Sri Lanka vote deals blow to China

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review


China’s political investment in Sri Lankan strongman Rajapaksa, in the expectation that he would be a long-lasting autocrat, has backfired.

The crucial Aug. 17 parliamentary election in Sri Lanka — what increasingly looks like a “swing state” in the sharpening geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region — was a close contest, giving no party an absolute majority and thus ensuring the next government will be coalition-based. But in one respect, the poll outcome was decisive: By thwarting pro-China ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political comeback bid, it represented a defeat for Chinese diplomacy.

Sri Lanka, located virtually at the center of the Indian Ocean, straddles some of the world’s busiest sea lanes. Beijing has already pumped billions of dollars into this small, strategically located island-nation, seeking to turn it into a pivot of its “Maritime Silk Road” to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The Maritime Silk Road is the new name for China’s strategy of building a so-called “string of pearls” along vital Indian Ocean shipping routes. Sri Lanka — where China has already built the large Hambantota port — is central to the Maritime Silk Road initiative.

The Chinese diplomatic drive in Sri Lanka, however, faces an uncertain future following two setbacks this year. The first came in January, with the shock defeat of Rajapaksa the first time around, to one-time ally Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential contest. Rajapaksa, during his nearly decade-long rule marked by increasing authoritarianism and accusations of nepotism and corruption, cozied up to China, awarding Beijing major contracts designed to make his country a key stop on the Chinese nautical “road.”

On Sri Lanka’s terms

When Sirisena won the presidency, however, he suspended the Chinese construction of a $1.4 billion, Dubai-style city on reclaimed land off Colombo, the capital. Several other Chinese projects have also been put off or delayed as Sirisena has ordered investigations into corruption and environmental breaches. Investigations are also underway into an alleged $1.1 million bribe paid by a Chinese state-run company to Rajapaksa’s failed presidential re-election campaign and the alleged role of his two brothers and his wife in misappropriating public funds.

Now, with the latest election results thwarting Rajapaksa’s bid to return to power as prime minister, China faces difficult choices in Sri Lanka. Pro-Western Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose United National Party has emerged as the largest party in the 225-member parliament, falling just short of an absolute majority, has promised to continue investment ties with Beijing but on Sri Lanka’s own terms, saying he welcomes “competitive” foreign direct investment proposals from all countries.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have also underscored the imperative to “rebalance” relations with China. Under their leadership, Sri Lanka’s once-flagging relations with the U.S., India and Japan have significantly improved. Still, most of the stalled Chinese projects in Sri Lanka are likely to eventually resume after incorporating environmental safeguards, which might see some of them eventually scaled back.

China’s larger strategic ambitions in Sri Lanka, however, appear to have dimmed. Without Rajapaksa at the helm, China will be hard put to pursue “dual-use” infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka that serve both military and civilian purposes. One classic example of a dual-purpose project is Colombo’s new Chinese-owned commercial seaport, where two Chinese nuclear submarines and a warship docked last year during Rajapaksa’s family-dominated reign.

Plan B — the Maldives

With Sri Lanka slipping from its strategic grasp, Beijing might be forced to focus on its “Plan B” — the Maldives. China has been interested in leasing one of the 1,200 islands of the politically torn Maldives — the flattest state in the world and the smallest country in Asia in terms of population.

The Maldives recently adopted a constitutional amendment allowing foreign ownership of land, raising concern in New Delhi that the new law could open the path to the establishment of a Chinese naval base in India’s strategic backyard. But Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, in a recent letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said his government had no intention of allowing any country to set up a military base there.

The fact is that, with the international spotlight on its land reclamation and building of outposts in the South China Sea, China has quietly turned its sights to the Indian Ocean, the world’s new center of geopolitical gravity. China’s determination to take the sea route to gain regional hegemony was underscored by its new defense white paper, which outlined a plan for its navy to shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection.” In fact, the international attention on China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea has deflected attention from the artificial island it began building off Colombo before Sirisena suspended the megaproject to create a metropolis on 233 hectares of reclaimed land, with 108 hectares of the real estate to be owned by the state-owned company, China Communications Construction.

China’s heavy political investment in Rajapaksa, in the expectation that he would be a long-lasting autocrat, has clearly miscarried. Rajapaksa has been a war hero for many in the country’s dominant Sinhalese community but a war criminal for others: He is accused of presiding over war crimes while ruthlessly crushing a 26-year ethnic-Tamil insurgency in 2009 — a success that cost the lives of up to 40,000 civilians in the government’s final offensive against Tamil rebels. But his ouster in January revealed that many of his supporters seemed to have tired of the man for many reasons, not least the accusations of brazen nepotism, steady expansion of presidential powers, muzzling of civil liberties and favoring of China — even at the cost of national sovereignty.

“The dictatorial ways of Rajapaksa”

His successor, Sirisena, besides lifting restrictions on the media and the judiciary, has shed some of the Rajapaksa-expanded powers of the president and restored a two-term limit for an incumbent. This has strengthened the position of the prime minister, prompting Rajapaksa, ironically, to bid for that post. The choice for voters in the parliamentary election was between a return to the dictatorial ways of Rajapaksa, who blamed his political rivals for slowing economic growth by putting on hold the mainly China-backed infrastructure projects, and strengthening the “people’s revolution” that led to full-fledged democracy being restored in January — or as the campaign posters of Wickremesinghe’s UNP put it, between “jungle law” and “good governance.”

The outcome of the election, held peacefully with high voter turnout, represents a triumph of democracy. By handing Rajapaksa his second electoral defeat in eight months, it ensures that Sri Lanka will chart an independent foreign policy. It shows that genuine democracy works as a bulwark against the state mortgaging its sovereignty to become a key component of an external power’s regional strategy. By the same token, the erosion of democracy in the Maldives — where the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced to resign at gunpoint in 2012 and who is now serving a 13-year jail term — creates risks for the state to get sucked into great-power rivalries in the Indian Ocean region. With Sri Lanka’s election over, it seems a good time to reflect on that point.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author of nine books, is professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. 

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2015.