The local election results in Sri Lanka show President Sirisena’s diminishing stock. But China will continue to have its way in the indebted island nation.
India is fast losing its strategic advantage in Sri Lanka to the Chinese. With the Maithripala Sirisena regime in Colombo increasingly doing China’s bidding, burdened as it is with huge debts to China, India is apparently on a potentially weak wicket.
The Chinese were going great guns in Sri Lanka when the electoral rout of their protégé Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party stopped them in their tracks. But the setback did not deter them for long. They set about retrieving their position knowing well that Rajapaksa’s successor Maithripala Sirisena was a relative upstart who could be brought around.
Today, with Sri Lanka steeped in debt, principally due to the Chinese development of the Hambantota port, the Lankans have been forced to allow China to literally seize control of the port and surrounding land, on the pretext of loan repayment.
Instructively, Sri Lanka’s debt was almost 80 per cent of the gross domestic product in 2016. That is what propelled Sirisena to look to the Chinese for help in bailing their economy out of trouble.
Much of the mainstream media and opposition members of parliament were up in arms over the original deal worked out by Sirisena with the Chinese. The deal has since been diluted, with China having a financial stake of 70 per cent as against 80 per cent earlier, but the threat to Lankan sovereignty remains. Willy nilly, seeing the level to which Colombo is indebted, most people have reconciled to the inevitability of Chinese hegemony.
The influential Daily News said of the deal: “Ironically, most of the opposition figures themselves were responsible for creating the mess that is Hambantota port in the first place. The fact they themselves had planned to sell off the port to a Chinese company was conveniently forgotten. To the new government’s credit, it acknowledged that certain clauses in the agreement could be tweaked, and it did. The government also ensured that India’s security and geopolitical concerns would be addressed in the new deal.”
The jury is not yet out on how the decision to depend on China would prove to be. For India and Japan, which have been clamouring for freedom of navigation in the high seas, so that international trade can proceed without Chinese impediments, it is bad news indeed. At this rate, India would lose much of the leverage it currently has with Colombo even as Sri Lanka plays second fiddle to Beijing.
Hambantota International Port Group (HIPG) and Hambantota International Port Services (HIPS), two new companies set up by the China Merchants Port Holdings Company and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, have been tasked to run the port on a 99-year lease to the Chinese.
Protagonists of the deal say Hambantota port can be expected to play a key role in China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which will link ports and roads between China and Europe, and that this would benefit Colombo a great deal. However, the project’s opponents say they fear the area being turned into a Chinese colony.
Apprehensions that the Chinese navy could use the port as a base have not been convincingly answered by the Sri Lankan government. Assurances apart, there can be no cast-iron guarantee that this assurance from China would not be violated.
For now, Colombo insists that the Sri Lankan navy will be in charge of security at the Hambantota port, and no foreign navy will be allowed to use it as a base.
Past regimes in the US were more conscious of American strategic interests and of sinister Chinese designs, and were ready to work with India in thwarting Beijing. But the US has done very little to prevent China from gaining quick access to the sea through Pakistan by launching its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In Maldives too, time is running out for China’s adversaries.
All this is giving a strategic advantage to China. It will, in due course, acquire the clout to influence policies not only in Pakistan but also in Sri Lanka and Maldives, and to threaten India if the current trend continues.
Sirisena is rapidly losing ground to Rajapaksa, as is borne out by the results of the local council polls showing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), backed by Rajapaksa, registering a landslide win. Of the 340 councils, SLPP was the single largest party in 249; the United National Front (UNF) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was top in 42; while the Sri Lanka Freedom Party/United People’s Freedom Alliance (SLFP/UPFA) led by President Sirisena, was the single largest in just 11. This is a clear reflection of Sirisena’s diminishing stock.
Ironically, it was Rajapaksa who had initiated the Hambantota port and the Mattala airport projects with Chinese loans, but he was quick to blame the Sirisena government for selling these ‘national assets.’
The Chinese cannot but be confident that be it Rajapaksa or Sirisena, they have a way to have their way.
The writer is a senior journalist.