The recent Sri Lankan presidential election was remarkable for several reasons.
First, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the over-confident incumbent, lost the vote, despite a booming economy. Second, Mr Rajapaksa – who was often accused of authoritarian and dynastic tendencies – seems to have accepted the voters’ verdict without a fight. His best riposte to those who accused him of not being a democrat may turn out to be the way in which he accepted unfavourable election results, and allowed his rival, Maithripala Sinisena, to assume power. The change of government in Sri Lanka also has a wider geopolitical significance.
One of the themes of the Sinisena campaign was that the Rajapaksa government (and family) had got far too close to China. The new government has promised to re-examine some business deals with China that it claims may have been tainted by corruption.
India, Sri Lanka’s powerful neighbour,, was also upset by the growing ties between Sri Lanka and Beijing. Late last year, Chinese submarines made two separate visits to new port facilities in Sri Lanka, built and majority-owned by Chinese companies. These visits stoked Indian paranoia that China is intent on constructing what the Indians sometimes call a “string of pearls”, in the form of naval facilities and bases, that might stretch from the Chinese coast through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean and on to the Gulf of Arabia.
Sri Lanka, because of its key position at the bottom of the Indian subcontinent, is regarded as a particularly important pearl in the string – along with other potential naval facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
If Sri Lanka’s close relationship with China now cools a little, Indian strategists will be relieved. The Chinese, for their part, might have reason for concern. China’s relationship with Myanmar has also cooled, over the past couple of years. Setbacks in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka might make the string of pearls look a little frayed.
Yet Indian and western glee at China’s apparent setback in Sri Lanka may yet prove premature. Some of the reasons for Sri Lanka’s closeness to China will survive the passing of the Rajapaksas. China has been an important ally in Sri Lanka’s efforts to ward off international war-crimes investigations, stemming from the bloody end of the Sri Lankan civil war. The new government may be no keener than the last one on seeing these investigations pursued and so would continue to look to Beijing for support.
Furthermore, for all the allegations of corruption, there is an underlying commercial logic that will continue to ensure that Sri Lanka is interested in Chinese investment. That same commercial logic will also mean that China is likely to continue to look for and sponsor new port facilities in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
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