The island state Sri Lanka elected its 7th President last Saturday. The clear and decisive winner is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary in his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. His opponent Sajith Premdasa, son of another former President Ranil Premadasa, lost by a margin of over 10 per cent.
The issues in the Sri Lankan elections are not of great concern to India, as these are their internal matters. The determining factors, however, were stability and security of the country, which were the hallmarks of Gotabaya’s campaign. Compared to the incumbent government’s inefficient rule, when the outgoing President Sirisena created a constitutional crisis by sacking the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and brought Mahinda in his place, which the Sri Lankan Supreme Court overruled, and reinstated Wickremesinghe.
Later, in October 2018, the country was shaken by a barbarous Jihadi attack engineered by ISIS on Christians worshipping in Easter. The government was accused of failing to prevent the attack despite having early warnings. Third, the government failed to carry out the constitutional reforms promised during the 2014 elections. On the contrary, Gotabaya promised national security and protection against extremism, which soothed the security anxieties of the majority Sinhalese community who voted overwhelmingly for him.
Gotabaya is also credited with finishing off the protracted civil war in the country when Tamils were fighting violently for a separate State. He is accused of war crimes, as at the last stage of the war, nearly 40,000 Tamils and their leaders were killed. He was also charged with the White Flag case when Field Marshall Sarath Foneska alleged him of murdering the Tamil fighters ready to surrender. It is another matter that he has not been found guilty of any of these crimes by Commissions set up to investigate.
What should concern New Delhi more is the perception that Rajapaksa brothers including the current President Gotabaya are pro-China! Such a perception is based on at least three developments between Sri Lanka and China. Towards the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, 2006-2009, New Delhi refused to be involved, pushing it to the Chinese embrace. Sri Lanka was provided by China with F-7 fighters, anti-aircraft guns, air-surveillance radars and armed personnel carrier etc. These weapons and war equipments contributed to Sri Lankan army’s victory over the dangerous, suicidal Tamil insurgents who fought for decades.
The second factor is Chinese investment in Sri Lanka. Beijing and Colombo signed a strategic partnership in 2013, during Mahinda’s regime. Up to 2015, China had invested $10 billion in Sri Lanka. By 2016, China-Sri Lanka trade touched $4.43 billion surpassing that of India-Sri Lanka at $4.37. The notable Chinese investment is in Hambantota port, not far from India’s shores. To maintain the debt-servicing, Sri Lanka has handed over the port to China along with 15000 acres of land for 99 years. Although Sri Lanka’s claim that the port has been given only for commercial purposes, one cannot ignore the strategic and intelligence possibilities due to the port’s location.
Furthermore, on connectivity, China is developing an airport at Matale in the constituency of Rajapaksa. It is building a network of highways across the country, namely the Katunayake Expressway and Southern Expressway. And the Chinese prompted Colombo International Financial Centre — a self-contained Chinese smart city project is soon opening for business. This will expand Chinese commercial involvement in Sri Lankan capital.
Admittedly, Sri Lanka is aware of the risks in Chinese investment. Experts have figured out that projects financed by Chinese are overpriced. In November 2016, Sri Lankan government complained to the Chinese of their high interest rates. Japan funded ADB loans come at 0.1% interest rate whereas Chinese loan is at 6% interest although Chinese claim that it is only 2%. What is more, Chinese investment is totally in the form of loan, whereas India’s is 70% loan and 30% grant. It is no secret that China seeks to bind smaller countries in debt-traps. Sri Lanka is aware that it is heavily indebted to China.
Obviously, Beijing is conducting its expansionist foreign policy on the back of its new economic might, and cash-strapped economies in the Asian region are enticed to tap the surplus money in China. Nepal and Sri Lanka in the India-Pacific region are falling fast for Chinese support. This puts extra burden on India which has geographical proximity and closer historical-cultural ties with these countries.
How should India respond to this new development, the election of so-called pro-Chinese President elect in Sri Lanka, and re-calibrate its policies towards Sri Lanka in order to prevent it sliding further towards China? The first thing New Delhi needs to do is to remind itself of two maxims in international politics. One, that there are no permanent friends or enemies, and second, human instinct is to fall for time-tested friends rather than fair-weather ones.
India has, in cultural economic and security terms, interdependent relations with Sri Lanka. India has the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, in addition to the historical relations, over 2500 years old. Basi Rajapaksa, the other brother of Mahinda, who was the campaign-in-charge of Gotabaya, had said in an interview to the Indian media, that “Sri Lanka may have economic relations with China, but in political and security matters it will turn to India”. But it may take a lot more for New Delhi to make Colombo pursue an India-first policy, both in letter and spirit. New Delhi must draw the ‘Laxman Rekha’ (red line), an appropriate metaphor for Sri Lanka and enforce it even through coercion.
New Delhi and Colombo are members in more than one regional institution – Bay of Bengal initiative of which Colombo is the current chair, BIMSTEC, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and of course the defunct SAARC. New Delhi tends to engage Sri Lanka bilaterally more for short-termism, but it should deal with Sri Lanka in multilateral forums as well although they are slow and complex. This would help Colombo shed off the small-power complex, which is often a psychological obstacle in India’s relation with all its neighbours.
The existing ties between India and Sri Lanka notwithstanding, New Delhi will have to counter Chinese incursions into New Delhi’s ‘sphere of influence’, its neighbourhood. New Delhi has taken the first correct step. The foreign minister was the first to call on the new President, who is visiting India next week, the 29th November. New Delhi says, it had foreseen the election outcome and was prepared for it. Mahinda Rajapaksa is said to have made up with New Delhi after he had assumed and alleged that New Delhi was partly responsible for inciting the defection of Sirisena from his (Mahinda’s) tent. So, in fitness of things, New Delhi should smooth-sail with Gotabhaya.
Despite the optimism, it will not be a cake-walk for New Delhi to insulate its neighbours like Sri Lanka from Chinese economic seduction. This is where New Delhi needs to turn to its allies like Japan, USA and others who have a stake in Sri Lanka. The US has considerable interest as it considers Sri Lanka to be “a significant strategic opportunity in the Indian ocean”. Last year it extended $39 million to Sri Lanka countering Chinese investment. This is a part of $300m package Washington had set aside for South and South-east Asia to ensure a “free, open, and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. US military presence in Diego Garcia is also of great help.
Likewise, India and Japan were building a deep sea container terminal in Colombo. Japan had extended $180m grant to Sri Lanka for maritime activities. India was roping in Oman to build a $3.85 billion refinery around Hambantota.
New Delhi needs to co-ordinate more with its allies to deepen its influence in the region. On its own, India could not compete with Chinese trade and investment. Hence, strategic alliance building is necessary for hedging South Asia against Chinese incursion into the area. At the same time, it needs to win over the Sri Lankan state, not just Tamils for better relations. It has such soft spots in its foreign policy towards Sri Lanka and Nepal for Tamils in the former, and the Madhesis in the latter. New Deli has erred in overstating the soft spots in the past; it should leave them as the internal matters of those countries and re-focus on bilateralism. This is not too radical a shift to make. Is it?