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China: Sri Lanka's 'unconditional' ally

May 10, 2010

China has not only become one of Sri Lanka's key trade partners and a major military ally, but it has helped the South Asian country counter Western pressure on issues such as human rights.

President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa (2nd L) and his wife with Chinese President Hu Jintao and his wife during a visit in Beijing in Aug, 2008
Presidents Rajapaksa (2nd L) and Hu Jintao with wives in Beijing, 2008Image: picture alliance/dpa

It has been a year since Sri Lanka's army secured victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels or LTTE and the decades' old civil war came to an end. This wouldn't have become possible without the support of Sri Lanka's key ally China, many in the South Asian nation think.

"China helped the Sri Lankan state immensely with the war with the LTTE when the Sri Lankan government needed assistance in terms of weapons and ammunition etc," says SI Keethaponcalan, an expert from the University of Colombo.

The Sri Lanka army received ammunition from China during the war
The Sri Lankan army received ammunition from China during the warImage: AP

Diplomatic support

The People's Republic's support came on the diplomatic front as well. When the West sharply criticized the Sri Lankan government's handling of the conflict, particularly the final stages of the war, and the US stopped its military aid over human rights issues, Beijing threw its weight behind Colombo by blocking a resolution censuring Sri Lanka at the UN Security Council. After that the relations between the two traditional allies strengthened further.

Experts say the basis for the close bilateral ties between the two sides is the fact that China’s support to Sri Lanka is unconditional. "Unlike the Western countries and organizations which impose conditions when they give us aid, whether it is the World Bank or IMF or bilateral aid, the Chinese have been giving us aid without asking questions," says Kalyananda Godage, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to the EU.

Countering India

Another major reason why Sri Lanka values this relationship is that China acts as a counterweight to its long-term ally India, says Jehan Perera, the executive director of the National Peace Council, a civil rights body in Colombo:

"India has had a major impact on Sri Lanka and has pressurized Sri Lanka in various ways in the past. So Sri Lanka would like to have a counterweight of equal size and stature to India to balance it off," says Perera.

Sri Lankan gems are world renowned, especially its Blue Sapphires and Cat's eyes.
Sri Lankan gems are world renowned, especially its blue sapphires and cat's eyesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Growing Chinese investment

With almost $1 billion in development aid, Beijing surpassed Tokyo as Colombo's largest foreign donor last year.

The Chinese are also building a massive port worth almost a billion US dollars in Hambantota on Sri Lanka's southeastern coast. Some Western media have reported that China would like to use it as a naval base. But the Sri Lankan government has insisted that the purpose of the port is purely commercial.

"China has a huge navy. It is now an emerging superpower and its trade is huge with the West. China needs energy supplies from the Middle East. And all of this passes via Sri Lanka because of our location in the Indian Ocean. So that has become very important," says former diplomat Godage.

Exciting market

The emerging superpower has also become an increasingly important trading partner for the Sri Lankans. Gems, jewelry, tea and natural rubber are areas where Colombo sees potential for the bilateral trade to grow further.

"It is a market that is going to mature," says Shezard Careem, one of the leading gem traders in Colombo. "It is tremendously wealthy and a luxury market as well. It provides a whole gamut of opportunities."

The majority of Sri Lankans follow Buddhism
The majority of Sri Lankans follow BuddhismImage: AP

Human rights: an 'internal issue'

While China and its western partners have differences over issues such as human rights in China, many in Sri Lanka consider this as China's internal matter.

"We are not going to be concerned about China's human rights record, they can look after that," says Godage. "We are interested in a good mutually beneficial relationship which also looks after our security, economic and political interests. So we are very happy with our relationship with China."

The urge to not to lose or upset this 'valuable' partner is so huge that Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, even stopped two of its cricket players from meeting the Dalai Lama in India recently.

Author: Disha Uppal
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein