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Sri Lanka: New Government Makes U-Turn To China

By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

COLOMBO (IDN) – When President Mahinda Rajapakse was toppled by a “peoples’ power” anti-corruption vote on January 8 there were messages from Western leaders and op-eds in newspapers in London, New York, Toronto and Oslo welcoming the success of another “regime change” campaign to overthrow a leader who was hostile to the West and cuddling with the Chinese.

On January 19, the New York Times even ran an insensitive cartoon alongside an op-ed by New York University’s law and sociology professor Ryan Goodman under the heading “Helping Sri Lanka’s New Democracy” showing an American flag-carrying Yankee riding on top of the Sinhalese Lion on the Sri Lankan flag.

This month (February), the Obama administration rushed in their South Asian troubleshooter, Nisha Biswal, who even met with Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders in Colombo to discuss reconciliation. The U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice also chipped in pledging to assist Sri Lanka in a “transition” to democracy.

But, the new government’s U-turn towards close ties with China would sour this mood.  Not only in Washington but also in New Delhi.

On February 5, a day after celebrating Sri Lanka’s 67th Independence (from British rule) Day, the government announced that all the Chinese projects would go ahead in Sri Lanka. The announcement was made following a two-day visit to Sri Lanka by Chinese President Xi Jingping’s special envoy Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liu Jianchao – who was accompanied by a 10-member delegation of top Chinese foreign affairs officials.

Local media reported that during a meeting with the delegation, new President Maithripala Sirisena has paid gratitude for China’s assistance in the past, especially in eradicating terrorism, and has invited the Chinese government and its companies to invest even more in Sri Lanka. He has also indicated that he has accepted an invitation by President Xi to visit China in March.

During Rajapakse’s decade long rule, China rose to become Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner, investor and closest ally helping to both defeat terrorism by selling sophisticated arms, which the West refused to give, and later helping to fend off any action by the UN Security Council on alleged “war crimes” by Sri Lankan security forces in the final push to eradication LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorism. Today, trade between the two nations stands at over $3 billion U.S. dollars both ways.

In the lead up to the January 8 election, the opposition campaign focused heavily on alleged corruption on the Rajapakse regime’s multi-billion dollar development projects with the Chinese. Both the new President Sirisena (who was Rajapakse’s Health Minister for a long time and even acting as Defence Minister in the final two weeks of the war with LTTE) and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (opposition leader during the Rajapakse regime) vowed to review and even scrap some of the Chinese funded development projects, one of which is the 1.4 billion U.S. dollar Colombo Port City project, which was described as an “environment disaster” and a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by Wickremasinghe during the election campaign.

The ‘Colombo Port City’ project, designed with malls, hotels and marinas, built on reclaimed land by the Chinese, seeks to rival Singapore and Dubai. It was a major showpiece of the Rajapaksa regime’s slogan of making Sri Lanka the “Wonder of Asia”.

Cabinet Spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne (a former Rajapakse government’s Cabinet member) addressing a press conference on February 5 said that the Chinese project has been given the green light by the government. He said that the government is satisfied with the Environment Impact Assessment done by a local university and a second one will be done after the land reclamation was completed. He however said that the government would look into the land ownership issue, because under the agreement signed with China during President Xi’s visit to Sri Lanka in November 2014, China would own the reclaimed land. “Ownership of land by foreigners is illegal in Sri Lanka,” he said.

Possible splits

A day later, making a special statement in parliament, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe said the biggest foreign investment project in Sri Lanka’s history, has not been given the go-ahead yet, but was still under review.

This episode has brought into the open possible splits within the governing coalition, between the pro-Western sentiments of Wickremasinghe and his foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera as well as their United National Party (UNP) and President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was led until the elections by Rajapakse.

Following the election victory of Sirisena – who challenged Rajapakse as the “common opposition candidate” without any party – after a one-to-one meeting between the two leaders, Rajapakse agreed to step down and become party patron while Sirisena moved in as the party President.  This has created an unprecedented political scenario in Asia’s oldest democracy, where the President’s own party (SLFP) is the official opposition in parliament, yet, holding the largest number of seats by any single party. Former president’s brother, Chamal Rajapakse continues as the speaker of the House.

After his victory, President Sirisena appointed Wickremasinghe as the Prime Minister keeping to a pre-election pledge and in turn the PM selected a Cabinet that is dominated by UNP parliamentarians, even though they are not the majority party in the legislature. Many legal experts have pointed out that this was an unconstitutional act, which survived, because the SLFP did not challenge the appointment in the House.

With parliamentary elections expected to be called for June 2015, the power struggle between SLFP and the UNP as well as other minor parties, the Buddhist nationalist JHU (in government) and Marxist JVP (in opposition), is expected to intensify creating possible tensions between the President and Prime Minister.

The urbane Anglicized Wickremasinghe is known as a staunch American (and European) ally who is suspected by Sinhalese nationalists to be working with the West to undermine Sri Lanka’s national interests, especially the unitary state and its close relationship with China.

On the other hand, Sirisena, a son of a rice farmer raised in Pollonnaruwa – the rice growing Buddhist heartland – has even better Buddhist credentials than Rajapakse. The fact that, Sirisena was the “common opposition candidate” and not Wickremasinghe, is because the latter could not master a substantial Sinhalese Buddhist vote (which Sirisena did) to win the presidency.

Immediately after the election results, when statements from western leaders called for war crimes investigations and charges against the former president and his brother former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, President Sirisena and his SLFP and JHU allies were quick to assure the Rajapakse brothers that it will not be allowed under their government. Both are held in high esteem within the country’s Sinhalese majority and even among many Tamils who live inside the country, for having got rid of the terrorist menace – despite western obstacles on the way – and brought peace to the country.

Wanted peace and economic development

What people need in Sri Lanka most is peace and economic development, and in his Independence Day message on February 4, President Sirisena hinted as such when he said that eradicating poverty is essential to reconciliation in the country. This is a concept that the Chinese understand well.

It was well illustrated during the recent visit to the island by Obama’s special envoy Nisha Biswal (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs) and the Chinese president’s special envoy Liu Jianchao. While the Americans focused on reconciliation and improving democratic institutions, even flirting openly with Tamil political leaders and civil society groups; the Chinese envoy concentrated in meeting government and business leaders and talked exclusively about economic relations and development assistance.

Sri Lanka is an important linchpin in China’s Maritime Silk Route project with the Chinese built Hambantota harbor and the Colombo harbor that is adjacent to the upcoming Colombo Port City, expected to play a pivotal role in trade flows between Asia and the rest of the world. In 10 to 15 years time, once infrastructure is completed on both the land and sea routes of the new Silk Routes envisaged by the Chinese, Sri Lankan ports could become the transshipment hub for exchange of goods between Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe. This will bring enormous economic benefits to Sri Lanka because it has the educated workforce to establish the service industries needed for such trade flows.

The western media and some of the Indian media have been painting the Silk Route projects as Chinese attempts to dominate Asia. But, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in New Delhi, India has begun to look at it from a more positive frame of mind. When Modi visits China in March, a number of deals are expected to be signed that would link India to the Silk Route projects.

If trans-shipment goods are going to go through Indian rail links to Sri Lanka, both neighbours would benefit. Modi would obviously look at it from that vision as long as Sri Lanka does not allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock in its harbors without prior notification to India.

Japin Jacob, Assistant Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi points out that Sri Lankans have started to learn Mandarin in significant numbers and the Chinese have started sending students to study Sinhalese and Sri Lankan/Buddhist culture to local universities, reflecting the two countries common ambitions.

During President Xi’s visit to Sri Lanka in September, Sri Lanka accepted China’s invitation to become a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, and the Beijing Foreign Studies University signed MoUs with the Colombo University to establish a China-Sri Lanka Study Centre as well as a Confucius Institute with plans also for a joint degree program and scholarships.

Rather than being obnoxious and trying to lecture to Sri Lankans on how to run its democracy and community relations, the West, and the Americans in particular, would be well advised to take a leaf out of China’s approach to relations with economically weaker countries.

”Even though Rajapaksa is gone, Sri Lanka will continue to harbor ambitions of becoming a maritime, commercial, knowledge and energy hub linking Europe and Africa with Asia,” notes Jacob. “This ambition is well-supported by the current form and scope of the Chinese Maritime Silk Road strategy (and) the Colombo Port City project, despite criticism in the course of the election campaign (it) is still a rather attractive idea”.

*Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 9, 2015]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

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2015 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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