No nation can probably showcase India-China competition in South Asia more eloquently than Sri Lanka. After an unresolved military standoff in the north, the two countries are fiercely engaged in an economic and diplomatic contest in the south. Even as New Delhi and Beijing are aggressively rivalling to consolidate their respective grip on the region, it is the smaller countries that are having to bend over backwards to rebalance their relationship with the two Asian giants. Colombo’s woes are multiplied in the wake of a dismal financial crisis and pressure being exerted by United Nations agencies on over a decade-old human rights issue arising out of its fight against the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
With two members of the Rajapaksa family firmly in the saddle in Colombo as President and Prime Minister, the third one, Basil Rajapaksa, inducted as finance minister in July 2021, was in New Delhi in December to brief India on the situation in Colombo. He was assured of a currency swap to meet the balance of payments issue and politely asked to speed up the Trincomalee Tank Farm project in the north, once the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While India reaffirmed its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, Colombo assured New Delhi of giving priority to India in its developmental projects, especially in the sensitive north, closer to Tamil Nadu in many ways besides geographic proximity.
As though to wash out Basil’s India visit, China’s envoy to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, elaborately publicised his visit to the highly sensitive Tamil-majority Jaffna Peninsula — just a stone’s throw from across the Indian shores. Accompanied by Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) officials, he went up to Adam’s Bridge, popularly and reverentially referred to as ‘Ram setu’ in India, put out video footage of his ‘pilgrimage’ to the Nallur Kandaswamy temple (attired in traditional ‘veshti’), and spent time in the iconic Jaffna Public Library (burned down in 1981 and later restored with Indian assistance). In just one visit, he has probably sent out a message loud and clear to New Delhi of Beijing’s close military, naval, social and cultural camaraderie with the island nation, especially its troubled north.
Sri Lanka-China engagement
Colombo has been an important destination in Beijing’s strategic inroads not only into the Indian Ocean but the entire Indo-Pacific and India’s extended neighbourhood. In fact, China’s closer engagement with Colombo could be traced from the time since its disproportionate arming of the Sri Lankan Army during the latter’s ‘fight to finish’ war on LTTE terror. New Delhi took a principled stance that the conflict should be settled through talks and refused to supply military hardware to be used against its own citizens. China supplied Jian-7 fighter jets, anti-aircraft guns, Type-85 Heavy Machine Guns (HMG) and Type-80 Light Machine Guns (LMG), Type-56 rifles, 152 mm howitzer, 81 mm mortar shells, and RPG-7 rockets. Besides, Beijing also provided $1.2 billion and $821 million in 2009 and 2010, respectively, to meet the post-war expenses.
The wartime leader General Sarath Fonseka justified the Chinese assistance, saying there was no other option and that it was cheaper. “India had told us they were not in a position to sell or send offensive weapons or even equipment like radars and basic communication equipment to meet our requirements. So we had no other option… It was readily available and comparatively cheaper — almost half the price compared to Russia. I think, we had no other option,” he was reported to have said.
Though India was Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner and donor, it was China’s national currency, the Yuan (Renminbi) that was allowed by Sri Lanka’s Central Bank in June 2011 to be used in international transactions. Economic engagements were stepping stones for a larger strategic partnership, much to the discomfort of India. The regime change in Colombo allowed New Delhi to do course correction but did not deter Beijing from increasing its defence cooperation with Colombo.
In October 2020, then-head of the Chinese foreign policy department Yang Jiechi visited Colombo, making it the first high-profile Chinese official’s visit to any country in South Asia since the Covid-19 pandemic. His visit signalled the priority that Beijing accords to Colombo, besides reiterating the significance of political, economic and military cooperation, and the growing military dimension of China-Sri Lanka ties. The visit was followed by Gen Wei Fenghe, Defence Minister and a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (credited with the successful implementation of China-Pakistan defence cooperation) in April 2021.
India’s increased vigil
A proactive New Delhi increased its vigil and speeded up the strategic cooperation with Colombo to counter Beijing’s movements.
The Asian Development Bank-sponsored solar energy project, which was part of Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Electricity Board’s ‘Supporting Electricity Supply Reliability Improvement Project’ initiative for rural electrification, was awarded to Sino Soar Hybrid (Beijing) Technology Co Ltd. The Chinese company was to build hybrid renewable energy infrastructure in Delft, Nagadeepa, and Analthivu Islands off the coastline of Jaffna. India has raised concerns about serious coastal security threats due to the proximity of these islands to Tamil Nadu.
Considering protests from India, China halted the project ‘due to security concerns from a third party’. While Colombo heaved a sigh of relief, China moved the stalled project to the Maldives. Meanwhile, India extended a $100 million Line of Credit to Colombo to assist with its solar energy projects to meet nearly 70 per cent of its renewable energy requirements.
Following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision in May to stop chemical fertiliser imports and the resultant shortage, India dished out 100 tonnes of Nano Nitrogen liquid fertilisers to Colombo on a priority basis.
Needless to say, New Delhi’s credibility hinges on the timely and efficient completion of the projects. In the ongoing jostle between India and China for a significant foothold in the strategic island country, New Delhi seems to be ahead of its fierce competitors, at least for now. Both India and Sri Lanka are aware of the compulsions and limitations of a democratic work style as against the immense advantage of an autocratic one-party dispensation in Beijing.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)