Sri Lankans Boot Pro-China Government

Friday, Sri Lankan voters decisively turned out President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Asia’s longest-server leader. By the end of the day, his former ally and health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, had taken the oath of office. Sirisena, 63, had defected from the government camp only in November, just as the election was called.

The 69-year-old Rajapaksa had called the poll two years before the end of his second term, and it looked like a smart move because, even in the days before the balloting, many expected him to win. He had, after all, ended the civil war by crushing the Tamils and in recent years presided over a period of fast growth.

The problem for Rajapaksa was a general perception that he had sold his country to China. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives told Bloomberg that the Chinese looked like they were “underpinning misgovernance and corruption in the regime.” China, during Rajapaksa’s term, had become Sri Lanka’s No. 1 investor and lender to the government as well as the country’s second-biggest trading partner.

Beijing had flooded the island with about $4 billion in investments. Most controversial in recent months was the plan of China Communications Construction Company to build, in the commercial capital of Colombo, a $1.5 billion “Port City” on a reclaimed plot the size of Monaco. The venture will be the largest foreign investment in Sri Lanka’s history.

If it’s completed. Chinese leader Xi Jinping cut the ribbon—along with Rajapaksa—when he visited in September, but during the campaign last month Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sirisena’s ally and now prime minister, promised he would stop construction. And Sirisena, warning of re-colonization and slavery, rode to office on the pledge (pdf) to end foreign projects, most of them Chinese.

Beijing seems unconcerned. After the election, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China wanted to take its partnership with Sri Lanka “to a new height.” “We hope and believe that the new Sri Lankan government will continue with its support to the friendly cooperation with China and push forward relevant projects,” he said. Wang Dehua of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies is similarly unperturbed. As he told the New York Times, “Many politicians say one thing before elections and do another thing after they are elected.”

Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, who has looked at Beijing’s response to coups in five African states, reports that the Chinese have been able to build relationships with new leaders, even ones who campaigned against China. “They all, in one way or another, turn to China, because it was the only player ready to help them finance infrastructure and public spending,” Holslag told the Times. “I assume that this is going to happen with Sri Lanka.”

The assumption would be sound if the new government had nowhere else to turn. Sirisena, however, has a friend in India, just 40 miles from his capital city. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to Sirisena immediately following the election.

And the Indian prime minister has many reasons to diminish China’s influence so near to his country’s shores and trade routes. In September, a Chinese diesel-powered Song-class attack submarine and an accompanying sub tender, the Changxing Dao, docked at the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal, near Port City, which faces India. The Song’s passage through the Indian Ocean was a first for one of China’s conventionally powered boats, and the stopover was the first foreign port call for a diesel Chinese sub. In October, the tender returned to Colombo with another submarine, which may have been the same Song-class boat or, according to some reports, a nuclear-powered one.

The port visits raised “enormous concerns” in the Indian capital. Sri Lanka permitted the Chinese to dock even after Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval issued a warning to Sri Lankan Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, that New Delhi considered the presence of a Chinese sub unacceptable, a violation of a July 1987 agreement providing that “Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.”

The last thing New Delhi wants is an ongoing and unfettered presence of Chinese vessels—especially submarines—in the waters off its coast. And one way India can complicate the logistics of the Chinese Navy—and narrow its options—is to use its diplomatic charms to deny port privileges to China’s warships.

Those boats may not be coming back anytime soon. During the campaign, Sirisena pledged “equal relations” with India, China, Pakistan, and Japan. That’s code for “no Port City” and “no more port calls for Chinese submarines.”

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