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Sri Lanka Pushes Back on China's Influence

On March 5th, Sri Lanka’s new government suspended a $1.4 billion development in downtown Colombo, the capital city. The stated reason was procedural. A review board had determined the project was not properly approved. The real explanation has to do with Sri Lanka’s recent elections. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, who sought this and other Chinese investments in this Indian Ocean nation of 20 million, was turned out of office on January 8th.

Rajapaksa’s welcome mat for Chinese influence was a major issue in the campaign, as was his creeping authoritarianism, stifling of dissent, and erosion of the rule of law. Sensing his support ebbing, Rajapaksa called for the poll two years early, in hopes of locking in an unprecedented third term. It was too late. He had lost support from loyal constituencies, and members of his government defected to the opposition, including the man who defeated him, the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, formerly general secretary of Rajapaksa’s political party.

In the aftermath of the election, locals say the insecurity and fear that Rajapaksa created seemed to evaporate as the new government dismantled security checkpoints, lifted press restrictions, and appealed for political exiles to return. President Sirisena has pledged to reverse Rajapaksa’s concentration of power in the presidency, and to serve only one term in office. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is overseeing a 100-day reform agenda.

It will take longer to address ethnic reconciliation and accountability for abuses linked to the 26-year war with Tamil separatists that Rajapaksa ended with uncompromising violence against civilians in 2009. Sri Lanka faces a daunting list of systemic problems and rights abuses in a country where the term “white vanned” entered the vocabulary as a verb meaning “to be snatched by the security services.” 

Nor will China simply accept the loss of influence it amassed under Rajapaksa. The Wall Street Journal reports that the new government has yet to uncover the extent of the deals and loans. The political price of China’s largesse is clearer. One brazen reminder was the docking of a Chinese submarine in Colombo during the visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, China’s strategic rival, last September. Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister has suggested such port calls may not be repeated, but in any case, China will still have expectations based on its investment and military assistance. A deputy minister has reported receiving a threatening phone call from the Chinese Embassy about the port project’s suspension.

For the US, Sri Lanka’s democratic turn is good news. Washington’s relationship with Rajapaksa was chilly, and the Obama administration sought an international inquiry into human rights abuses. Rajapaksa’s political demise opens up new possibilities for US–Sri Lankan relations. With him gone, Washington will be tempted to restore military ties that were reduced in 2007 in response to human rights abuses. 

Despite official rhetoric to the contrary, elsewhere the administration has underestimated the importance of democratic values to security relationships. When Burma’s military government turned to the West, as a hedge against China’s influence, the Obama administration abandoned decades of pro-democracy sanctions without Burma having reformed the brutal military or made constitutional changes essential to free elections scheduled to be held this year.

Sri Lanka differs from Burma, especially in the commitment its new leaders show to restoring democracy and reforming security forces. But there, too, America’s strategic interests are best served by supporting military and police reform within a democratic agenda, not outside it. Beijing’s erstwhile success at cultivating strongmen like Rajapaksa is no reason for the US to compromise its principles. Or to put it another way, it is every reason not to. 

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