straddles some of the world’s busiest sea lanes. Beijing has already pumped some $5 billion into Sri Lanka in an effort to turn it into a pivot of its ‘Maritime Silk Road’.
Sri Lanka, where China has already built Hambantota port, is central to the Maritime Silk Road, the new name for China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy.
The Chinese diplomatic drive in Sri Lanka now faces an uncertain future. Its first setback came in January, with Rajapaksa’s shock defeat to one-time ally Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential contest.
Rajapaksa awarded Beijing major contracts to make Sri Lanka a key stop on the Chinese nautical ‘road’.
However, several of the Chinese projects are now on hold in response to the Sirisena-ordered investigations into corruption and environmental breaches.
Investigators are also probing an alleged $1.1 million bribe paid by a Chinese state-run firm to Rajapaksa’s failed presidential re-election campaign and the role of his two brothers and his wife in misappropriating public funds.
With the latest election frustrating Rajapaksa’s bid to return to power as prime minister, there is greater likelihood of his prosecution for corruption and human rights abuses.
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, while seeking to recalibrate ties with China, have revived flagging relations with India and America. New Delhi has more space now to try and recoup its diplomatic losses.
Still, most of the stalled Chinese projects in Sri Lanka are likely to resume after incorporating environmental safeguards, which might lead to some of them being scaled back.
The pro-West Wickremesinghe has promised to continue investment ties with Beijing but on Colombo’s own terms.
China’s larger strategic ambitions in Sri Lanka, however, have dimmed. Without Rajapaksa at the helm to dispense favours, China will be hard put to pursue ‘dual-use’ infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.
One classic example is Colombo’s new Chinese-owned commercial seaport, where two Chinese nuclear submarines and a warship docked last year.
With Sri Lanka slipping from its strategic grasp, China might be forced to focus on its Plan B, the Maldives.
China has been interested in leasing one of the 1,200 islands of the politically torn Maldives. The recent Maldivian constitutional amendment allowing foreign ownership of land has raised concern that it could open the path to the establishment of a Chinese naval base in India’s backyard.
But Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said his government had no intention to allow any country to set up a base.
With the international spotlight on its land reclamation and building of outposts in the South China Sea, China has quietly turned its sights on the Indian Ocean, the world’s new centre of geopolitical gravity.
That China is determined to take the sea route to gain regional hegemony was underscored by its new defence white paper, which outlined a plan for its navy to shift focus from ‘offshore waters defence’ to ‘open seas protection’.
Indeed, the international attention on China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea obscured the artificial island it began building off Colombo before Sirisena suspended the $1.4 billion megaproject to create a Dubai-style metropolis on 233 hectares of reclaimed land, with 108 hectares of the real estate to be owned by the state-owned China Communications Construction Company.
China’s heavy political investment in Rajapaksa, in the expectation that he would be a long-lasting autocrat, has backfired.
His ouster in January, despite fanning Sinhalese nationalism, revealed that many of his supporters have tired of the ‘war hero’ for engaging in brazen nepotism, expanding presidential powers, muzzling civil liberties and cosying up to China.
Sirisena, besides lifting restrictions on the media and judiciary, has restored a two-term limit for a president and shed some of the Rajapaksa-expanded powers. This has strengthened the position of the prime minister, prompting Rajapaksa, ironically, to bid for that post.
The choice for voters in the parliamentary election was between a return to the dictatorial governance of Rajapaksa and strengthening the ‘people’s revolution’ that led to full-fledged democracy being restored in January. Fearful of Rajapaksa’s return to power, minorities tilted the balance in the UNP’s favour.
By handing Rajapaksa his second electoral defeat in eight months, the election outcome ensures that Sri Lanka will chart an independent foreign policy.
It shows that genuine democracy works as a bulwark against the country mortgaging its sovereignty to become a key component of an external power’s regional strategy.
By the same token, the erosion of democracy in the Maldives — where the country’s first democratically elected president was forced to resign at gunpoint in 2012 and who is now serving a 13-year prison term — creates risks for that nation to get sucked into great-power rivalries in the Indian Ocean region.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal