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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.

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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.

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