Hours before External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s arrival in Colombo on Friday and a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Sri Lanka (13-14 March), the government of Maithripala Sirisena has taken the bold decision of suspending a $1.5 billion Chinese real estate project in Colombo.
The Sirisena government has walked the talk and it’s a high stake foreign policy gamble by his government. Not many countries have rebuffed China so strongly and that too within two months after Sirisena stunned the world by winning the 8 January presidential elections.
Sirisena has moved in quickly to brace himself up for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka as on Thursday he was made Chairman of Sri Lanka’s largest party Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which has 126 MPs in the 225-member Sri Lankan parliament. Interestingly, Sirisena had defected from the SLFP just before the presidential election to become the joint opposition candidate.
Needless to say, this political move of Sirisena also has adverse implications for China as it is meant to keep former president Mahinda Rajapaksa out. Rajapaksa was a strong supporter of China and the Sri Lankan opposition parties had repeatedly questioned his pro-China policies which were also at the expense of India’s strategic interests in the island nation.
Swaraj’s two-day visit to Sri Lanka (6-7 March) will set the stage for PM Modi’s visit to this important neighbour. It will be the first time that an Indian Prime Minister will be visiting Sri Lanka in over 25 years. Apart from having structured talks with her Sri Lankan counterpart Mangala Samaraweera, Swaraj will also be meeting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as Sirisena, and brief her Sri Lankan interlocutors about the Indian preparations for the extremely significant upcoming visit of PM Modi.
The last prime ministerial visit from India to Sri Lanka was way back in 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi had visited the island nation. But that visit triggered a growing India-Sri Lanka divide as India got sucked into the cesspool of Sri Lanka’s civil war and Rajiv Gandhi’s policies pitted India against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Just about four years later, Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu.
Modi’s upcoming Sri Lanka visit will have many firsts. He will be visiting multiple Sri Lankan cities and will be the first Indian PM to visit Jaffna which was a de facto capital of the LTTE till the rebel group was militarily defeated by Sri Lankan armed forces in May 2009.
Modi will also be the fourth Indian Prime Minister to address Sri Lankan parliament, an honour that his predecessors like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai had. Desai was the last India PM to have addressed the Sri Lankan parliament way back in 1979.
Sri Lanka’s ancient capital Anuradhapura, a stronghold of Buddhists, is also on PM Modi’s itinerary. He is also likely to visit Kandy and inspect ongoing Indian housing projects there.
China will obviously be the elephant in the room as India and Sri Lanka engage with one another at top political levels in the coming days. China has been wooing dozens of Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific littoral states for its $40 billion Maritime Silk Road, which is Beijing’s ambitious strategic project aimed at linking China with to-be-constructed multiple communication lines in Indian Ocean Region and Asia Pacific.
India is wary of the Chinese MSR project and Sri Lanka is a key country for China in implementing its MSR project. However, the Sri Lankan government’s decision to suspend the $1.5 billion Chinese project in Colombo and Sirisena’s emergence as top leader of SLFP have stopped the Chinese juggernaut.
Though the Sirisena government has only suspended the Chinese on environmental grounds and not cancelled it outright, the move may trigger a cascade and may embolden other small nations to take on China. Beijing will inevitably be using its immense diplomatic and economic clout to stem the rot here and now and not allow it to become a trend.
On India’s part, New Delhi will be keen to see that the Sirisena government does not lose momentum in its current policies of purging the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka which had become a major cause of worry for the Indian strategic establishment.This will be the main strategic template for India-Sri Lanka engagements in the coming days and months. The strategic competition between the Chinese Dragon and Indian Elephant has begun in right earnest in Sri Lanka.