Sri Lanka is set to go on polls shortly and rivalry between India and China in the Island nation has been revived. While the presidential elections are vital for Lankans, however, the outcome of the results will be crucial to both India and China as both nations have been struggling to regain influence in the region.
The two key players are former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former prime minister, the late Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son Sajith Premadasa. Of these two, Premadasa is reportedly pro-India while Rajapaksa has been a key ally of China.
Over the last 10 years, since the end of the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka, China steadily displaced India as the most dominant player there. Beijing filled the vacuum left behind by Delhi which adopted a hands-off approach after the IPKF fiasco in the late ‘80s and the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by LTTE rebels.
Boiling with anger at the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian government turned against the LTTE and the larger Tamil separatist movement which it had supported (both openly and tacitly) through the 70s and 80s.
Mahinda Rajapaksa who was elected president in 2005 scrapped an ongoing peace process at the time between Colombo and the LTTE and launched an all-out attack on the Tamil separatists. Indian government, despite requests from sections of the Tamil population in Tamil Nadu including the then Karunanidhi government, remained unmoved.
China came to the aid of Rajapaksa, sent the latest weapons and helped him win the conflict. Gotabaya was his military strategist. A weakened and isolated LTTE was finally defeated in 2009 shattering the dream of a separate Tamil homeland.
A thrilled Rajapaksa rolled out the red carpet for Beijing, opened up the nation for Chinese investments and permitted his newfound ally a free run in the country. Rajapaksa changed the political balance of power in the region by ignoring India which was caught in a diplomatic muddle, unable to decide how to move forward in its relationship with Sri Lanka.
The Chinese $1 billion-project at Hambantota to develop it as an economic zone including a port turned out to be the most talked-about for its ambitious vision. Cash-strapped Colombo was incapable to repay the debt and handed over the entire project to China on lease for 99 years. This alarmed not just India but the western powers as well who called it a Chinese debt-trap strategy.
Though both sides claimed the port was to promote freight traffic, reports of Chinese submarines docking there have all but validated Indian fears that it may ultimately serve Beijing’s military purposes.
Besides Hambantota, China has invested billions of dollars in developing Sri Lanka’s infrastructure including roads, ports and power stations as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
The honeymoon period in Sri Lanka’s ties with China slightly deteriorated with the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential elections. The new president Maithripala Sirisena almost overnight turned Sri Lanka away from the Chinese influence which many experts saw a massive Indian diplomatic victory.
The elections of 2015 were perceived as that between Chinese-backed Rajapaksa vs Sirisena supported by India. When Sirisena won the elections, there was general outrage in the Rajapaksa camp over indirect Indian involvement.
Ironically, though Sirisena initially seemed set against Chinese investment in Sri Lanka he seemed to have weakened his resentment mid-way through his governance. In fact, the October 2018 fallout between Sirisena PM Ranil Wickremesinghe has been variously attributed to Sirisena moving closer to China while Wickremesinghe continued to be pro-India. Sirisena, in the ongoing election campaign, has supported the candidature of the pro-China Gotabaya Rajapaksa.