China extends helping hand to Sri Lanka

(Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 14, 2019.)

The visit to China by the President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena underscores how inextricably the internal developments in the island country are connected to the geopolitics of the South Asian region. Sirisena’s foreign visit comes hardly three weeks after the bloody Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on April 21, which killed over 250 people — and, interestingly, his destination is Beijing. 

Sri Lanka is still under emergency rule and the reverberations of the terrorist attacks are manifesting as inter-ethnic strife. While Sirisena was in China, on May 14, there were fresh incidents of anti-Muslim violence, which compelled the Sri Lankan authorities to impose island-wide curfew. Arguably, this wasn’t quite the appropriate time for Sirisena to be abroad and the political message here is that he prioritised the trip to Beijing.

Indeed, the Chinese hosts appreciated Sirisena’s gesture. President Xi Jinping received him at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 14. The Xinhua news agency reported that the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka figured prominently at the meeting. Xinhua reported Xi as saying that “China is ready to stand alongside the Sri Lankan government and people, support Sri Lanka in combating terrorism, and help the country enhance its counter-terrorism capacity building to safeguard national security and stability.” It added, “He (Xi) called for deepening security law enforcement cooperation and jointly addressing non-traditional security threats including terrorism.’

Coincidence or not, Sri Lanka becomes China’s second partner country in the South Asian region — after Pakistan — where its Belt and Road Initiative has run into headwinds. One of the targets of the Easter Sunday attacks on April 21 was the Shangri La Hotel, which is located in the so-called Port City being built in Colombo on 269 hectares of land reclaimed from the Indian Ocean. The $1.4 billion BRI project is undertaken by the state-owned Chinese engineering firm China Communications Construction Company. 

Beijing must be wondering why the mysterious beast of obscure pedigree known as the Islamic State is cherrypicking Gwadar in Pakistan and Colombo in Sri Lanka to vent its fury. At any rate, Xi assured Sirisena that “China stands ready to work with Sri Lanka to constantly push forward their strategic cooperative partnership that features sincere mutual help and long-term friendship.” He called on the two sides to “maintain regular high-level communication, firmly grasp the general direction of friendly cooperation, and staunchly support each other.” Xi underscored that China and Sri Lanka should “steadily advance the joint construction of the Belt and Road, promote cooperation in major projects.”  

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, the United States has stationed in Sri Lanka “advisors” from the Indo-Pacific Command headquartered in Hawaii, ostensibly to assist in counter-terrorism. 

It stands to reason that Beijing has been watching the expansion of American influence in Sri Lanka following the US-backed “regime change” in 2015 resulting in the ouster of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Curiously, President Trump broke protocol and telephoned the ‘pro-US’ prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, bypassing President Sirisena, to discuss American assistance after the Easter Sunday attacks.

Put differently, geopolitics and Sri Lankan domestic politics are joined at the hips. The US regards Sirisena, a veteran politician who at one time belonged to the communist party, with almost the same degree of suspicion as the former president Rajapaksa. For Washington, it is imperative that in the forthcoming presidential election in Sri Lanka due to be held later this year, Wickremesinghe emerges victorious. Unsurprisingly, both Sirisena and Rajapaksa are proponents of expansion of cooperation with China. And both have had troubled relations with India.  

Curiously, the terrorist strikes in Sri Lanka have put India on the defensive. 

The Sri Lankan establishment always harboured suspicions regarding Indian intentions. But it was indeed a bad idea for Delhi to have leaked to the media that it had shared intelligence with Colombo about the strong likelihood of terrorist attacks. The leak embarrassed Sirisena. The Sri Lankan army chief shortly thereafter hit back by alleging in a highly publicised interview with the BBC that the terrorists involved in Easter Sunday attacks had visited India, including J&K, and obtained training to carry out subversive activities. 

All things taken into account, therefore, Sirisena’s decision to reach out to Beijing rather than to Delhi for help is heavy with symbolism. Unsurprisingly, responding to Sirisena’s request, Beijing has provided a generous grant of  $14.75 million towards strengthening Sri Lankan Security Forces, besides providing 100 jeeps and other equipment costing another $8.5 million to Sri Lanka Police. According to reports from Colombo, Sirisena’s discussion with Xi also focussed on “strengthening cooperation in the defence sector and sharing intelligence between the two countries.” 

Such high importance attached to Sri Lanka’s security and stability by the Chinese leadership signals that Beijing is sensing a threat to disrupt the Belt and Road projects in the island. China cannot afford a replay of the regime change that was orchestrated recently in the Maldives to happen in Sri Lanka as well. Significantly, at the meeting with Sirisena, Xi called on the two sides “to maintain regular high-level communication, firmly grasp the general direction of friendly cooperation, and staunchly support each other.” 

Importantly, responding to Sirisena’s concern over Sri Lanka “lacking technological expertise and equipment to trace the individuals who fan the flames of terrorism”, Xi has offered to send a Chinese technical team to Sri Lanka soon to assist authorities.

The geopolitical backdrop may appear loaded against China. The US and India are working in close coordination to push back at China in the Indian Ocean region. Sri Lanka becomes a vital piece of real estate in this great game. Sri Lanka and the Maldives come half way between the American military bases in Diego Garcia and Singapore. Simply put, if these two strategically located island countries — floating aircraft carriers — can be brought into the US orbit, China will be at a serious disadvantage in keeping a naval presence in the Indian Ocean through which it conducts the bulk of its foreign trade.  

The US-Indian efforts to replace “pro-China” Rajapaksa met with spectacular success in 2015 but Sirisena who succeeded him has proved to be not only independent-minded and nationalistic but is singularly devoid of any trace of Sinophobia in his outlook. On the other hand, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, despite a robust reputation of being pro-US and pro-Indian, has also been unable to deliver, since Sirisena overshadows him constantly. 

In retrospect, therefore, the US-Indian regime change project in Sri Lanka in 2015 didn’t produce the desired results. The upcoming presidential election will be a high stakes affair. The internal security situation, which is at an inflection point, will be a key issue in the election. No doubt, China has extended a helping hand to Sirisena at a critical juncture.