A constitutional crisis is unfolding in Sri Lanka – and that is causing concern in New Delhi as it may enable China to expand its influence in the island off India’s southern doorstep, the regional website Benar News reported on November 5.
The turmoil started last week when Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, dismissed prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Mahindra Rajapaksa, a former president who established close ties with China when he was in power between 2005 and 2015.
Wickremesinghe has claimed his dismissal was unconstitutional and refused to accept it, hence the crisis. Wickremesinghe, who assumed office in 2015, pursued a foreign policy aimed at re-balancing relations with India and the West, which had been strained during the previous regime, while at the same time maintaining good relations with China.
During Rajapaksa’s presidency, China became involved in a number of infrastructure projects, including a massive port at Hambantota, which is part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a plan for a communications network stretching from East Asia to Africa and Europe.
Even Wickremesinghe has come under criticism for relinquishing control of Hambantota to the Chinese last year, a decision that was taken because Sri Lanka had been unable to repay its loans to China.
But Rajapaksa is definitely much closer to China and Hambantota was a project Wickremesinghe inherited from his predecessors.
Benar News noted “the speed with which Beijing congratulated Rajapaksa after his sudden elevation to prime minister on October 26.” And that is what fuelled Indian worries about the strategic balance in South Asia.
India, however, is still involved in a number of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including a plan to build a new airport in Jaffna, the main city in the largely ethnic Tamil area in north of the island.
Sri Lanka’s next election, in which the offices and prime minister and president are both up for grabs, is due in 2020.