By Daniel Balazs, Patrick Mendis, ‘Foreign Policy,’ Washington, DC, October 1, 2015
The new Sri Lankan government is re-balancing its foreign policy, drifting away from China’s orbit toward a more equidistant engagement with India and the United States.
With the growing economic importance of the Indian Ocean, the geo-strategically located Sri Lanka is becoming crucial within the strategic trajectory of the key regional power players: the United States, India and China. The island nation has therefore sought to reap the benefits of the great power competition, and the three nations have had to adjust their engagement accordingly.
The leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa favored China, while the new President Maithripala Sirisena has opened the country up for re-engagement with India and the United States. After winning the parliamentary elections in August, the new government reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s new foreign policy direction, returning to the traditional practice of parliamentary democracy and renewed better relations with India and the United States. Nonetheless, what might seem to play out as deteriorating China ties in favor of stronger relations with India and the United States is much more than that: it is the manifestation of a delicate, non-aligned foreign policy.
As India and China are becoming more reliant on energy imports, the two countries “share an interest” with the United States in safeguarding the commercial sea routes on the Indian Ocean,which host one-third of the planet’s population as well as vast resource supplies, and through which an overwhelming proportion of the global container and oil traffic ships transit.
With this background and historical context, Sri Lanka has become central to the dynamics of the relationship between India, China, and the United States, as all of these countries have strategic interests connected to the island nation.
Colombo Consensus 1.0
Sri Lanka has been anything but helpless in these circumstances. The Rajapaksa regime’s foreign policy engagement, dubbed the “Colombo Consensus”, was deeply influenced by the brutal civil war fought between the government forces and the Tamil Tigers. The bloody victory of the Rajapaksa leadership ensured a wide range of internal support, but it limited the space for engagement with foreign powers.
First, U.S.-Sri Lankan ties were severed as the Rajapaksa government was subject to criticism of alleged war crimes, human rights abuses, corruption, and nepotism. With the backing of the United States, the UN Human Rights Council requested an investigation into wartime wrongdoings, provoking a negative response from Sri Lanka.
Second, the cultural bonds between the Tamil populations on both sides of the Palk Strait heavily influenced India’s engagement with the island, as New Delhi needed to satisfy the politically influential parties of the Tamil Nadu state of India without endangering cordial relations with the Sri Lankan government.
The restricted engagement of the United States and India opened up the space for China’s pragmatic approach, which was not hindered by grievances over wartime atrocity claims, human rights and corruption. As Beijing’s strategic interest is to maintain the security of its economic lifeline in the Indian Ocean, it started to build an extensive network of maritime facilities in the region. This plan, known as the “String of Pearls” strategy, is seen by India as an effort to “concircle” New Delhi. As the Rajapaksa regime offered advantageous conditions for infrastructural development, Beijing’s push for massive investment projects—including the controversial Hambantota Port—provided justification for an increased Chinese naval presence in the region.
More recently, Colombo is an important stopover for Beijing’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—the sea-based pillar of the “One Belt-One Road” initiative—which shows a striking parallel to the String of Pearls. Sri Lanka, under the Sirisena administration, has been eager to support China’s projects, which might give further basis for maintaining Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region. Observers now regard last year’s port visits of Chinese warships in Colombo as being inconsistent with Beijing’s supposed “Peaceful Rise” strategy, making India and the United States increasingly worried.
Ultimately, the rule of the Rajapaksa regime, marked by allegations of oppression, nepotism and authoritarianism, benefited Beijing, which used its leverage to gain a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean region.
Colombo Consensus 2.0
It seems that this foreign policy trajectory was significantly altered by a karmic self-correction for freedom. Motivated by decreasing popularity, Rajapaksa called for a snap election and was dethroned by his former ally Sirisena, who promised to tackle corruption and nepotism and create a more balanced foreign policy with parliamentary democracy under the shared power of the presidency. Furthermore, Rajapaksa’s recent failure to become prime minister during the general elections gives the island nation a chance to maintain its new foreign policy direction.
These developments seem to be advantageous for New Delhi. Sirisena visited India on his first overseas trip and wrapped up a consequential meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, resulting in four agreements, including a civil nuclear collaboration pact. Later, as a part of India’s push for a more comprehensive Indian Ocean policy, Modi visited Sri Lanka during his Indian Ocean tour. Partly motivated by military and resource security issues, during this visit, India pledged to assist Colombo in developing the Upper Tank Farm at China Bay and transform Trincomalee into a “regional petroleum hub”. The adjacent Trincomalee’s natural harbor is a regular refueling stop for U.S. naval vessels.
The recent leadership changes have been welcomed by the United States. The press labeled the development as “good news for democracy,” and during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit, the United States pledged to provide assistance to Sri Lanka’s reforms, anti-corruption initiatives, and investigation into undeclared and hidden foreign assets by Rajapaka’s family members and other officials. Moreover, bilateral relations seem to be continuing to improve further as Washington recently abandoned its former stance on the inquiry of alleged wartime atrocities, favoring Sri Lanka’s domestic investigation over an international probe by the United Nations.
In the wake of the recent developments, it seems that understanding the internal dynamics of Sri Lanka and trying to shape them is more beneficial than an external, no-strings-attached approach of pouring money into the country. Chinese investments, including the $1.5 billion Colombo project, have become targets of scrutiny. Regarding the docking of Chinese submarines, the new leadership has clearly stated that it will avoid such episodes in the future. Moreover, Sirisena publicly downplayed the Maritime Silk Road during his speech given at China’s Boao Forum in Hainan.
It might be tempting to conclude that the recent changes have brought a 180-degree turn in Sri Lanka’s international trajectory, but this would be premature. First of all, senior officials of the government were keen to articulate that the Sino-Lankan relations did not suffer a setback, nor did they lose their importance. Second, China’s loans might have been suspended, but the new government does not intend to revoke them, and there are new negotiations involving China-funded initiatives. Furthermore, China appears to be devoted to maintaining cordial relations with the new leadership, as Beijing rewarded Sirisena with a $100 million specialized hospital for his home district to treat a mysterious kidney disease afflicting farmers. Finally, the Sirisena government has maintained strategic engagement with China, as the two sides successfully conducted a joint military exercise in July.
Given the growing importance of the maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean and its strategic location next to them, Sri Lanka has to shape its foreign policy against the backdrop of strategic competition between China, India, and the United States. Emerging from a bloody civil war, the international reputation of the Rajapaksa regime provided narrow space for maneuver, drifting the island toward robust Chinese influence. Nevertheless, the unexpected presidential change and the general election results have shown that the country was far from sealing its own fate.
Sirisena has initiated a clear recalibration of foreign policy, shaping the former China-inclination toward a more equidistant engagement with India and the United States. However, even the modest results of the Sirisena regime to date might be in danger if the new government fails to pursue a more non-aligned but engaged foreign policy, while fulfilling its campaign promises to the Sri Lankan people. Otherwise, a new karmic cycle may decide once again the fate of the democratic island nation.