Nearly four years ago, Sri Lankan strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t see his defeat coming. Armed with ample Chinese security assistance, Rajapaksa had decisively crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, putting an end to the island nation’s 26-year-long civil war and amassing untold popularity and power among the majority Sinhalese population in the process. Amid the subsequent international isolation that resulted from war crimes allegations, the president aggressively courted Chinese financing and infrastructure investment as a lifeline. Most famous, this included a China-built (and now Chinese-owned) deep-water port in Rajapaksa’s hometown of Hambantota – a commercially poor but strategically valuable location for an outside power keen to expand its naval influence on India’s doorstep. (Read: China.)
But in 2015, a faction from Rajapaksa’s own party, led by the relatively obscure health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, joined opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to defeat Rajapaksa in national elections. The coalition won on an overtly anti-China platform centered around the argument that Chinese largesse had turned Rajapaksa into a kleptocrat and stripped the indebted country of its sovereignty. (China had reportedly funneled millions to Rajapaksa’s campaign.) The new government, led by Sirisena as president and Wickremesinghe as prime minister, promised to restore balance in Colombo’s strategic orientation, to the considerable relief of New Delhi, which Rajapaksa blamed for his ouster.
Last week, once again seemingly from out of nowhere, there was another dramatic government shake-up that threw the country into a constitutional crisis. On Friday, Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe as prime minister following weeks of high political drama that included a thinly veiled accusation by the president that Wickremesinghe was plotting his assassination with Indian intelligence operatives. The prime minister’s replacement? None other than Rajapaksa himself – if, that is, his appointment isn’t blocked by parliament, which Sirisena has suspended until mid-November but in which Wickremesinghe still appears to command majority support. The United States and other powers have called for parliament to be reinstated.
Naturally, the political mayhem has prompted immense speculation that the Sino-Indian competition for influence in Sri Lanka has returned – and that China has found a way to strike back against Indian influence. This narrative has some credence; both countries have ample interests in the country. But it doesn’t fit neatly with the facts on the ground, and there’s scant evidence thus far that either China or India is really behind the power struggle. Ultimately, Sri Lanka’s strategic outlook won’t hinge solely on whichever leader prevails.
For China, Sri Lanka would be quite a prize. In some ways, Sri Lanka is akin to India’s Taiwan: The country’s location abutting one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes means that, should it ever gain a substantial naval foothold there, China would be able to project power deep into the Indian Ocean basin and more easily avoid chokepoints in Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka’s location on India’s doorstep means China would also be better positioned to keep India too focused on its immediate periphery to be much use to a multinational coalition seeking to contain Chinese assertiveness. Naturally, with China also developing potential naval footholds in Pakistan, Djibouti and a number of other Indian Ocean states where it’s building dual-use deep-water ports, India is already concerned about Chinese encirclement and none too keen to see Sri Lanka turn into a Chinese naval outpost.
Both China and India, therefore, have interests at stake whenever this sort of political feud erupts in Sri Lanka. But unlike when Rajapaksa was defeated in early 2015, the dynamics of the current power struggle in Colombo don’t fit neatly into the narrative that this is part of a proxy battle between India and China. Consider what’s happened since Rajapaksa’s fall: Despite riding anti-China rhetoric to power, Sirisena hasn’t exactly been hostile toward Beijing since taking office. Most of the China-backed projects he initially suspended have resumed construction. Last year, Beijing offered Colombo a $295 million aid package that, echoing the Rajapaksa era, included a Chinese-built warship and a hospital in the president’s hometown. China’s experience with Wickremesinghe has been similar. His Cabinet approved the debt-for-equity swap that gave China a 99-year lease on the Hambantota port. He nearly paid a stiff political price for doing so, surviving a no-confidence vote (notably, one that was backed by Sirisena’s party).
To be clear, China hasn’t gotten everything it wanted from the Rajapaksa administration’s replacement. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have both also cozied up to India. The new government moved quickly to balance Chinese and Indian economic ties, inking a number of high-profile energy and infrastructure projects with India, including a more commercially important deep-water port just north of Hambantota in the city of Trincomalee. Just two weeks ago, during a visit by Wickremesinghe to New Delhi, Sri Lanka canceled a $300 million housing deal with China in the Tamil-dominated north and promptly awarded the project to an Indian firm. (For its part, India has more actively sought out these deals since the Hambantota affair served as something of a wake-up call.) Colombo has also forcefully sought to diminish concerns that the Hambantota port would be treated as sovereign Chinese territory or that China would be free to station warships there whenever it’d like. In fact, the first warship to visit the port, in early October, was Japanese.
Yet, China certainly has not been locked out of the country. Whatever personal wariness Sirisena and Wickremesinghe hold about China, they’ve had little choice but to repair relations with Beijing. Sri Lanka doesn’t have much in the way of domestic industry or natural resources; what it does have is a valuable geographic position that, in the best case, could turn the country into a lucrative shipping and manufacturing hub similar to Singapore in its early days. Just as Rajapaksa needed Chinese guns to end the civil war and then Chinese financing to rebuild the country, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have needed continued Chinese support to tap into Sri Lanka’s potential. Any government in Colombo, for that matter, would be eager for outside assistance in narrowing its imbalance of power with India – a country with more than 69 million Tamils that has a complicated history of intervening in Sri Lankan affairs, to say the least.
People and Power
In other words, Sri Lanka’s leaders have generally done what leaders of most small but strategically important countries with tight political and economic constraints usually do: Exploit international competition to its benefit while positioning itself to stay out of the cross-fire in a potential conflict between major powers – which hosting a major Chinese naval base could make it hard to do. This was true even under Rajapaksa, who wasn’t really interested in turning Sri Lanka into a de facto Chinese colony but wanted to make the most of the country’s political and economic position at a time when Colombo felt it had been abandoned by New Delhi and the West. In fact, since joining the opposition, Rajapaksa himself has courted India, making several trips to New Delhi and meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Nepal in late August. There have been hints that New Delhi isn’t particularly upset about his return to power and is primarily anxious to see political stability return to the island in some form.
In reality, democratic countries as internally divided and fragile as Sri Lanka have a hard time moving decisively in one strategic direction or another. There are simply too many factors capable of creating paralysis at home, too many avenues through which outside powers can destabilize the domestic landscape if it suits their interest, and too much risk of inflaming ethnic or nationalist forces by becoming beholden to the interests of any particular country. (This was one lesson of India’s truncated intervention in Sri Lanka’s civil war from 1987 to 1990.) And countries that try to pull such states firmly into their orbits by supporting a particular candidate invariably face a risk of sparking a self-defeating backlash.
China has proved quite opportunistic by exploiting political and economic needs to gain influence in poorer capitals that are part of its Belt and Road Initiative, and the tangible gains that Beijing has secured shouldn’t be dismissed. China is likely glad to see a friendly face return to power in Colombo and may very well have pushed for it. But any lasting partnership must be rooted in firm, mutual geopolitical interests, not “debt trap diplomacy” or the passing political interests of any particular leader. China’s experience in Sri Lanka, as with countries like the Maldives and Malaysia, has made this clear.