Sri Lanka has been in the limelight since the end of its hard won military victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E) in 2009; but not for its (much anticipated – yet not realized) post–war economic development or the unearthing of alleged financial misconducts by the Rajapaksa government. It has instead been two other central themes which dominated the media’s attention – Sri Lanka’s involvement in the intricate web of China’s One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative and the resolutions concerning Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council.

The first part of this two part series examines the foreign policy of Sri Lanka with reference to the islands relationship with China. Sri Lanka is one of the most idyllically located countries in the global maritime trade routes. Economist Anushka Wijesinha notes that: The busy East-West shipping route passes just six to ten nautical miles south of the island. More than 60,000 ships ply this route annually, carrying two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of all container shipments. Sri Lanka is also at the doorstep of a dynamic market – India. Already, 75 percent of Colombo port volumes are transshipments from India; the Indian middle class market alone is set to expand to 10 times the island’s entire population.

Another scholar underscores: “with Asia’s economic rise Sri Lanka’s location has become even more alluring. Not only are three Asian powers – China, Japan and India – playing dominant roles in the global economy at the same time for the first time, there are also increasingly attractive markets and trade opportunities in Asia.” This section begins by analyzing the OBOR impact on Sri Lanka’s relations with China.

China’s OBOR is one of many Chinese strategies aimed at fulfilling its national interest. Such interests include but are not limited to; developing its economic security, mitigating security threats (both traditional and non-traditional) as well as garnering strategic space in Asia and Africa. China’s OBOR activities and investments have raised alarm bells in India (Especially with regard to the China –Pakistan Economic Corridor) and have fueled a growing strategic distrust between the two countries with occasional verbal bouts. The OBOR has two major components: the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (the ‘Belt’), and the sea-based 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the‘Road’).

China’s interest with regard to Sri Lanka rests with the ‘Maritime Silk ‘Road’. During the Rajapaksa presidency Sri Lanka’s ties with China was classified as a “strategic cooperative partnership”. This deep relationship was driven mainly by the war-time weapons and ammunition supplies as well as post war investment activities by China. Unsurprisingly Rajapaksa turned to China amidst the vociferous condemnations that he faced at home and from the west. Consequently Rajapaksa’s foreign policy alignment with China; was one that encapsulated a ‘win-win’ situation to both states – incidentally in a rather perverse form; benefiting the president and his family rather than the people of the country.

As I have mentioned in earlier commentary, at the onset of President Sirisena’s term, the present coalition government did not undertake a massive “U Turn” in foreign policy (as some had predicted and incidentally still continue to do). The relations with the west would certainly improve (as they eventually did); but China would continue to be the indispensable state which Sri Lanka must engage and deal with. Ideally following the government transition of 2015, Sri Lanka could have adjusted its ties with India and China in such a manner as to hedge the islands interests with both. The Sirisena government came to power denouncing Rajapaksa’s alignment with China as non-beneficial to the people. While President Sirisena promised to strengthen the fraying ties with India and the west, no such pledge was undertaken regarding the continuation of ties with China.

The Sirisena regime failed to grasp the opportunity of continuing the states hitherto close ties with China until the financial burden (of the loans taken by Rajapaksa) began to kick in. And kick-in it did with significant vehemence. When the war ended in 2009 the total public debt was estimated to be Rs. 4,361 billion but since then (till 2015) the debt of the country rose to Rs. 8503.2 billion. Much of these loans had been obtained from China and therefore had to be immediately negotiated. As I had outlined in an earlier piece Sirisena had little leeway to detract from China. These financial considerations prompted the government to realign its earlier posture towards Beijing so as to obtain concessions on the loans and interest payments that the country owed to China.

The China-Sri Lanka Conundrum

In an article to South Asian Voices I noted that “Trump’s gradual rescission from the international world order, though not suggesting a bifurcation entirely, indicates that America will be relatively less politically involved in South Asia.” This has a significant impact on the behavior of China in South Asia. Not only is China less restrained from taking Washington’s calculations into account but it also might exacerbate the present tense atmosphere with India. Such factors have allowed China’s footprint in the island to multiply over recent years. The debt Sri Lanka owes to China has correspondingly bourgeoned. The Port City Project and the Mattala Airport project initiated under former President Rajapaksa’s tenure were the most notable examples of Chinese OBOR investments to the island. Such a deep relationship could not and would not alter simply by a change of government.

However ties with China had to be restructured to benefit the county. Former President Rajapaksa’s ties left the country in a financial pothole which has significantly impacted the country’s development process. Thus the Sirisena regime comprehended that relations with China must not be inclined to that degree. Burdened by the financial situation of the previous regime yet buoyed by the desire to be friendly with all nations; Sirisena chose to strike equilibrium between the competing interests of the west and the east. Having amicable relations with all nations became the locus of the present regime. Nevertheless striking a balance between India and China inexorably became complicated.

A report titled Silk Road Economic Belt by Richard Ghiasy and Jiayi sums the backdrop of South Asia lucidly: “The South Asian region as a whole….is beset with strategic distrust, zero-sum foreign policies and geopolitical agendas of regional and extra-regional actors.” Emotions ranging from curiosity, skepticism, Paranoia and anger at China’s OBOR is common in Indian academic literature. Even the previous defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa indicated that India was antagonistic to the Rajapaksa regime primarily due to the then government’s links with China. Thus strategic distrust between India and China appears to have also played a role in shaping Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under Rajapakse. Conspicuously Sri Lanka’s relations were not so good with India under Rajapaksa’s pro –China foreign policy. Signaling change from the Rajapaksa regime, President Sirisena chose to reinvigorate ties with New Delhi.

Just this week the hydrographic survey ship, INS ‘Darshak’ of the Indian Navy arrived in the Port of Colombo on a training visit. Underlining this relationship is the government’s pledge to deal with reconciliation and truth seeking to the international community which India strongly supports. Thus ties between the two governments have considerably increased but most importantly not at the cost of losing China’s friendship. Deciding to alter the governments previous position on China; President Sirisena gradually developed ties with the Chinese government. Anti-China rhetoric was no longer heard as the election campaigning days. Although this new relationship (between Sri Lanka and China) is a far cry from that which Rajapaksa fostered; this new balanced approach has enabled Sri Lanka to obtain the best of both India and China. General Chang Wanquan’s (Minister of Defense and State Councilor of the People’s Republic of China) official visit to Sri Lanka this week exhibits this developing relationship with China manifestly.

Thus a tentative equilibrium – a sort of middle way – has been the cornerstone of the islands foreign policy at present. As noted above, China-India relations do not appear to strengthen in the coming future. “Chill has set in Sino-India ties following China’s opposition to India’s membership at the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as Beijing blocking India’s move at the UN to designate Masood Azhar as a global terrorist” and therefore careful balancing is all the more important for Sri Lanka. Such a policy has and will continue to allow the island to balance the security concerns of India while still courting Chinese financial assistance.

To be continued…….

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Shakthi De Silva is specializing in International Relations with minors in Economics and Sociology at University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has been engaged with Bandaranaike Center for International Studies. The U.S Foreign Policy, Sri-Lankan Foreign Policy and Geopolitics are the core areas of his interest.