Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (R) shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting in Colombo on January 14. Photo: AFP / Handout / Sri Lankan Presidential Media Division

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in last November’s Sri Lankan presidential election resulted in many predictions that China would make a comeback in the island nation. But the reality is that China never left Sri Lanka in the first place.

Although pro-China president Mahinda Rajakpaksha was defeated in the 2015 election by Maithripala Sirisena, who promised to rebalance Sri Lanka’s China policy, Sirisena failed to deliver on this promise despite his initial attempts. Hence Chinese influence and engagement in Sri Lanka continued even during Sirisena’s tenure.

Gotabaya’s victory doesn’t, therefore, mean China’s comeback, but merely a continuation of the influence and engagement that China enjoyed during the tenures of both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena.

Chinese influence under Mahinda

Chinese engagement increased exponentially after Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005, and that influence continued even after his defeat in 2015.

Chinese investment in Sri Lanka amounts to an estimated US$11 billion, including $8 billion in the form of loans related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A Chinese company has built a giant seaport in Sri Lanka. Another Chinese company is constructing a $1.4 billion port city near Colombo. Chinese firms plan to construct power stations and expressways as well.

Until recently, Chinese projects in Sri Lanka were concentrated in the south. Now China is expanding its engagement in the island nation’s northern areas too. In these areas, China has started to invest in rubber, tea and coconut cultivation.

Beijing and Colombo have been discussing Chinese investment worth $30 million to $40 million in the agricultural sector. If this goes well for China, it may even pour further investment into this sector. There’s precedent for a Chinese role in Sri Lanka’s rubber sector during the 1950s.

Sri Lanka and its ports are strategically important to major regional and global economic powers, as they lie along one of world’s busiest and most important sea lines of communication. China’s growing engagement in South Asia – including this strategically important island nation – has, therefore, become a concern for India. After all, India views the region as its sphere of influence.

India has been one of the major partners of Sri Lanka in trade and investment as well as defense. During and after Sri Lanka’s 26 years of civil war, India contributed to the country’s rehabilitation, rail communications, and housing projects. Now China is playing the same role and has promised to make even bigger investments.

Particularly under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president for two terms from 2005 to 2015, Sri Lanka established closer and warmer relations with China. During his tenure, China was given the opportunity to engage heavily in the country’s economy and defense, enabling it to establish too much influence to ignore.

Chinese influence never left

However, after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential elections, Sirisena temporarily attempted to reduce China’s influence. Sirisena re-established relations with India and the US.

Initially, Sirisena suspended all Chinese investment projects, citing allegations of corruption and overpricing. A year later, he allowed the resumption of Chinese projects, but with demands for changes in some terms of the projects.

Despite his attempts to reduce Chinese influence during the initial stage of his tenure, Sirisena perhaps realized later that China had already established deep influence in his country and he perhaps felt that it would be unwise to ignore this reality. Hence he ran out of options and had to resume Chinese projects.

What’s more, he found that the investment Sri Lanka needed could only be made by China thanks to its burgeoning economic muscle. Sirisena perhaps also couldn’t ignore the fact that Chinese companies had been employing thousands of local workers. Of course the fact that Chinese investment attaches no strings – including conditions for ensuring human rights – played a part.

Sri Lanka under Sirisena had to hand over a deep seaport in Hambantota to Chinese control for 99 years because of the island nation’s inability to pay off Chinese debts.

The feud between Sirisena and his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was another factor that made Sirisena softer toward China. He fired Wickremesinghe in October 2018 and appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to the post. Although the courts later reinstated Wickremesinghe, this clearly made Sirisena tilt toward China against Wickremesinghe, who had enjoyed India’s support during their feud.

Chinese influence will grow under Gotabaya

Now that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother Gotabaya has come to power, there is the likelihood that he will push Sri Lanka further into China’s lap.

Gotabaya was secretary to the defense ministry when Sri Lanka ended the 26-year civil war against the Tamil insurgency with China’s full support. When international human-rights organizations raised issues relating to rights violations during the latter part of the civil war, China protected the Rajapaksas in international forums from being branded as human-rights violators.

All in all, Chinese influence in Sri Lanka did not end after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapasa in 2015. The influence continued during Sirisena’s tenure despite the early bumps. Now that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya is the president and Mahinda himself has been sworn in as the new prime minister, China’s influence and engagement in this island nation will only continue to grow exponentially.

Bahauddin Foizee

Bahauddin Foizee is a threat/risk intelligence analyst focusing on the assessment of investment, legal, security, political and geopolitical threat/risk. His articles on these areas as well as on social, environmental, financial and military affairs in the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific and Middle East regions have been widely published.

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