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Sri Lanka caught between China and India

Shamil Shams
November 18, 2018

Sri Lanka is without a government and two prominent politicians are claiming to be prime ministers. Experts say the struggle reflects the geopolitical rivalry between China and India in South Asia.

A man walks past posters of Sri Lanka's newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena
Image: Reuters/D. Liyanawatte

Talks held by Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena on Sunday with the national political leaders failed to put an end to the country's ongoing power struggle.

The constitutional crisis has paralyzed the South Asian nation since Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in late October.

Wickremesinghe, with the support of parliament, refused to leave his post. Sirisena tried to dissolve parliament in response, but the country's Supreme Court restored the legislative body, ordering a full hearing of Sirisena's actions.

Caught between two regional powers

Experts say the escalating political crisis in Sri Lanka has its roots in the geopolitical rivalry between the country's traditional ally, India, and rising global economic power China.

China and India have strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, and Sri Lanka, a key location for global shipping lines, is crucial for implementing them. Its biggest city, Colombo, is set to become part of China's New Silk Road project to transport goods to the West.

Ex-strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa (L) and current President Maithripala Sirisena at a rally
Ex-strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa (L) and current President Maithripala Sirisena at a rallyImage: Reuters/D. Liyanawatte

"The Sri Lankan crisis doesn't have much to do with Sirisena and Rajapaksa," Siegfried O. Wolf from the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) told DW. "It should be looked at in the light of a China-India tug-of-war in the region."

Rajapaksa was close to China during his 2005-2015 presidency, while pro-Western Wickremesinghe is considered closer to India. The fact that Sirisena is bent on bringing his former rival Rajapaksa back to power shows how important the ex-president is for Beijing, according to Wolf.

"The Sri Lankan 'coup' happened after Chinese economic interests were seriously challenged by Wickremesinghe's administration," Wolf added. "He tried to improve ties not only with New Delhi but also with the West."

A week before Sirisena ousted him, Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi on a three-day visit in a bid to improve ties with his country's powerful neighbor. Wickremesinghe's government also suspended construction on a Chinese-backed deep-water port at Hambantota in 2015.

Read more: Sri Lanka: Ex-President Rajapaksa makes a comeback amid China-India tug-of-war

Cautious interference?

In a sign of support, Beijing was one of the few governments to congratulate Rajapaksa after he was appointed prime minister last month, with Beijing's envoy Cheng Xueyuan personally meeting him to convey the well-wishes of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Infographic depicting China's new Silk Road

Rajapaksa's relationship with China dates back to the early years of his presidency.

In 2007, Rajapaksa signed a $1 billion deal with a Chinese consortium to construct the Hambantota port in the president's home constituency. Rajapaksa's administration later offered China an exclusive investment zone near the country's main port in Colombo.

Experts say that Rajapaksa's return to power as prime minister could place a burden on Sri Lanka's relations with India and other countries in the region.

"If Rajapaksa opts to return to his earlier unbalanced, unreflected foreign policy only to appease Beijing," Wolf said, "it will not only complicate Sri Lanka's relations with India but also with the international community."

Despite its longstanding involvement in Sri Lankan politics, India will take a wait-and-see approach to the political crisis, N. Sathiya Moorthy from India's Observer Research Foundation told DW.

"Barring an occasional diversion," he said. "India has always maintained that it will not interfere with the internal affairs of neighboring nations."

Read more: Sri Lanka seeks investment, but China questions linger

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