President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first meeting with a foreign government leader was with Indian Foreign Affairs Minster Dr. Jaishankar who made an exclusive trip to Colombo to deliver PM Modi’s congratulatory message in person and extend an invitation to visit New Delhi.
India no doubt is the most important neighbour, not only in terms of historical and cultural bindings we have, but also because it is the second most powerful nation in emerging New Asia. Although not as strong as with India, ancient China too has well documented relationships since the 5th Century with Fa-hien (also written as Fa Xien and Fa-hsien).
But its importance today as world’s neo-imperialist power is far more different with grants, loans and aid deciding the nature of its diplomacy with most underdeveloped and “developing” countries including Sri Lanka.
"Hambantota Port quoted by foreign experts in explaining “Chinese debt-trap”
Interestingly, Gotabaya retained his casual Western attire all through the Indian tour, in total contrast to the Rajapaksa image with their iconic “Kurahan Satakaya” (maroon shawl) that even Namal never forgets to wear for official and important political events. It is in that context the first official foreign trip of President Rajapaksa to India is being discussed in media and social circles.
Where will China be in the new Rajapaksa regime with a new Gotabaya image often considered different to his brother Mahinda who had very strong affiliations with Beijing? That period, especially during the second term of President Mahinda Rajapaksa that began in 2010, China had almost a free hand with their investments here while the US and its Western allies were busy trying to censure Sri Lanka on war crimes, crimes against humanity and accountability issues. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s heavy dependence on China was Gotabaya’s strength then as Secretary to the MoD in opposing war crimes charges by the West.
China was here in a big way then with massive funding for projects that included the famous Hambantota Port, the Mattala International Airport and controversial Colombo Port City project. This artificially-created 269-hectare isle next to the Colombo Port -- now termed “Colombo International Financial City” -- had an initial Chinese investment of USD 1.4 billion. Last year, China Harbour Company was to invest another USD 1 billion for the construction of 03 massive 60-storey buildings. They claim these will help attract FDIs to the tune of USD 13 billion to further expand infrastructure, while creating 83,000 job opportunities. Hambantota Port, which Indians did not see any feasibility for investing, was nevertheless funded by China to the tune of over USD 300 million.
Mattala designed and constructed to handle 01 million passengers annually swallowed some USD 190 million loaned by China. In late 2015, the Chinese Government granted close to USD 80 million to construct a new 22-storey OPD for the Colombo National Hospital with 4,500 beds and another in Polonnaruwa was funded for kidney patients. With a free flow of Chinese funds, the Ceylon Institute of Builders (CIoB) claimed in 2018 the powerful China International Contractors’ Association (CICA) had a stake of over 40 per cent of construction in the country.
"SL trapped between export markets and foreign debts"
The list of solicited and unsolicited projects funded by Chinese loans and grants is far longer and more numerous. They have been quoted often by many economists and financial specialists over the past years. Of them, especially the Hambantota Port is quoted by foreign experts in explaining the “Chinese debt-trap” phenomenon. Hambantota Port was renegotiated by the Wickremesinghe Government to set off USD 01 billion of the loan by handing over the port and a periphery of 15,000 acres of land on a 99-year lease, which is as good as handing it over outright. The background to it was reported in NY Times on June 25, 2018 by Maria Abi-Habib who noted, “During the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, large payments from the Chinese port construction fund flowed directly to campaign aides and activities for Mr. Rajapaksa who had agreed to Chinese terms at every turn and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia. The payments were confirmed by documents and cash checks detailed in a government investigation seen by The New York Times.”
It was often said these Chinese projects in Sri Lanka brought US counter operations initially through Colombo civil society organisations and groups that ran USAID and other donor funded projects. They were engaged in campaigning against the Rajapaksa regime on war crimes and human rights violations that were also the issues taken up continuously by the US and other Western countries at UNHRC sessions. They were always in Geneva during these sessions, supporting resolutions backed by the US and its allies and in side events campaigning against the Rajapaksa regime. They were even accused of being US proxies in Colombo during the presidential election in 2015 campaigning against Rajapaksa along with the UNP-led alliance for Sirisena’s “common candidacy.”
Immediately after the 2015 January election, when Wickremesinghe was sworn in as PM with just 20 per cent of MPs in Parliament, Colombo had top US officials including Secretary of State John Kerry frequently visiting to meet with the new President and PM.
"The US with EU cannot be ignored; China with massive financing cannot be distanced"
US interference and involvement in destabilising and changing governments in countries where they have undisclosed interests in is well-known and in record. Prof. Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University has analysed data from 117 elections in countries across the globe including Sri Lanka from 1946-2000 that reveals the US role in those elections. While his published data collection ends in 2000, Prof. Levin’s research is still ongoing, as reported on April 30, 2017 in Sri Lanka Express (https://srilankaexpress.org/us-intervention-to-help-unp). Ms. Hasina Leelaratne who had interviewed Prof. Levin writes he thought it was too early to tell how frequently the Obama administration tampered in foreign elections.
Leelaratne writes Prof. Levin knew “for sure that the Obama administration intervened in at least three elections: in Lebanon in 2009, Afghanistan in 2009 and Kenya in 2013.” About the 2015 January Sri Lankan presidential election, Prof. Levin is reported as saying, “… it is simply too early to tell in the case of the 2015 Sri Lankan election. Hopefully, the new information will come out soon that will clarify things in this regard.”
That much about us getting caught between two big powers; the US and China. The new issue is, how will the Wickremesinghe allegiance to the US be maintained by the new Rajapaksa Government, or will they? Initial indicators though not very firm and too early to arrive at conclusions, yet have a slight implied slant towards the US. With President Rajapaksa making his first official foreign visit to India and then giving his first interview after swearing in as President to Indian journalist Nethin S. Gokhle cannot be accidents or casual decisions. His answer to Gokhle on the Hambantota Port lease that it was a “mistake” and he would renegotiate it, though it was given an anti-UNP sounding in Colombo, in Beijing it was not.
The Chinese State-owned company that holds 85 per cent of stakes in Hambantota Port, China Merchants Port Holdings Company was quoted in media as saying, renegotiations would only be on mutual consent. Which means the Beijing Government has to consent to renegotiate which may not be coming. China seems cautious on how the new President would play around with Chinese projects.
"India may be the conduit to the US for Gota while Mahinda as PM may keep the China factor live"
Surprisingly, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa with executive powers after 19A seems to distance himself from making public statements on government policy. Gotabaya as President who does not hold any ministerial portfolio to decide government policy seems to be deciding the direction of the new government with no hesitancy. He is on a new mission creating a new image for himself, quite different to that of his Rajapaksa family politics. Perhaps it is a fusion between Wickremesinghe who is pro-US and that of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist politics. An extension of the failed Sinhala Buddhist neo-liberal project of Wickremesinghe, this time with a firm Sinhala Buddhist hand that Wickremesinghe lacked.
His close family links with the US cannot go without any considerations in policy-making in a free market economy that in Sri Lanka is very much buoyed with Chinese money tagged with Indian resentment. That too in a heavily debt-ridden economy. It is within this unusual combination of factors that President Rajapaksa told Indian journalist Gokhle, “We don’t want to get caught in big power conflicts.”
Yet we are. In this free market economy with heavy dependence on FDIs, where major exports are to the US and the EU, we are trapped between export markets and foreign debts. The US with EU cannot be ignored and China with massive financing cannot be distanced. A clear tight rope walking for Gotabaya that would need to be tested in practical politics. Perhaps after parliamentary elections, the two Rajapaksas as brothers will have to compromise each other’s roles as President and Prime Minister.
With Mahinda with his popular “Kurahan Satakaya” identity retained and Gotabaya with his new image sans the Rajapaksa “Satakaya.” The Sinhala Buddhist “strong man” the 6.9 million voted for but treading on loose sand. India may perhaps be the conduit to the US for Gotabaya while Mahinda as PM may keep the China factor live. A “wait and see” for all -- for the US, for China and India, and for the Sinhala Buddhists who voted.