Newly-elected Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena is trying to repair his country’s damaged ties with India and in doing so balance its relations with China. He announced Feb. 4 that he will travel to India on Feb. 16 as his first visit abroad.
The previous administration, under Mahinda Rajapaksa, was focused heavily on building ties with China. The Chinese regime has been one of Sri Lanka’s key business partners, through trade deals beginning in the 1950s.
According to Reuters, China has been a key supporter of Sri Lanka’s economy since its 26-year civil war ended in 2009.
Yet, like most deals with China, the Chinese regime has been disproportionately benefiting from its support.
Sunday Times, a news agency from Colombo, Sri Lanka, reported in a September 2014 editorial that there are “conspiracy theories and genuine fears alike, that, to put it mildly, Sri Lanka is in China’s pocket.”
Its ties with the Chinese regime were cemented while China supplied the Sri Lankan government with the guns, ammunition, artillery, and fighter jets, and naval ships to fight the Tamil Tigers during the civil war.
Western countries were hesitant over supporting Sri Lanka during the war, since both sides were accused of human rights abuses.
In exchange, according to Sunday Times, Sri Lanka made agreements with the Chinese regime that it would not recognize the Taiwanese government, and would not grant a visa to the Dalai Lama.
Trade developed from there, yet it adds “The balance of trade has always been strongly in China’s favour.”
Unease over the trade imbalance came to the forefront when Sirisena was elected. Under Rajapaksa, the Chinese regime undertook several large development projects in Sri Lanka, which often gave the jobs to Chinese workers.
Sirisena said during his campaign that he would change this imbalance—and this fact may have played a strong role in his surprise victory.
When Sirisena was sworn in, he announced he would “change foreign policy to build friendly relations with all countries of the world,” and pledged to build “equal relations” with India, China, Pakistan, and Japan.
“This credit money received from abroad,” Sirisena writes in his election manifesto. “This mega ransom goes to a few individuals … As a consequence … our land and property would fall into the hands of foreigners.”
“This robbery is taking place before everybody in broad daylight,” he writes, noting they were “forced to be silent” in the “face of brute power.”
“If this trend continues for another six years our country would become a colony and we would become slaves,” he writes.
In line with his claims, soon after Sirisena took office he said he would cancel the Port City Project in Colombo. The $1.5 billion deal comes through the state-owned China Communications Construction Co. Ltd.
On Feb. 5, however, the Sri Lankan cabinet announced it would allow the Port City Project so as to, as Reuters reports, “avoid creating a misunderstanding” with the Chinese regime.
Construction on the project had also already begun in September 2014.
Sirisena isn’t turning away from the Chinese regime altogether. He announced he would travel to China in March.
Chinese Regime Unhappy
The recent developments have likely irked the Chinese regime’s leaders—particularly the fact that Sirisena will meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before meeting with Chinese leaders.
India is well on its way to becoming the leading country in the region—both diplomatically and economically, and with practices that are more open and stable.
The World Bank released estimates that India will catch up with China’s growth at seven percent. The Times of India reported on Jan. 14, World Bank chief economist and Senior vice-president Kaushik Basu told reporters, “According to our analysis, India will catch up with China’s growth in the year 2016 and 2017.”
The Chinese regime’s leaders have been visibly unhappy about India’s rise, and made plenty of fuss when President Barack Obama met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 26.
State-run Chinese media pulled out all their cards over the meeting, from telling India to “abandon its Cold War mentality” to accusing the United States of trying to encircle China.
Given their track record, it’s fair to assume they were none-too-happy about Sri Lanka, which was among their closest partners, deciding to meet with India before them.