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Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa brothers walk a diplomatic tightrope

Amanda Coakley
November 21, 2019

Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, have returned to power in Sri Lanka. They are likely to pivot back to China to help the economy, but the geopolitical landscape has changed with the rise of Modi's India.

Sri Lanka's governing brothers Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Wanniarachchi

On Thursday, newly elected Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swore in his brother, Mahinda Rajapaska, as prime minister, finishing off a major political comeback for the powerful family.

At a press conference on Monday, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, congratulated Sri Lanka's new president. "China and Sri Lanka are strategic cooperative partners with sincere mutual assistance and ever-lasting friendship," said Shuang, before expressing his hopes for "high-quality BRI cooperation” in the years to come.

As Rajapaksa picks up the reigns of a country saddled with billions of dollars of debt, his supporters expect him to revitalize an economy still reeling from the Islamic State-inspired Easter Sunday attacks that killed over 250 people in April. Many expect he will look to Beijing to help deliver this key campaign promise.

Read moreSieren's China: Striking a balance on the New Silk Road

The road to riches?

Launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious infrastructure project that seeks to strengthen China's connectivity with the world. The more cash-strapped BRI partner nations, like Sri Lanka, are hoping Chinese investment will ease their economic woes. Colombo's dependence on Beijing's money, however, precedes the BRI.

Sri Lanka: 'We have our debt under control'

When Sri Lanka's civil conflict between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and Tamil separatists ended in 2009, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was desperately in need of a strong ally. The United States, Europe and India were critical of the Rajapaksa government amid allegations of human rights abuses against the ethnic Tamil minority.

Then Mahinda Rajapaksa pivoted to Beijing and the money flowed in. Roads, railways, ports and power stations were built across the island nation. Today, China is Sri Lanka's biggest source of foreign direct investment, followed by India.

China's reaction to Rajapaksa victory

China is in no doubt pleased that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party, won 52% of the vote in Saturday's election. His main rival, Sajith Premadasa, from the United National Party, came in second with 42%.

On Wednesday, Gotabaya appointed his brother Mahinda as prime minister following the resignation of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

When Mahinda took the oath of office in Colombo he promised to take the country forward "with a new vision to further develop and protect it for future generations."

Read moreSri Lanka's political crisis: In the shadows of China and India

Beijing's support of the Rajapaksas became evident in October 2018 during Sri Lanka's constitutional crisis, when former President Maithripala Sirisena replaced Ranil Wickremesinghe with Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. His actions were later deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

During the political chaos, the international community was reluctant to take sides. But China, at the time, was quick to congratulate Rajapaksa on his return to power.

However, Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director at the International Crisis Group, said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa won't swing completely toward China.

"I would say in this global environment, where neo-authoritarian leaders control many important states, their rule has been normalized. I'm doubtful that much pressure will come on a Rajapaksa government in the name of human rights principles, so I think all major players will have reason to increase their engagement in terms of trade or infrastructure projects."

Rajapaksa wins vote

Big brother India

In 2014, tensions between India and Sri Lanka heightened when a Chinese submarine and warship were allowed to dock in Colombo, fuelling New Delhi's fears of Chinese aggression.

After his defeat in 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa also accused India of interference in the elections, much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

During the Sirisena presidency, relations with India improved, despite New Delhi expressing concerns when the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka was leased to China for 99 years, owing to Colombo's inability to repay its debts.

Read more:Modi woos Sri Lanka, Maldives as India fends off Chinese influence 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa appears keen to come out of his brother's shadow. By pledging to rebuild Sri Lanka's intelligence services, he is indirectly pledging to work closely with India. On the campaign trail, he was critical of the outgoing government, who allegedly allowed the sophisticated Easter Sunday bombings to fall under the radar despite warnings from the international community.

"India and Sri Lanka now have a shared anti-Muslim outlook," said Rajesh Venugopal, associate professor at the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics.

"Gotabaya Rajapaksa has come to power on an anti-Muslim backlash, similar to Modi where Muslims are also being used as a security threat."

Prime Minister Modi was among the first to congratulate Mahinda Rajapaksa on his return to the top of Sri Lankan politics.

Protection of the Tamils

Traditionally, India has campaigned on behalf of Sri Lanka's Tamil community, which is yet to see justice for wartime killings and disappearances. There is concern that New Delhi's credibility on this issue has been undermined by the Modi government's vilification of minorities.

"Harmonious coexistence has deteriorated over the last few years in India, and that doesn't give them the authority to wag the finger. There is also the argument that Modi doesn't need Tamil Nadu [a southern Indian state] politically, as he has the support he needs in the north," said Venugopal.

Read moreSri Lanka: Minorities fear return of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in presidential election

Overseas, the Tamil diaspora maintains its strength and may be able to lobby governments in Canada, the US, Australia and the UK. But with the brothers back in power, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa's declaration that he will repeal Sri Lanka's commitment to a UN human rights agenda for reconciliation and accountability, justice will remain elusive.

A new era?

The Rajapaksas have not positioned themselves as reformers, but have instead used the outgoing government's failures to fuel support for their strongman style of governance, say observers.

Read moreSri Lanka: A battleground for India-China rivalry

China will continue to play an important role in Sri Lanka's economic future, but relations with India might be entering into a new era, putting this small island nation in the middle of two heavyweights.