Telling signs of Sri Lanka-China bonhomie that New Delhi has been watching with unease are scattered around the beaches across the road from Taj Samudra, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi will check in on Friday.
Launched with fanfare during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit last September, work to build a $1.5-billion city with a glittering skyline adjacent to the Colombo port has been stalled after Maithripala Sirisena succeeded pro-China, strongman-politician Mahinda Rajapaksa in a landmark election as the country’s new head.
Tipper trucks, excavators and sand dredgers remain idle close to mounds of rocks opposite the presidential secretariat where Modi will be accorded a ceremonial welcome on Friday during his maiden tour of the island nation.
A board informs in English, Sinhalese and Tamil that work on the port city has been stopped — pending necessary clearance — under instruction from the ministry of shipping, port and aviation.
The builder, China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCL), has been taking out full-page newspaper advertisement to garner public support, saying the project will create 83,000 jobs. It also hints at seeking legal advice to restart the suspended project.
Sri Lankan cabinet spokesman and minister Rajitha Senaratne said on Thursday a decision on the project’s fate would be taken in about two weeks.
Whether the project could be held up for long or not will be known either before or after the visit of president Sirisena to China from March 26.
The Chinese influence during nearly two decades of Rajapaksa’s rule was palpable, though locals were now bold enough to air their views on why the project should be purged. “It no doubt gives employment but spoils the beauty of Colombo. But then, saying no to a Chinese project is not easy,” said Nisham Mohammed, a resident, echoing the general mood about the nation’s biggest trade and defence partner.
Rajapaksa, in fact, won the decades-old civil war against the LTTE with a heavy helping hand from Beijing. When the West accused him of war atrocities against ethic Tamils, the leaned further towards the Chinese and, in return, the Asian giant gained a toehold in the strategic Indian Ocean waters just south of India.
India hopes the new Lankan government will keep the growing Chinese influence in check and renew security and defence ties with New Delhi.
Sirisena’s government is giving indications of a change in the China-dominated approaches but a sense of reasonable certitude not at sight yet.
“The new government understands Indian sensitivities, located 50km away from Sri Lanka. Lanka, our biggest trading partner in South Asia, is highly important for us,” an Indian diplomat said.
Observers are iffy about Sri Lanka making a complete U-turn, abandoning former president Rajapaksa China policy despite Sirisena’s pro-US, pro-India pronouncements. “President Xi has heavily invested in Lanka. The thorn now is the arbitrary manner in which projects were awarded (by Rajapaksa) to China and the huge interest rates that Beijing charges on loans,” one the observers said.
China has been Sri Lanka’s biggest lender in recent years, totaling more than $6 billion, for building ports, highways, a coal-power plant and a new international airport.