Sri Lanka flag with Chinese flag isolated on black background. Photo: iStock
Sri Lanka flag with Chinese flag isolated on black background. Photo: iStock

Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ambition was to build a port in his own district of Hambantota. Although feasibility studies showed the port to be commercially unviable, Beijing extended credit to build it.

When Rajapaksa’s presidency was challenged in late 2014, Beijing, concerned that a new regime might be an obstacle to its plans, dispensed payments directly to campaign aides and activities for Rajapaksa, who had agreed to China’s terms. Although Rajapaksa was voted out, in the face of mounting debt, the new regime was compelled to lease the port to a Chinese government-owned company for 99 years. This explains how Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port came under Chinese control.

Unanswered questions

But it does not tell how Beijing was able to foster a close relationship with Colombo under the nose of New Delhi, the dominant regional power. Nor does it explain why the new regime in Colombo, which had begun by wanting to pursue a balanced approach, continued the tilt toward Beijing. This became evident in late 2015 when Colombo agreed to buy military transport airplanes from China and even clearer in early April 2016 when Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, renewing the Chinese-funded Colombo Port City project, declared that the cooperation between China and Sri Lanka would intensify and go far beyond that.

During 2017, New Delhi attempted to gain a foothold in southern Sri Lanka by offering to purchase 70% of Mattala International Airport, dubbed “the world’s emptiest international airport,” on a 40-year lease. There was no commercial benefit for India. It was an offer similar to the one that saw Hambantota port come under Chinese management.

Colombo did not respond. Had Colombo been serious about balancing Beijing against New Delhi, this could have been a worthwhile opportunity. Nor did Colombo respond to New Delhi’s overtures about operating a major oil-storage facility and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Trincomalee in addition to developing the Port of Trincomalee as a key transit point.

In January 2015, there was speculation about Rajapaksa’s demise resulting in a regime likely to be friendlier toward New Delhi, but not everyone agreed. Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think-tank, argued that in view of the geopolitical underpinnings of the Beijing-Colombo axis, it was unlikely that Sri Lanka’s relationship with China would change merely because one president was replaced by another. Colombo is unlikely to give up on the strategic gains made through forging a close relationship with China rooted in its policy born out of historic antipathy to India, its giant neighbor.

Politics of fear

This antipathy can be traced to Sri Lanka’s first prime minister, D S Senanayake, who feared that the most likely threat to Sri Lanka’s independence would come from India. Senanayake associated this fear of India with the presence of Tamils in a region in Sri Lanka not far from southern India, home to more than 50 million Tamils at that time.

During pre-independence discussions with Lord Soulbury, the head of the commission appointed by the British to draft a constitution for the island, Senanayake expressed his fear about the Tamils in Sri Lanka confederating with India “as Ulster separated from the Irish Republic to federate with Britain.”

According to Sri Lankan historian K M de Silva, the defense agreements signed in 1947 with Whitehall in the wake of the transfer of power from Britain were part of Colombo’s “process of adjusting to the uncertainties of a new pattern of international politics in South Asia with India as an independent state.” And John Gooneratne, a former Sri Lankan diplomat, wrote in A Decade of Confrontation: “There was always a tension between Sri Lanka and India as it usually exists where a small state is juxtaposed next to a very big state. And, in the post-independence period, there was a constant awareness of the presence of a very big northern neighbor projecting its power in the south.”

Colombo has always countered its giant neighbor’s influence by forging close relationships with those opposed to New Delhi. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Sri Lanka supported Pakistan by providing refueling facilities. During the Cold War, Colombo maintained either a strictly non-aligned position or a pro-Western policy in contrast to New Delhi, which had a special relationship with the Soviet Union.

By the early 1980s, Colombo’s suspicions seemed justified when New Delhi armed and trained Tamil rebels to exert pressure on Sri Lanka, which was showing clear signs of moving into the Western camp.

These suspicions were only reinforced when India intervened directly in 1987 under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord to deny the US the use of Trincomalee Harbor and permission to set up a Voice of America broadcasting facility in Sri Lanka. In return, the Indian army attempted to disarm the Tamil rebels spearheaded by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers. But this ended in disaster for the Indian forces, which, unable to disarm the LTTE, left the island after suffering almost a thousand casualties.

Politics of duplicity

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Indian National Security Adviser M K Narayanan (right) and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, left, arrive at the New Delhi airport on April 24, 2009.

After its costly intervention in the late 1980s, New Delhi ceased to play a direct role in Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. That was until 2008, when New Delhi renewed its direct intervention, this time to defeat the Tamil Tigers.

Piecing together two separate narratives, one by Sam Rajappa, a long-term journalist with The Statesman, and the other by Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, it is possible to understand how Colombo was able to counter New Delhi’s influence by securing Chinese assistance

Piecing together two separate narratives, one by Sam Rajappa, a long-term journalist with The Statesman, and the other by Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, it is possible to understand how Colombo was able to counter New Delhi’s influence by securing Chinese assistance. Both accounts are highly credible, providing in great detail the events leading to New Delhi’s direct intervention.

According to Sam Rajappa, the chain of events leading to New Delhi providing military assistance to Colombo began with a preliminary meeting between Rajapaksa’s emissaries and a group of four Tamil Nadu civil-society representatives. This was followed by several other meetings during which both parties reached a unanimous understanding that a military victory for one side without a political strategy to address the grievances of the Tamil people was unlikely to produce a lasting solution.

Rajappa refers to two meetings that Tamil Nadu civil-society members had with Rajapaksa on July 17, 2007, and on March 25, 2008, in Colombo and Rajapaksa fully endorsing the view that the solution to the conflict should emerge from within Sri Lanka refined through Indian opinion.

The dynamics changed when New Delhi became aware of this initiative and New Delhi intervened by signaling to the Sri Lankan government that it should go all out to decimate the LTTE without insisting on a political solution. Rajappa attributes this decision by New Delhi to Sonia Gandhi, who wanted LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan and its intelligence chief, Pottu Amman, dead and had pledged all military support for Sri Lanka to achieve this goal. The national security adviser, M K Narayanan, and the foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon, are identified by Rajappa as responsible for implementing this course of action that served “Sonia Gandhi’s interest above national interest.”

Lalith Weeratunge’s account in June corroborates Sam Rajappa’s account of July 2011. According to Weeratunge, the initial contact on behalf of the Indian government was made sometime in 2008 by India’s high commissioner, Alok Prasad.

At this meeting, Sri Lanka’s president was asked to nominate three individuals who would then meet three of their Indian counterparts. Rajapaksa’s nominees were Basil Rajapaksa, senior adviser to the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defense secretary, and himself, the secretary to the president. New Delhi had nominated M K Narayanan, the national security adviser, Shankar Menon, the foreign secretary, and Vijay Singh, the defense secretary. This was India’s troika to engage with Sri Lanka’s troika to monitor the war against the Tamil Tigers. The teams from both countries were made up of individuals who had the ear of their leaders.

Having met for the first time at the Taj Samudra hotel in Colombo, they met several times thereafter. Weeratunge makes special mention of the camaraderie during these meetings and how they continued for a while after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Having pointedly referred to Narayanan’s admiration for Gothabaya Rajapaksa, Weeratunge notes that as the war progressed, Colombo found itself in a commanding position vis-à-vis New Delhi. Emboldened by this shift in power, Rajapaksa promptly dismissed Narayanan’s request in April 2009 to stop military activity in the north of Sri Lanka to accommodate state government elections in Tamil Nadu to be held in mid-May that year.

Having reached a situation in which New Delhi was well entrenched as a willing partner, Colombo sought and obtained Beijing’s assistance. According to Brahma Chellaney in an essay titled “Behind the Sri Lankan Bloodbath,” this assistance from China was obtained by Sri Lanka “through adroit but duplicitous diplomacy.” Colombo assured India it would approach other arms suppliers only if New Delhi couldn’t provide a particular weapon system it needed. Yet it quietly began buying arms from China without letting India know.

It is hard to refute that New Delhi’s flawed foreign policy was a crucial factor in the bloodbath that ensued. At the same time, this self-serving foreign policy driven by Sonia Gandhi has significantly diminished New Delhi’s influence over Sri Lanka.

Ana Pararajasingham

Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher focusing on political developments in the South Asian region with particular emphasis on geopolitical developments impacting Sri Lanka and India. He was director of programs with the Switzerland-based Centre for Just Peace and Democracy between 2007 and 2009.

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