China’s Ambassador Cheng Xueyuan meeting Mahinda Rajapaksa at his Wijerama Mawatha residence in Colombo a day after the latter was sworn in as Prime Minister by President Sirisena.
Sri Lanka’s democratic process, which suffered a devastating blow last Friday, is likely to be on the reverse gear in the coming months and years. The pre-2015 regime, seems to be moving hell and earth to re-establish itself in power, while the big powers have their eyes fixed on the developments in Sri Lanka.
The constitutional crisis that erupted on Friday night following what is widely seen as President Maithripala Sirisena’s controversial and morally unacceptable move to remove the sitting prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has its geopolitical implications, too.
Although at the centre of this geopolitical aspect of the Sri Lankan crisis are China, India and the United States, the spotlight is largely on China, the only country which permitted its ambassador to meet Mahinda Rajapaksa upon his swearing-in as the prime minister on Friday by President Sirisena. Addressing a protest rally on Tuesday in Colombo, a United National Party lawmaker alleged that Chinese money was propping up the anti-democratic forces and helping them to return to power through the backdoor. A few months ago, a New York Times article claimed that China had lavishly funded Rajapaksa’s 2015 botched re-election campaign for the presidency.
China has much at stake in Sri Lanka, with Hambantota being the jewel in the crown of the soon-to-become world empire, which is not so naïve as to ignore the saying that whoever controls Hambantota, will control the Indian Ocean all the way to Antarctica. Given the propensity for a military confrontation between the United States and China against the backdrop of US apprehensions about China’s military rise, the trade war between them, the growing tensions in the South China Sea and the security concerns of India, Japan and even Australia, the importance of the Hambantota port has shot up manifold.
When the government changed in January 2015, China had already built part of the Hambantota port for Sri Lanka and an airport in Mattala. The two projects were commercial flops and had negative returns, adding further strain on the country’s growing debt burden. Meanwhile, Chinese companies had penetrated Sri Lanka’s power, road and building construction sectors and started landfilling for the US$ 1.4 billion Colombo port city where the Chinese developers had been given a 20-hectare plot of Sri Lanka’s sovereign territory as freehold, with nary a protest from the so-called nationalists or blind patriots.
The port city was a major security concern for India, as the new city developed by the Chinese was adjoining the Colombo harbour, through which 70 percent of India’s shipping cargo passed. Heightening the security concerns of India, the US and Japan were the ‘secret’ visits of Chinese military submarines to the Colombo port. One such visit took place when Japan’s Prime Minister was on an official visit to Sri Lanka.
The Rajapaksa regime put all its eggs in China’s basket and earned the displeasure of India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, whose cooperation was sine qua non in the quest for a solution to the national question. Yet, India stomached the Rajapaksa government’s China-leaning because it felt an all-out hostility would be a worse option. This appears to be India’s policy on the current constitutional imbroglio in Sri Lanka.
The post-2015 Wickremesinghe-Sirisena government took some corrective measures and renegotiated the port city deal. The freehold offer was annulled, but the government, in a desperate bid to tide over the deepening debt crisis, handed over 85 percent of the Hambantota port to China under a joint-venture deal.
Yet, Wickremesinghe performed his balancing act well vis-à-vis India, China, the US and Japan while the Indian Ocean region was fast becoming a flashpoint for a big power conflict, what with the US and India naming the Indian Ocean region Indo-Pacific and entering into pacts that have made them military allies.
India, Japan, the US and Australia have, meanwhile, intensified military cooperation and are reviving a quadrilateral defence arrangement to counter China’s military rise and its assertive diplomacy, especially in the South China and Indian Ocean regions. It is against this backdrop that Sri Lanka has plunged into a political crisis with serious international implications. It may not be an unintelligent guess if one were to assume that China precipitated the ‘constitutional coup’ in a bid to block Wickremesinghe’s proposal to hand over to India the development of the Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal. China was not so pleased when the Wickremesinghe government ditched Chinese companies and handed over to India a mega project to build tens of thousands of houses for the war-affected people in the North.
"The Rajapaksa regime put all its eggs in China’s basket and earned the displeasure of India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, whose cooperation was sine qua non in the quest for a solution to the national question. Yet, India stomached the Rajapaksa government’s China-leaning because it felt an all-out hostility would be a worse option"
The question that arises is whether the projects earmarked for India, including the ones in the north, the Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal project and the project strategic oil tanks in Trincomalee, will now go to China, if the Rajapaksas ensconced themselves in power.
With the bigger focus being the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, China may, in a quid-pro-quo deal, waive part of the debt or offer concessions on debt repayment, in the event, Rajapaksa emerges victorious in a floor test in parliament in the days to come. This will enable the Sirisena-Rajapaksa government to take measures to ease the living cost burden of the people and further entrench themselves in the seat of power, notwithstanding the fact that a substantial segment of Sri Lankan society, especially the educated and politically mature people, have condemned their action as undemocratic, unconstitutional and immoral.
Since there is no free lunch in politics, China’s largesse will come with a must-do list. The Hambantota port may be used by China’s military vessels on one pretext or another. China may place a request and obtain a tiny island near the Hambantota port on lease. The request had been turned down by the Wickremesinghe government.
Hambantota is a key pivot in China’s Belt-and-Road initiative, which can certainly contribute to world peace through enhanced and inter-dependent trade. But at the same time the possibility of BRI ports becoming military facilities of China cannot be ruled out, with China’s yuan diplomacy pushing many developing countries into a debt trap and compelling them to do China’s bidding.
In this big power game, the leverage India and the US have is limited. They had lost the Maldives and just regained it with the defeat of pro-China President Abdulla Yameen. Even if India and the West add pressure on Sri Lanka through the United Nations Human Rights Council process, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa government can overcome the crisis with China’s backing. They may warn that Sri Lanka may lose the GSP Plus concessions on account of the country’s poor human rights record and weak democratic credentials. The Rajapaksas have faced this before. But the West and India will not sit idle if, under a Rajapaksa dispensation, the country becomes one with China. Sri Lanka may become a key theatre in the coming world war.
With undemocratic forces gaining upper hand in Sri Lanka’s political crisis, the bigger danger is the country adopting a Chinese-style virtual one-party political system.