With new president, Sri Lanka ties look bright

By Zhang Jiadong Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/21 19:38:40

Sri Lanka's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa speaks during his first address to the nation in Anuradhapura of North Central Province, Sri Lanka, on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

Sri Lanka's former defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as the country's new president on Monday, after he won the weekend election. Since Rajapaksa is widely perceived to be "pro-China," his inauguration is considered the beginning of Sri Lanka's tilt toward the world's second largest economy. 

China and Sri Lanka share a traditional friendship. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589), Faxian, a Chinese Buddhist monk who brought a large number of Buddhist books back to China after his foreign trip, had lived in Sri Lanka for a long time on his way back and became an important figure in the history of Sri Lankan Buddhism. In renowned Chinese navigator Zheng He's voyage during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zheng landed in Sri Lanka several times. At that time, Sri Lanka had also sent officials to China. 

In 1952, before China and Sri Lanka established diplomatic ties, when China was under sanctions from the West and Sri Lanka was facing a foreign exchange crisis, the two countries inked the Rubber-Rice Pact agreement, in which China agreed to provide rice in exchange for Sri Lankan rubber. The deal resolved the urgency in both countries, and showed the two as reliable partners. 

After former Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena assumed office on January 9, 2015, China-Sri Lanka ties had gone through twists and turns with some major cooperation projects being put on hold. There are three major reasons. First, opposition stems from the nature of electoral politics. Second, the pressure and temptation from the international community made Sirisena think he could use relations with China to trade for more assistance from other countries. Third, given the contradictions between different interest groups within the country, only change can lead to opportunities for a new government to make gains. Yet eventually, Sri Lanka failed to obtain more assistance from other countries. 

As a matter of fact, China-Sri Lanka relations are deeply rooted in the public opinion in the island country. Quite a few important infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka have been built by China, including Hambantota Port, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, Norochcholai Power Station and Colombo International Financial City. These achievements cannot be undone by government changes. 

As Rajapaksa has started his term in office, there will be more opportunities for China and Sri Lanka to develop relations. In September, Rajapaksa's adviser Palitha Kohona said, "When Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes the president... he will set the record right" and restore the relationship with China to where it was. 

However, not everyone is pleased to see China and Sri Lanka develop closer ties. Some are worried that the island country would greatly depend on China economically, politically and militarily, which would boost China's influence on Sri Lanka, thus affecting the power structure around the Indian Ocean. 

If a country's goal is to obtain strategic monopoly in South Asia and North Indian Ocean, any other nation's rapid development or cooperation with major powers outside the region can be considered a threat. But if a country's major goal is regional peace and development, it would welcome China's investment and collaboration with countries in the region. It is believed Rajapaksa will draft his foreign policy based on his understanding of Sri Lanka's interests. Fundamentally speaking, Rajapaksa is not "pro-China," but pro-Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka's foreign policy is determined by its domestic conditions. It is an island country in the Indian Ocean and separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Palk Strait. Its location has given Sri Lanka more strategic freedom than other South Asian countries to determine its own diplomacy independently. Although Sri Lanka is not a developed country, its economic statistics are better than most other South Asian economies. Its populations have every reason to pursue higher economic goals. The country sits in the Indian Ocean along one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, which is supposed to bring Sri Lanka enormous wealth. However, given its poor infrastructure, it has been hard for the country to benefit from the transportation route. 

Cooperation with China mirrors Sri Lanka's wish to use its geographical advantage and to turn itself into a transport hub in the North Indian Ocean. However, Colombo's ambition has made other major regional powers uneasy. They have the right to be concerned. But Sri Lanka also has the right to make policies that are in line with its own interests. 

The author is director of Center for South Asian Studies, Fudan University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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