China & Sri Lanka: an enduring alliance?
China’s rise as a global economic power – and potentially a global political power too – is attracting more and more attention. From the so-called “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to China’s increasingly aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, the activities of the People’s Republic are one of the biggest stories in international relations.
Whilst in the West, and particularly in Britain and America, the debate is often centred on whether the inexorable side of China represents a threat or an opportunity, the countries living in close proximity to China are scrambling to come to terms with the reality of Chinese power.
Some countries, notably Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, find themselves in territorial disputes with China as a result of the People’s Republic aggressive boundary setting moves in the south China Sea.
In addition, there is the more long-standing political dispute between China and Taiwan centred on the former’s claims of sovereignty over the latter. What all these myriad territorial and political disputes have in common however is the involvement of the United States.
In nearly all cases the US intervenes on behalf of states who feel aggrieved by China’s actions in the South China Sea and beyond. Whilst Washington justifies its own aggressive actions – including challenging Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly islands – as part of its drive to ensure “freedom of navigation” in disputed maritime areas, the reality is that the US is above all concerned with the prospect of China displacing America as the dominant regional power.
But there is another side to the rise of China, both in its immediate environment, regionally and more broadly in a global setting. This is a story of successful Chinese outreach to multiple states, characterised by massive investments in infrastructure and resulting political influence.
One of these states is Sri Lanka, a country strategically perched next to India in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka has come a long way since gaining independence from Britain in February 1948. In the 70 years since independence Sri Lanka has established relatively stable political institutions, in addition to successfully prosecuting a quarter century long counter-insurgency campaign against Tamil separatists in the north and east.
Sri Lanka is important to China for many reasons, much of it revolving around the island nation’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean and its proximity to China’s great rival India. In addition, Sri Lanka presents China with a wide range of investment opportunities which in the long-term can help entrench Chinese influence in the country.
China’s strategic motive
In keeping with its emerging great power status China’s approach to foreign policy is shaped primarily by strategic considerations. To that end, the Chinese leadership has identified three core strategic rivals and potential enemies, namely India, Japan and the United States. Historic Chinese relations with all three powers has been marked by high tension and conflict, particularly with India and Japan.
Therefore, the thrust of Chinese foreign policy is to blunt the influence and reach of these three powers in China’s immediate neighbourhood, or areas where China has traditionally identified as its backyard.
For example, China’s support for North Korea is designed to deter the United States from acknowledging Taiwanese independence. More broadly, China’s support for North Korea is also designed to send a strong message to Japan, whose re-militarisation unsettles China’s historical consciousness.
To its immediate West China is confronted by the Indian giant, a country whose population is only marginally smaller than China’s. India not only challenges China economically, but also politically, on account of the fact that India is considered a “democracy” (albeit with an Asian twist) whereas China is still deeply authoritarian and officially at least still wedded to a communist ideology.
Furthermore, at a strategic level, India is a major rival to China, as similar to the People’s Republic India is incrementally augmenting its military capability with a view to projecting power well beyond its immediate sphere of influence. The development of a so-called blue-water navy (basically a maritime force with global reach and capability) is demonstrative of India’s ultimate ambitions.
In view of India’s strategic ambitions, China has devised a variety of economic, political, diplomatic and military tools to contain its big neighbour to the West. In terms of direct political intervention, and in order to offset Indian meddling in Chinese affairs (as demonstrated by India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama), China is suspected of supporting left-wing militant forces in south-eastern India. These forces have come to be known as the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency and are based mostly in Andhra Pradesh state.
In the diplomatic and economic spheres, China is engaged in extensive outreach to India’s neighbouring states, in particular Pakistan, which is viewed as a counter to India in the subcontinent. China has massive investments in Pakistan, notably in the deep-sea port of Gwadar. More broadly, China is stepping up its longstanding military cooperation with Pakistan, particularly in the ballistic and cruise missiles sphere.
China’s outreach to Sri Lanka is ultimately explainable in the context of China’s strategic posture and associated calculus. Although Sri Lanka is not a large and powerful state like Pakistan – and its relations with India is nowhere near as fraught as Indo-Pakistani relations – nevertheless by establishing influence on the island nation China gains more leverage in its emerging great power rivalry with India.
What does Sri Lanka offer to India?
As stated earlier, Sri Lanka’s close proximity to India inevitably makes it attractive to Chinese strategists. And of course, with geographic proximity comes a high degree of cultural proximity. Indeed, there are strong cultural bonds between the two nations, centred on the Tamil community in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, who are the ethnic kin of the large Tamil community in India’s deep south.
The fact that the Tamils of Sri Lanka were embroiled in a decades long conflict with the central government renders this dimension even more important to the Chinese. More on this later. But suffice to say it is in China’s strategic interest for Sri Lanka to have a strong and stable central government.
A unified and strong Sri Lanka is much more likely to oppose core Indian strategic positions, notably the expansion of Indian influence in the Indian Ocean, and to that end a strong and stable Sri Lanka satisfies China’s strategic priorities.
China cynically exploits tensions in Indo-Sri Lankan relations, notably the majority Sinhalese’s guarded attitude toward India, and Sri Lanka’s natural inclination towards India’s rivals. Note that Sri Lanka has strong ties to Pakistan, India’s nemesis on the subcontinent. Moreover, China seeks to contain Western influence on Sri Lanka, and where possible to drive a wedge between Colombo and Western capitals.
For example, China shields Sri Lanka from Western criticism on human rights issues, focussed on Colombo’s reported mistreatment of the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island. By containing and deterring Western influence in Sri Lanka, China is effectively constructing an outer defensive ring around its core territorial, political and economic interests much further away in the South China Sea area.
From this perspective, China’s outreach to Sri Lanka is an important example of China’s emerging global ambitions and a thinly-veiled desire to project power and influence well beyond its immediate neighbourhood.
The economic dimension
Interestingly, the issue of human rights is bound up with China’s entry into Sri Lanka’s economy. This entry began in earnest in the immediate aftermath of the successful conclusion of the counter-insurgency campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009. At the time Colombo was chafing under Western criticism of its alleged human rights abuses, notably the reported killing of thousands of Tamil civilians in the northern Jaffna Peninsula in the closing stages of the war.
China, similar to Russia, has a policy of non-intervention in the domestic politics of the countries it tries to cultivate. To that end, the Chinese not only did not care about the possible massacre of Tamil civilians, but in fact they undertook active measures – by way of diplomacy and media propaganda – to protect Sri Lanka from Western criticism.
Since 2010 China has invested significant sums in infrastructure projects in southern Sri Lanka and more recently Beijing has begun to invest in northern Sri Lanka as well, including the Jaffna Peninsula, which was the site of the most ferocious battles of the Sri Lanka Civil War of 1983-2009. For example, a major Chinese engineering company is set to build 40,000 houses in the Jaffna Peninsula.
Whilst successive Sri Lankan governments have welcomed Chinese investment, Beijing’s increasing economic influence on the island nation is not completely free of controversy. The case of the Hambantota Port Development Project is being increasingly cited to highlight the exploitative dimension of China’s investment strategy in Sri Lanka.
Construction of the port began in January 2008 and it is set to become Sri Lanka’s largest port, displacing the Port of Colombo from the top spot. But the project incurred heavy losses and was only kept going by Chinese loans, to the point where Sri Lanka was effectively forced in December 2017 to lease the port for 99 years to the Chinese.
China’s critics and detractors often use this case to demonstrate Beijing’s alleged cynical use of loans and investment funds to advance political and strategic ambitions. They also argue that massive infrastructure projects driven and funded by Chinese loans and associated finance potentially undermine the sovereignty of small states like Sri Lanka and to that end they can be construed as a form of Chinese imperialism.
How stable is Sri Lanka?
At present Sri Lanka is embroiled in a political crisis after President Maithripala Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe only to replace him with hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa. This arbitrary dismissal of a sitting government has been fiercely resisted by the Sri Lankan parliament, to the point where there is political stalemate.
Sri Lanka is currently in the strange position of having two prime ministerial claimants – and potentially two rival governments – and hence on the threshold of deep political turmoil and potential bloodshed. However, despite the deep political uncertainty, the country is relatively calm and smooth administration continues apace.
This speaks to Sri Lanka’s bureaucratic resilience as embodied by the country’s civil service. In the past ten years China has tried hard to cultivate deep links to Sri Lanka’s bureaucracy with a view to investing in the country’s long-term stability. By cultivating allies in the Sri Lankan civil service Beijing believes it can mitigate the instability emanating from Colombo’s volatile politics.
In the final analysis, all the available evidence suggests that China – in keeping with its far-sighted global strategy – is set to deepen its influence in Sri Lanka in the years and decades to come.