The first foreign envoy to call on the new Sri Lankan President, Maithripala Sirisena, within hours of his Jan. 9 victory over Mahinda Rajpaksa, was India’s High Commissioner in Colombo Yashwant Sinha. In contrast, China’s Ambassador Wu Jinaghao had to wait until Jan. 15 for his turn to shake hands with the island nation’s new boss.
Sinha pipping Jinaghao by as many as six days is being seen as proof of New Delhi suddenly gaining the upper hand in Sri Lanka where India and China have been jockeying for power and influence for decades. Rajpaksa was openly pro-China while Sirisena is close to India. After trouncing Rajpaksa, Sirisena not only dispatched his Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to New Delhi on his first overseas visit but has declared that the first country he intends to visit as new Sri Lankan president is India, where preparations have begun in earnest ahead of his February state visit.
While Rajpaksa’s downfall is certainly a huge setback for China’s expansion into South Asia and a significant diplomatic victory for India in its strategic backyard, the blow to Beijing is a big relief for America too. New Delhi’s covert campaign to bolster Sirisena’s prospects by uniting a divided opposition against Rajpaksa enjoyed the blessings of Washington, which views China as its prime global challenger and competitor.
But India should watch its steps instead of gloating too much. Sirisena did make a lot of anti-China noises and threatened to scrap mega development deals Rajpaksa struck with Chinese companies if voted to power. But electioneering is one thing, governance another.
And China’s financial muscle, which India simply can’t match, is capable of winning lost battles. China has invested a staggering $ five billion in Sri Lanka — 80 percent of it in the last five years after the civil war ended. So it’s bound to fight back to safeguard its huge investment. Moreover, Beijing enjoys immense clout in the United Nations where Sri Lankan human rights record can be exploited by a scorned or vindictive superpower.
There are already signs of the new government diluting its tough pre-election stand. For instance, Sirisena had threatened to scrap the $1.5 billion New Colombo Port City Project financed by China Communications Construction Co Ltd and inaugurated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September last year. But in a significant change of heart, the new regime says it will only reassess and renegotiate the deal — a far cry from the aggressive posturing during the poll campaign.
New Delhi is particularly touchy about the under-construction port city project because of the large number of India-bound cargo ships that pass through Colombo port. Indian diplomats say, “it isn’t just an infrastructure project but a key segment of the Chinese Maritime Silk Route — a new Beijing-dominated sea trade corridor — with deep security implications.”
But it seems India will now have to live with the “security threat” despite toppling Rajpaksa and ensuring Sirisena’s victory. The inking of the Maritime Silk Route agreement by Rajpaksa and Jinping in September stunned and angered India, which felt that the pact “legitimized China as a South Asian power stakeholder.”
China’s lengthening shadow over a region where India was once unchallenged, is straining Sino-Indian ties already bedeviled by decades of distrust and delaying normalization of relations between the world’s two most populated nuclear-armed neighbors.
Rajpaksa rubbed salt in India’s wounds by granting berthing permission to Chinese submarines in September and November violating the 1987 agreement between Rajiv Gandhi and J. R. Jayewardene, which laid down that no “port in Sri Lanka will be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.” It proved to be the final straw — and Rajpaksa’s undoing. New Delhi expects Sirisena to fast-track nearly a dozen strategic, infrastructural and strategic projects besides resuming ferry services with India. Among the projects Rajpaksa is accused of intentionally delaying is the $350-million Sampur Thermal Power Plant near Trincomalee for which India’s National Thermal Power Corporation signed an agreement way back in 2006. India is also keen to restore the Tiruketheeswaram temple and rebuild the war-ravaged Kankeanthurai harbor to make its presence felt.
After tasting blood in Sri Lanka, India is taking on China in Bangladesh — another neighbor it considers within its zone of influence. China Harbour Engineering Company, an early bidder for $8 billion deepwater port project in Sondadia, Bangladesh, will now have to contend with a counter proposal submitted by the Adani Group known to enjoy the backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.