See More on Facebook

Analysis

India, China step up the wooing but Rajapaksa in no hurry to align Sri Lanka

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will try to balance the competing interests of China, India in the region.


Written by

Updated: December 12, 2019

The conversation in regional capitals after the emphatic win of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Sri Lankan elections last month centres around a central question: Will he manage to pull a Sheikh Hasina on India and China?

The reference, of course, is to the Bangladesh Prime Minister who many believe has managed to successfully push her country’s interests by balancing the competing strategic ambitions of China and India in South Asia.

And Rajapaksa knows a thing or two about protecting what he believes are his country’s core interests.

After all, he braved the Western world’s intense criticism – and India’s acute discomfort given its large domestic Tamil population – of the means adopted by him as Defence Minister in his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration to decisively defeat the LTTE and bring an end to country’s bloody civil war.

Experts say unlike his elder brother’s lurch to China during the 2005-15 period, primarily because that’s where both the funds were coming from and the criticism of Colombo’s military action was most muted, Gotabaya’s approach towards the Big Two in the neighbourhood points to a more neutral approach. Obviously, Mahinda – now appointed Prime Minister – is on board too.

Speaking exclusively to Asia News Network, Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme at Gateway House and a leading authority on South Asia, said: “In the current scenario, Sri Lanka needs both China and India. Its primary requirement is capital for development. Additionally, after the Easter Sunday terror attacks, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will prioritise anti-terror and security concerns.”

New Delhi has been quick off the block this time around in dealing with a Rajapaksa as President.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to invite the new President to visit India; he sent his Foreign Minister to Colombo on 19 November, the very day after Rajapaksa was sworn-in, to personally hand over the invitation.

Not only did Gotabaya Rajapaksa make his first foreign trip to India after assuming office, he was given a red-carpet welcome which included the extension of a $400 million Line of Credit (LoC) for infrastructure and development and another $50 million special LoC for security and counter-terrorism to Sri Lanka.

The quantum of finance is not insignificant. But is the intent being exhibited by India which is more important – to prevent, as Ambassador Bhatia puts it, “all of the monies coming from only one direction.”

Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt is about $34 billion, a large part of which is owed to China, and it is 45% of the country’s GDP. Between 2012 and 2016, China accounted for 30% of all FDI in Sri Lanka which was four times that of Indian FDI. During 2008-12, 60% of Colombo’s foreign borrowing was from China.

On the other hand, the cooperation both below and above the radar in the aftermath of the Islamic State-inspired Easter attacks reaffirmed that as far as security was concerned, the two countries are intricately linked given Sri Lanka’s geographical location just off the Indian coastline.

New Delhi, given its vital strategic, security and trade interests in the Indian Ocean region, has also over the past few years been consistent in its outreach to Sri Lanka’s political dispensation with Modi leading the effort personally.

There is even discernible a more sensitive approach to Colombo’s Big Brother apprehensions; the Indian establishment is increasingly seen to be encouraging a domestic resolution to Tamil-Sinhala ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.

India’s focus has pivoted to niche areas of cooperation including security-related intelligence-sharing, anti-terror training/ops and partnering with strategic partner Japan for key projects in Sri Lanka.

But Beijing has, over the past decade, established a very close relationship with Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa brothers in particular.

As Nitin Pai, Director of the Takshashila Institution, wrote recently:

“Sri Lanka’s need for China is anchored in deeper, structural reasons. A small country seeking to protect its autonomy against a large neighbour will attempt to build relations with other powers in order to balance them off against each other. Previous governments in Colombo have engaged the United States, Iran and Pakistan for this reason, before China entered the picture…”

Additionally, Beijing has deep pockets, a keen strategic interest in the Indian Ocean region (which also serves to keep India off-balance) and is happy to support Colombo in dealing with the Tamil issue as it sees fit.

The support, both diplomatic and economic, provided by China to the previous Rajapaksa administration when it was seeking to rebuild a war-ravaged country and simultaneously fend off condemnation and sanctions from Western powers, is very likely to stand it in good stead.

The Belt and Road Initiative remains a key leverage point for China despite the initial euphoria over the BRI being a driver for economic growth in Sri Lanka now being tempered with a dose of the reality of debt which it brings with it.

So, where does all this leave the brothers Rajapaksa?

According to Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director at the International Crisis Group, quoted in DW:

“I would say in this global environment, where neo-authoritarian leaders control many important states, their rule has been normalised. I’m doubtful that much pressure will come on a Rajapaksa government in the name of human rights principles, so I think all major players will have reason to increase their engagement in terms of trade or infrastructure projects.”

Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi and, most importantly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa may well be saying amen. In chorus.



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


About the Author:

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Analysis

North Korea beefs up self-defense capabilities in military reorganization

The North have been making many changes ahead of talks. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presided over a meeting of the top military decision-making body to accelerate the development of self-defense capabilities ahead of key events that will decide its national strategy, its state media reported Sunday. Discussions on ways to bolster its military capabilities through organizational restructuring and personnel reshuffle were highlighted during the third expanded meeting of the seventh central military commission of the ruling Workers’ Party. Details on what measures were discussed were not disclosed. “At the meeting, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un


By Zaffar Abbas
December 23, 2019

Analysis

Nepal moves up in Human Development Index but still lags behind in South Asia

Nepal’s human development index of 0,579 indicates that people are living longer, are more educated and have greater incomes, according to the Human Development Report. Despite global progress in tackling poverty, hunger and disease, a ‘new generation of inequalities’ indicates that many societies are not working as they should and Nepal is not an exception, according to a new human development report released on Tuesday. The old inequalities were based on access to health services and education whereas the new generation of inequalities is based on technology, education and the climate, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report. “Previously, we talked about wealth as a major driver for inequality. Now, countries like Nepal are in another inequality trap and that concerns


By The Kathmandu Post
December 12, 2019

Analysis

Is polarisation driven by Hyper Information Disorder Syndrome?

In a study of Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Turkey and the US, writes ANDREW SHENG, scientists attribute populism to the rise of decisive leaders who push nationalism, demonise opponents and stir up issues that further divide societies. BANGKOK – Mass protests seem to be breaking out all over the place, from Hong Kong to Santiago, Tehran, Bolivia, Catalonia, Ecuador, France and Iraq to Lebanon.  The root causes of these protests have many local reasons, but there are common themes, such as inequality, corruption, incompetent governments, rural-urban migration, demography, anger, social media and demand for change. But underlying all these protests is the growing polarization of societies, increasingly manifested in viol


By Asia News Network
December 9, 2019

Analysis

Rohingya Crisis Fallout

Transparency International Bangladesh has painted a grim outlook for the crisis. Bangladesh faces long-term financial, political and security challenges as Rohingya repatriation may not happen anytime soon, said Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman. The fund from the international community for nearly one million Rohingyas may not sustain as no strong international initiative has been taken to oblige Myanmar for creating a conducive environment for the refugees to return soon, he said. “As a result, Bangladesh’s socio-economic instability will grow. There are risks of security at local and national levels. The crisis also creates political and diplomatic challenges for the government,” Iftekharuzzaman said. It also involves the risks of growing extremism as the people who face violence are more likely to become violent, he said at a press confere


By Daily Star
December 6, 2019

Analysis

Pyongyang to hold party meeting ahead of year-end deadline

Kim Jong-un rides up Paektusan again, highlights self-reliance and revolutionary spirit. North Korea will hold a plenary meeting around the end of December to decide on “crucial issues,” its state-run news agency said Wednesday. On the same day, the Korean Central News Agency reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un rode up Paektusan on a white horse accompanied by military commanders, raising speculation that the communist regime may take more provocative military actions as the year-end deadline it set for denuclearization talks with the US quickly approaches. North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea announced Tuesday that the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK would convene around the end of December, Korea Central News Agency reported, “in order to discuss and decide on crucial issues in line with the needs of the development of the Korean revolution and the chan


By Zaffar Abbas
December 5, 2019

Analysis

China’s advanced tech presents ‘significant threat’ Share

Japanese leadership in tech called for. At the 2019 GZERO Summit held in Tokyo on Monday, politicians and experts from Japan, the United States and Europe discussed a range of pressing issues, including the absence of leadership in the world and the role Japan is expected to play in the future. Organized by Eurasia Group and supported by The Yomiuri Shimbun and other entities, the symposium was co-chaired by U.S. political scientist Ian Bremmer and Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren). In the keynote speech titled “The End of the American Order,” Bremmer argued that the greatest threat to globalization is China creating a “separate system of Chinese technology — its own standards, and infrastructure, and supply chains — to compete with the West,” He also spoke about areas in which Japanese leadership is needed, such as mediating between the U.S. and


By The Japan News
November 20, 2019