Sri Lanka: A Strategic Chessboard In The Indian Ocean Region
Instead of becoming grateful to China for bringing in investments, a large majority of the Sri Lankan population have become anti-China. However, the government of India should keep it in mind that it may not be possible for Sri Lanka to antagonize China beyond a certain point given the latter’s economic power
Of all the political developments in recent times the one that New Delhi watched with the keenest interest was the latest parliamentary election in Sri Lanka, which resulted in the defeat of the Mahinda Rajapakhsa-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and installation of a national unity government, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP). High hopes were already raised when Mahinda Rajapkhsa, a pro-China man, was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential election in January last. Although the recent visit of Ranil Wickremesinghe to New Delhi has rekindled further expectations, India should move with caution in regard to its relations with Colombo as most of the Sri Lankan politicians harbour certain reservations about India.
Ranil Wickreesinghe, the Prime Minister, heads the list in this regard. Some time back he had claimed a ‘right to shoot’ Indian fishermen intruding into Sri Lankan waters even inadvertently. Then he had accused the Indian government of amnesia over supporting Mahinda Rajapakhsa in his victory over the LTTE and has demanded that any inquiry into war time genocides must also include the human rights violations by the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the 1980s.
Not to be left behind Patali Champika Ranawaka, the power and energy minister of Sri Lanka, had warned India not to see the island country through the Tamil prism only and insisted that his country must be viewed by New Delhi ‘as a whole’. The minister had further proceeded to add that India is nobody to decide what would be Sri Lanka’s relations with China.
All these are fairly unfriendly words and yet Sri Lanka has reasons to be friendly towards India only to thwart China’s overpowering influence. With the United States shifting the focus of its foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific region, a completely new strategic equation has been developing in the Indian Ocean region, through which passes the sea lanes, which ensure China’s energy supply by connecting it with the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. With active US prodding Australia, situated on the confluence of the Indian and the Pacific oceans, is now showing signs of confronting China’s maritime power. Although Mahinda Rajapakhsa failed to take note of it, another man named Maithripala Sirisena, the incumbent President, could understand the import of the changing situation.
That during Ranil Wickreme-singhe’s visit to New Delhi the two sides spoke of building up a security structure in the Indian Ocean region seems to be a pointer to the fact that despite some anti-India utterances the political elite in Colombo is thinking in terms of moving away from China’s grip and chart out a more independent foreign policy. The first hint of it was given by the president Maithripala Sirisena when, after assuming office, he described his country as “being obtained by foreigners by paying ransom to a handful of persons”.
Sirisena meant China and the big budget infrastructural projects which are being carried out with Chinese funds and technical cooperation. The one which must have been uppermost in his mind is the Colombo Port
City project, a joint venture of the China Construction Communication Company (CCCC), a state-owned enterprise of China, and the Sri Lanka Port Authority. The 1.4 billion dollar project is slated to reclaim 233 hectares of land from the sea out of which 108 hectares and the real estate property built on it will be owned by the CCCC.
Such projects have raised a lot of heat and dust in Sri Lanka. Some of them like the Mahinda Rajapakhsa International Airport (MRIA) and a cricket stadium have proved to be unnecessary. The Hambantota port has raised more controversy than it has served any commercial purpose. It is widely perceived among strategic experts that Hambantota is only another point in China’s policy of building up ‘ a string of pearls’ in encircling India in South Asia. The ‘string of pearls’ theory envisages a chain of military bases that include the Gwadar port in Pakistan, the Kyaukpyu deep sea port and the Coco island in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.
But in trying to dig up its heel deep in the Sri Lanka soil China has made itself unpopular in the island nation. Rferring to the days of the Rajapakhsa government Ravi Karunanayake, a minister in the Sirisena appointed cabinet once observed: “The Chinese companies used the opportunity of a corrupt regime to crowd out other companies coming in… There was no even playing field.”
The problem has arisen from allegations of corruption. Already Basil, one of Mahinda Rajapakhsa’s brother has been arrested and another brother has been questioned. Even Mahinda’s wife was also summoned for questioning. Immediately after coming to power Maithripala Sirisena stopped works of thirty five of Chinese funded projects. Prior to this decision he had tried to reassure China by saying that the ongoing controversy was not due to any deficiency on China’s part. But later on he retracted from it as he had found situations in his country too hot. There are reasons behind the misgivings. The loans from China which Sri Lanka availed entailed high interests. Moreover Chinese loans meant Chinese contractors, sub contractors, raw materials and even labourers. There is even the serious allegation that the China Construction and Communication Company had got criminals released from Chinese jails and then employed them as workers in various projects in Sri Lanka. This happened at a time when soft loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank were available. It can be mentioned here that prior to the advent of China on the scene, seventy five per,cent of aid to Sri Lanka came from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and Japan.
Sirisena has rightly realised that his country is now in a fix and therefore he rightly expressed, “Sri Lanka is a country with excessive state debt and a dangerous ratio with regard to loan payment and state revenue.” He had no other way but to put a stop to the Colombo Port City project as it clearly encroaches upon Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. But due to it the CCCC is losing 3,80,000 dollars a day there. As a result, China is also increasing pressures on Sri Lanka.
The Hambantota port, already a noose around Sri Lanka’s throat, has been a non-starter. It has been built with a Chinese loan of 3.06 million dollars most of which came from the China EXIM Bank. But Hambantota has failed to attract investments or shipping interests in spite of having been declared a free port. In 2012, Hambantota incurred a loss of
five million dollars. Similar is the case of the Mahinda Rajapaksha International Airport. In 2014, its loss amounted to twenty million dollars.
How would Sri Lanka cope with such a situation? It has two options. Either the country will pay off Chinese loans and interests thereon, which looks impossible in the present context or it has to transfer the overwhelming number of shares of these projects to the Chinese partners. This would mean surrendering at least a part of the country’s sovereignty to China.
This peculiar situation has led to a peculiar reaction. Instead of becoming grateful to China for bringing in investments, a large majority of the Sri Lankan population have become anti-China. However, the government of India should keep it in mind that it may not be possible for Sri Lanka to antagonize China beyond a certain point given the latter’s economic power. But in spite of this, it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that it is now advantage India in the Indian Ocean region.
By Amitava Mukherjee