NEW DELHI HAS TO MOVE FAST TO ASSIST SRI LANKAN ECONOMY
Perhaps the most significant of Sri Lanka’s new president Gotayaba Rajapaksa’s New Delhi visit was that as a man who has never concealed his Sinophilia, he made New Delhi, rather than Beijing, to be his first port of call. On assuming presidency, he made his elder brother Mahinda, the former president, his prime minister. That tightened the grip of the Rajapaksa family on Sri Lanka’s government and politics. Both brothers are known for their proximity to China and antipathy to India. Gotabaya himself, even before he was elected, assured Beijing that it would be his topmost priority to forge closer relations with China
Gotabaya met Chen Min’er, secretary of the Communist Party of Chongqing, believed to be a close confidant of Xi Jinping, and assured him of “restoring normal relations with Beijing., suggesting that under Maithripala Sirisena Sino-Sri Lankan relations were not ‘normal’. So, India had ample reason to be apprehensive when he won the presidential election. It was Gotabaya as his country’s Defence Minister who had conducted a war of attrition against the LTTE and eventually liquidated it. So it was natural that Prime Minister Narendra Modi took up the matter of Sri Lankan Tamils with him during the discussions in New Delhi.
It was against this background of a troubled relationship that Gotabaya arrived in New Delhi. It is heartening therefore, to find that he told the Indian media that his discussions with Modi were “extremely cordial and reassuring”. Significantly the security of the two countries took priority in the talks. The first tangible outcome of the Goatabaya visit is India’s announcement of an offer of $400 million credit line to Sri Lanka for the development of its infrastructure and the assurance of another $50 million to improve its internal security arrangements. Sri Lanka already finds itself caught in the Chinese debt trap.
Indeed, China’s challenge to India in Asia is not only military but also economic. By giving credit to many Asian countries for infrastructure development, China has been able to turn all of them to debtor countries. To prevent the further inroad of China into the economies of our neighbouring countries, India has to compete with Beijing in providing them financial assistance. If India can open a $1 billion credit line for the development of Russian Far East, there is no reason why it should be stingy with its neighbours. India has to raise its relations with Sri Lanka to a level that China will never be able to leverage its relationship with Colombo against India. India had wanted to run the Mattala airport, close to the Hambantota sea port. Colombo was forced to lease out the port to the Chinese for 90 years and sell 80 per cent of the equity to the Chinese company that built it because it had failed to repay the principal and interest to the builders. Initially, Colombo was agreeable to allow India to operate the Mattala airport, close to Hambantota. Then it backtracked, presumably under Chinese pressure. China feared that Mattala airport under Indian management might become an Indian “watch tower” on Hambantota which has the facility of docking and fuelling Chinese naval vessels including submarines. Now, in the changed circumstances, India should make a fresh overture to Colombo about Mattala.
This May, Colombo signed an agreement with India and Japan under which the three countries would construct the East Colombo Terminal in the Colombo port. It may be recalled that former president Mahinda Rajapaksa had invited the China Harbour Engineering Company to build the Colombo Port City, at a cost of $1.5 billion. Intriguingly, the proposal for building the project came, not from the Sri Lankan Government but was an “unsolicited” one by the Chinese company. It offered to bear the entire cost of reclaiming 310 acres of land. The ambitious project only increased Colombo’s debt to China enormously. Work on the project started in September, 2014. Chinese President Xi Jinping made it a point to be personally present at the inauguration of the project work.
Gotabaya will have to balance his country’s relations between India and China. Also, he has to remove the fear that his election has caused to the Sri Lankan ethnic minority of Tamils and the religious minority of Muslims, which has only heightened after this year’s Easter Sunday terrorist attack that killed 259 people. India can play a useful role in removing the fears of the Tamils.
China will, no doubt, do its best to retain its influence on Sri Lanka. At a press conference after Gotabaya’s election, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang congratulated him and emphasized that China and Sri Lanka are “strategic cooperative partners” and hoped Colombo would continue to render “high-quality BRI cooperation” in the years to come. Sri Lanka under Gotabaya is likely to see a more intense India-China diplomatic war over the island nation.