By Bertil Lintner, New Delhi
Policymakers in New Delhi were likely pleased when Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose India for his first overseas trip just days after his election to power.
After talks with host Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 28, Rajapaksa said, “I want to bring the relationship between India and Sri Lanka to a very high level. We have a longstanding relationship historically as well as politically.”
It remains to be seen, however, how much that diplomatic assurance will prove to be empty rhetoric given his ruling clan’s known close ties to China, India’s rising rival for influence and power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s elder brother who was recently appointed as prime minister and served as president from 2005 to 2015, shifted Sri Lanka’s diplomacy towards China during his decade tenure.
In January 2015, Mahinda was succeeded as president by Maithripala Sirisena, who moved to improve relations with India and the West at the same time halting over costs many Chinese investment projects, among them plans for a massive new port in the capital Colombo.
The return of the Rajapaksas, many observers now speculate, could herald renewed and even closer ties with China at a time the economy is stalling and in dire need of new foreign investment.
Sri Lanka is already firmly on board China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a US$1 trillion global infrastructure-building initiative. That’s included China’s controversial development of the Hambantota deep-sea port, over which a partially state-owned company now holds a 99-year lease.
That lease was secured in 2018 as part of a US$584 million debt-for-equity swap after Sri Lanka defaulted on a Chinese loan secured to build the $1.12 billion facility, sparking criticism that Sri Lanka was a victim of Beijing’s reputed “debt trap” diplomacy.
Sri Lankan authorities have since consistently rejected claims made by, among others, US Vice President Mike Pence that the Hambantota port could eventually serve as a forward base for China’s growing blue-water navy.
The facility is strategically located along key Chinese shipping routes between the Malacca Straits, China’s new naval base at Djibouti and the Suez Canal. As much as 80% of China’s fuel imports travel the route.
The Sri Lankans, meanwhile, have relocated their navy’s southern command to Hambantota, so the complex is already not a purely civilian port facility.
While addressing a gathering in London in October last year, then-prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was keen to emphasize that there are no foreign military bases in Sri Lanka.
At the same time, he added: “In this atmosphere of suspicion, many countries fear that the South China Sea issues can spill over leading to future militarization and military competition in the Indian Ocean.”
Others would argue that such militarization is already happening, as China penetrates the Indian Ocean region for the first time since the explorer Zheng He sailed across the maritime area in the 15th century.
Indian security sources say Chinese submarines and naval vessels now regularly ply Indian Ocean waters, ostensibly on “anti-piracy missions” to protect its trade routes.
In early December, Indian media reported that Indian warships had driven away what was described as “a Chinese oceanic research vessel”, which had been spotted close to India’s southernly Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Indian navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh was quoted in the media as saying that there are now seven to eight Chinese warships present in the Indian Ocean region at any given time.
He also stated that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is gearing up for a joint exercise with Pakistani counterparts in the north Arabian Sea “to reaffirm their all-weather strategic partnership.”
India’s response to China’s rising Indian Ocean challenge has been to strengthen its own naval defenses. Currently, India has 140 warships including an aircraft carrier, ten destroyers, 14 frigates, 11 corvettes and 15 diesel-electric and two nuclear submarines, making the Indian Navy far superior to any Chinese presence in the region.
Even so, India has under construction another 50 warships, including submarines and another aircraft carrier.
Now prime minister, then president Rajapaksa previously saw an alliance with China as important to diversify Sri Lanka’s traditional dependence on India. Ties with China under his previous government went far beyond the construction of commercial ports.
Indeed, when the United States ended its military aid to Sri Lanka in 2007 over gross human rights violations committed by his regime, China stepped in to provide tens of millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment.
Despite displeasure openly expressed by New Delhi, Chinese nuclear submarines also paid several visits to Sri Lanka in 2014.
Now, Chinese military supplies to Sri Lanka include artillery, tanks, aircraft, naval vessels, various kinds of missiles, radars and communications equipment. China has also trained Sri Lankan military personnel.
At the same time, Sri Lanka has become a popular destination for Chinese tourists, providing the government with much needed foreign currency earnings. Over 260,000 Chinese tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2018, and “a higher number” of visitors is expected this year, according to Chinese state media.
It is still too early to predict exactly how the ruling Rajapaksa brothers will rebalance Sri Lanka’s diplomacy.
Relations with the West are likely to be strained, as they were during Mahinda’s presidency. He remains closely associated with the 2009 military onslaught against rebel Tamil Tigers that ended 26 years of civil war.
The bloody offensive killed as many as 40,000 civilians, including children in summary executions, a scorched earth campaign that United Nations official Gordon Weiss described as a “bloodbath” at the time.
Gotabaya, a former military officer, served as secretary to the ministry of defense during the operations and as such played an important commanding role in crushing the rebels.
In 2015, Sirisena’s government began investigating claims that Gotabaya ran a “death squad” and ordered hits on prominent critics while serving as defense secretary.
Among them was Lasantha Wickrematunge, a newspaper editor who was fatally shot in January 2009, just days before he was due to testify in a defamation case against his paper The Sunday Leader, which had been critical of the then and now again ruling Rajapaksa family.
In 2006, Nadarajah Raviraj, a well-known human rights lawyer and parliamentarian, was shot and killed in Colombo.
At a hearing in 2016, a former police officer attached to the State Intelligence Agency, stated that Gotabaya had paid what he called “a terror organization” to have Raviraj assassinated.
Gotabaya has always denied such accusations, or simply not commented on them. While the West may remain concerned about Gotabaya’s human rights record, China is clearly not.
On November 18, Beijing warmly congratulated him on winning the presidential election, with Geng Shuang, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, hailing “China and Sri Lanka as strategic cooperative partners.”
He said that China is willing to work with Sri Lanka’s new leadership and government “to jointly carry out” BRI so as to “achieve progress in development of bilateral ties.”
Given the importance India places on Sri Lankan relations, New Delhi is likewise not likely to raise human rights issues in its dealing with the new government in Colombo.
At the same time, Indian security planners will be watching military developments there with new concentration and concern.
The return of the Rajapaksas likely means that the strategic contest for influence over the Indian Ocean region has, at least in the short term, taken a turn in China’s favor.
But while Sri Lanka’s new Rajapakse-led government will not overly try to antagonize India, the island nation is once again at the epicenter of rising Chinese and Indian competition for regional power and influence.