The Sri Lankan election has delivered a decisive verdict. Gotabaya Rajapaksha is the new president of the island state. His elder brother and ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksha has been sworn in as the prime minister. Sri Lanka watchers in many capitals have their sights focused on Colombo. Mahinda Rajapaksha had led the country into a Chinese debt trap during his tenure as the president before his party lost the elections in 2015. However, the dynamics of geopolitics and an aggressive China have created a new milieu and predictions about which way the newly formed Rajapaksha team would lead the country to remains a grey zone.
The international concern about the Sri Lankan march hereafter is driven largely by its strategically important geographical location. The Indian Ocean island state is situated in close proximity to the sea lanes of communications that link the largest crude oil producers to its west with the energy-hungry economies of the east, including China, Japan and India. The sea lanes through the Indian Ocean carry 80% of the global oil traffic. It’s also the route for exports of these economies and other Indian Ocean countries westwards to markets in Africa, Europe and the American continent.
The strategic importance of Sri Lanka is further enhanced since it’s among the best pivots available for projecting power in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese realized it and built the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. For the Chinese, the port is a pivotal pearl in its String of Pearls that starts at Hainan, and traverses across Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, west of Sri Lanka to Gwader in Pakistan and Djibouti, Africa.
The Chinese have a 99-year lease of Hambantota made possible by their investment of over US$1 billion for the port, an airport, and other assets. However, these projects are logging huge losses. With Sri Lanka failing to service Chinese debts, the previous Sri Lankan government went in for the lease agreement.
Hambantota in Chinese grip creates ripples in the current power equations in the Indo-Pacific. It contests US capabilities. For Indians, switching of naval forces from the Arabian Sea on its west to the Bay of Bengal to its east would be a major challenge. Indians are well aware that with Hambantota in Chinese control, they could be choked. Their advantage over China in the Indian Ocean, dilutes.
For Gotabaya the options are to continue along the same trajectory that his elder brother had crafted when their party lost the elections in 2015, or opt for a more balanced relationship with India and China. He has also to develop Sri Lanka’s relationship further with Japan, as also Australia and western powers. At stake is Sri Lankan sovereignty.
The Rajapakshas lost the electoral battle in 2015 in spite of having overpowered a seemingly indefatigable insurgency run by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The embittered Sri Lankans of Tamil origin, who constitute over 11 % of the population, went against him. It was the same story with Muslims. The reasons for his resounding victory now are more attributable to the failures of ex-President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe government. The Easter Sunday blasts in April 2019 has the country still shaken. The amateurishness with which security issues were handled even after getting inputs prior to the ISIS-claimed terrorist attack possibly propelled voters to get a strong man to lead the country. Gotabaya, the defence secretary during the Eelam War, fulfilled the public perception of a strong leader.
Gotabaya will surely want to avoid his party’s erroneous approach in the past, while also drawing lessons from his opponent’s failures during the latter’s recent tenure at the helm. The solution to the Sri Lankan dilemma is both domestic and global. The leadership in all developing countries are under pressure to bring about rapid economic growth. The GDP growth rate in Sri Lanka has slipped to 3.2 %. Sri Lanka requires substantial foreign investments to spur growth. Should it limit Chinese funding, the investments will have to come from India, other stakeholder countries and global financial institutions.
In Gotabaya’s first post-elections interview to Indian journalist Nitin Gokhale of bharatshakti.in (https://bharatshakti.in/we-wont-do-anything-that-will-harm-indias-interests-gotabaya-2/), he spelt out his priorities and put development at the top. Off late, the Japanese and the Indians are partnering for the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port. That’s a model worth pursuing. Gotabaya, in his interview, also reached out to India, Japan, Australia, Singapore and China to invest in Sri Lanka.
However, Gotabaya needs to view growth as one that involves the whole nation, including minorities, and not towering projects like Hambantota that have a limited scope in terms of profitability. Gotabaya has expressed grave reservations about the lease agreement signed by the previous government and assured that he will approach his “Chinese friends” to renegotiate.
The other major domestic requirement for Colombo is the reconciliation process for Sri Lankan Tamils. Indians, especially in its southern state of Tamil Nadu, are sensitive to how Tamils are treated in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Nadu barometer of progress in the reconciliation process of Sri Lankan Tamils constrains New Delhi’s ability to reach out to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan Muslims cannot feel alienated, either. The Muslims can be best integrated by combating the Islamist terrorist groups that operate in Sri Lanka. The attacks by these groups create chasms in Sri Lankan society leading to further marginalization of the community.
Gotabaya would be acutely aware that the western powers will focus the lens on him and bring into perspective his role during the Eelam War and the alleged atrocities by the military. The world at large will expect him to be committed to stability in the Indian Ocean. He has already conveyed his commitment to keeping the sea lanes free. What matters is how far will be able to walk the talk, keep foreign investments flowing, maintain societal harmony within, and negotiate contesting pulls and pressures from without.