Chinese influence wanes on Sri Lanka’s shifting sands

  • Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times, Colombo/Beijing
  • Updated: Sep 09, 2015 11:34 IST
Sri Lankan artistes dance during a performance ahead of a China tourism expo in Colombo. (AFP File Photo)

Chinese tourist footfall in Sri Lanka may have spiked in the last two years and overtaken the number of Indian tourists for the first time this July but Beijing’s influence in the emerald nation may be on the wane after former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat.

After January 2015’s presidential polls—otherwise known as the Rainbow Revolution—that ousted “friend of China” Rajapaksa, Beijing’s influence over Colombo was said to be gradually receding from the sandy shores of the island traditionally seen as within India’s periphery of influence.

A crushing second defeat in August’s parliamentary election for Rajapaksa pushed China’s flotilla of strategic interest further back into the sea, analysts say. But has Colombo really come out of Beijing’s giant shadow?

China has the money, the tack to use its finances efficiently and doesn’t ask too many questions about the internal political situations of a country – war crimes, in Sri Lanka’s case.

In contrast, India is far too deeply entangled in the country’s past, present and -- if New Delhi has its way – future. As a result, the island’s closest neighbour is both revered and reviled in equal measure.

Rajapaksa, a lawyer from the country’s deep south, epitomised what many Lankans felt about India – that New Delhi will always favour the Tamils and the Sinhalese will be a wary majority, alert about saving their culture, language and economy from an onslaught just waiting to be launched from barely 22 nautical miles away.

China was the antidote. Under Rajapaksa’s presidency in November 2005, Beijing finally got its foot in the door.

Beijing and Colombo have always had a “long-standing, abiding friendship”, nurtured by both the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) but under Rajapaksa, Asia’s largest economy became Colombo’s foreign policy priority.

The Sino-Lanka relationship dates back to 1952 when Beijing sold rice to Colombo at lower than market prices and bought rubber at a higher price, under the Rubber-Rice Pact.

In the early 70’s, China “gifted” the grand Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) to the island. Decades later, under Rajapaksa’s rule, China completed its first major soft power project, the National Performing Arts Theatre in Colombo, in 2011.

The theatre was just beginning.

Since then, China has funded projects in all priority sectors including roads, ports, power and railways, with the total assistance till 2012 exceeding US$ 5 billion, 94% of which came during Rajapaksa’s tenure.

Of all the projects, the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City Project (CPCP) worried India the most, because under the proposal, China would get 20 of the 233 acres of land reclaimed from the sea.

A livid New Delhi complained to Colombo, saying it was unacceptable that China would be in a position to monitor Indian ships that passed through Colombo port.

Then, in September 2014, a Chinese submarine surfaced in Colombo. Though Indian diplomats knew the vessel was coming to Sri Lanka, what shocked New Delhi was that Rajapaksa did not even inform India about the docking.

The new government has already reversed the tide. President Maithripala Sirisena has stopped work on the CPCP, citing environmental concerns, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told HT there would be no “sovereign land” on Lankan soil. In addition, some Chinese projects such as the Mattala airport, built in southern Lanka close to Rajapaksa’s hometown, are likely to be scrapped.

But the new Lankan government will have to delicately balance China’s economic clout, India’s physical proximity, and close links and alliance with western countries.

“The new government will have to balance economic cooperation with China and political alliance with the West. On the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has a certain claim. China also understands there is no point in antagonising the new government,” Colombo University’s Jayadeva Uyangoda told HT.

Diplomats say Beijing has realised it should reach out to other political parties. One official told HT there has been “marked increase” in public diplomacy by Chinese diplomats, who are concerned ordinary Lankans view Chinese projects negatively.

China’s foreign affairs ministry says Beijing and Colombo enjoyed a long-term friendship and all cooperation was based on equality and mutual benefit.

“We believe the new government of Sri Lanka will continue to develop our friendship and promote mutually-beneficial cooperation. China is also willing to explore possibilities for developing projects in Sri Lanka with India and countries concerned. We would expect to jointly play a constructive role for Sri Lanka’s development,” said a ministry statement. The Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang, declined an interview request.

Privately, Lankan diplomats say CPCP has a promising forecast and could create 85,000 jobs but many Lankans are wary about the high rate of interest tied to many of China’s loans during the Rajapaksa era.

The two countries are also in middle of negotiating a Free Trade Agreement. The question is, how free will that trade be?

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