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International relations

India seeks to contain China presence in new Sri Lanka government

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to steer between big global powers, experts say

Sri Lankans rally after voting in the presidential election in Colombo on Nov. 16. India fears Chinese influence may once again surge in Sri Lanka.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- India has mounted a charm offensive to woo the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka's most influential political clan, in a race for diplomatic influence in a strategic stretch of the Indian Ocean where China is gaining.

New Delhi made its intentions clear when Indian external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar rushed to the South Asian island on Tuesday to meet President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was sworn in the day before. Rajapaksa's electoral victory came during the weekend.

Jaishankar delivered an invitation from Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi for Rajapaksa to visit India on Nov. 29, which would be the new Sri Lankan leader's first foreign tour.

But Jaishankar also called on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya's elder brother, nodding to the clout of the Sri Lankan political family that has returned to power after a hiatus of nearly five years. On Thursday, Mahinda, who showed an authoritarian bent and pro-China tilt in his nearly 10 years as president, was appointed prime minister in Gotabaya's caretaker administration.

Seasoned South Asian diplomats view these overtures as a New Delhi effort to reset diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka's first family after a sustained chill. During the last administration, India cultivated warm ties with the pro-Western coalition government.

When Mahinda suffered a shock defeat in the previous presidential elections, in January 2015, he was quick to blame India's spy agency for having a hand in his ouster. It was a view widely shared by Colombo's political insiders at the time, in the same way Chinese companies were fingered for bankrolling Mahinda's reelection campaign.

The charge worsened ties between the Rajapaksas and New Delhi. Mahinda had openly courted China's cash to build up Sri Lanka after a three-decade civil war ended. India's suspicions of Mahinda's China tilt reached an apex in 2014, when Sri Lanka "crossed another red line" by permitting Chinese submarines to enter Sri Lankan ports, according to a senior South Asian diplomat.

"India appears ready to disregard the past hiccups and willing to reset the relationship with the Rajapaksas," said the diplomat. "New Delhi has a self-interest not to make the previous mistakes."

"[India] is driven by an Indian policy of getting your neighborhood right before getting your strategic affairs with China right."

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to his supporters in the city of Anuradhapura on Nov. 18, before being sworn in.   © Reuters

The reset is unlikely to dislodge China's economic influence from the strategically located island. Billions of dollars in loans, grants and investments under China's Belt and Road Initiative are behind new Sri Lankan landmarks, spanning a port, airport, coal-fired power station, highways, hospitals and reclaimed land off Colombo's coast to build a financial city on an artificial island.

Colombo-based diplomats concede that India is unable to match China's deep pockets. "So New Delhi is concentrating more on security matters and would like to ensure it enjoys primacy in this area," one diplomat said. "India was able to achieve this balance during the coalition government's term, and probably wants to extend it in this new Rajapaksa period."

Foreign policy analysts reckon that the U.S. government faces a similar dilemma in trying to contain China's growing influence in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka stands out in a defense strategy Washington has implemented toward achieving a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific," an area covering the Pacific coast of the U.S. to the west coast of India. U.S. government officials say this shift in U.S. geopolitics is meant to counter the influence China is winning with its Belt and Road Initiative.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has provided some relief for the countries having a stake in the power game. "We want to remain neutral in our foreign relations and stay out of any conflicts among the world powers," he said during his swearing-in speech on Monday.

This tone of neutrality is a shift from his older brother's pro-China tilt. It is also differs from the previous coalition government's tone. The coalition began its term being openly hostile toward China as it courted favors from India, the U.S. and Japan.

According to Palitha Kohona, a former Sri Lankan foreign ministry secretary, the new Rajapaksa foreign policy will strike a middle path to court countries as "equal partners for business and investment." It will avoid "becoming a tool of any power," either militarily or economically, Kohona said.

Rajapaksa provided early hints of this shift on the campaign trail, opting to play up domestic concerns to his ultranationalist base, rather than foreign threats, the usual red meat his ultranationalist political allies throw to this constituency.

"The coalition government learned a lesson after being hostile to China, yet having to turn to China when its foreign allies failed to deliver on investments and development assistance," Kohona, a confidante of the Rajapaksas, said. "China dealt with the coalition government as a commercial partner and lacked the genuine warmth evident during the Mahinda presidency."

Cheng Xeuyuan, China's ambassador in Sri Lanka, was among the first envoys knocking on the door of Mahinda shortly after the pro-China leader's clan was back in power. "We discussed the further strengthening of the already existing bilateral relations between our two nations," Mahinda tweeted.

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