NEW DELHI – Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election this month promises to shape not only the country’s political future, but also geopolitics in the wider Indian Ocean region, a global center of trade and energy flows that accounts for half of the world’s container traffic and 70% of its petroleum shipments. The country’s strategic importance has not been lost on China, which has, to the dismay of India and the United States, been working hard to strengthen its presence in the Indian Ocean.
A leading contender in Sri Lanka’s upcoming election is former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose nine-year tenure, which ended in January with a shock defeat in the presidential election, was characterized by rising authoritarianism, nepotism, and corruption. To be sure, Rajapaksa brought an end to the 26-year Tamil insurgency in 2009, causing many in the country’s dominant Sinhalese community to view him as a hero. But it was a ruthless effort, during which Rajapaksa allegedly presided over war crimes, including the killing of up to 40,000 civilians in the final offensive against the Tamil rebels.
During Rajapaksa’s presidency, Sri Lanka’s relationship with India deteriorated, owing partly to his government’s failure to reconcile with the Tamil minority. (India has a sizeable Tamil population.) But the country’s relationship with China improved markedly, with Chinese firms winning a series of lucrative construction contracts that would secure Sri Lanka’s position as a key stop on China’s “maritime Silk Road” connecting Asia to Africa and the Middle East.
The maritime Silk Road is not just a trade initiative; it will also provide several access points for China’s navy in the Indian Ocean region, through accords for refueling, replenishment, crew rest, and maintenance. This fusion of economic and military interests was apparent last fall, when Chinese attack submarines, in their first known voyages to the Indian Ocean, docked at the new Chinese-owned container terminal in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. Such activities risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba.
Rajapaksa’s successors, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, seemed to recognize the risks that such collaboration with China entails. Indeed, during the presidential election campaign, Sirisena – who had served as Minister of Health in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, before quitting to run against his former boss – has said that the contracts awarded to China by Rajapaksa are ensnaring Sri Lanka in a debt trap.
Likewise, in his election manifesto, Sirisena warns: “The land that the White Man took over by means of military strength is now being obtained by foreigners by paying ransom to a handful of persons… If this trend continues for another six years, our country would become a colony and we would become slaves.” While the manifesto does not mention China by name, the implication is clear.
Once in power, Sirisena’s government put on hold the construction by Chinese firms of a $1.4 billion city on reclaimed land, and ordered investigations into environmental violations and corruption, including an alleged $1.1 million bribe by a Chinese state-run firm to Rajapaksa’s failed presidential reelection campaign. Moreover, by passing a constitutional amendment, Sirisena rescinded some of the presidential powers that Rajapaksa had added, as well as restoring the two-term limit. (Somewhat ironically, this has strengthened the position of Prime Minister, for which Rajapaksa is now vying.)
Last month, however, Sirisena suddenly decided to allow Rajapaksa to contest the parliamentary election on the ticket of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party – control of which Sirisena wrested from Rajapaksa after winning the presidency. It seems that Sirisena’s increasingly strained relations with Wickremesinghe, whose pro-democracy United National Party is the SLFP’s main opponent in the upcoming election, together with growing factionalism within the SLFP, left the president little choice but to accommodate Rajapaksa.
If the SLFP were to win a majority in Parliament, it is not inevitable that Rajapaksa would lead the new government; that decision would be up to Sirisena. The question, then, is how far Sirisena will go in accommodating his predecessor, and what Faustian bargain has he perhaps struck to win a parliamentary majority.
It should be noted that, even if Rajapaksa does not become prime minister, he is likely to win a seat in Parliament, providing him with the influence and political standing he needs to lead his SLFP faction more openly. But, of course, his influence over national policy would be much greater as prime minister.
That is the outcome that liberals and religious minorities fear the most. Rajapaksa’s authoritarian impulses mirror those of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, after serving as Prime Minister for more than a decade, became his country’s first directly elected president last year. Just as Erdoğan fans Islamism in Turkey, Rajapaksa fuels Sinhalese nationalism in Sri Lanka.
China, however, would undoubtedly celebrate the return to power of Rajapaksa, who has accused Sri Lanka’s current government of “treating China like a criminal.” Such a result would help ensure that the country becomes a key component in China’s Indian Ocean strategy.
In the coming election, Sri Lankan voters will effectively decide whether their country should kowtow to China’s regional ambitions or shape its own destiny by promoting an independent foreign policy and an open economy. One hopes that they choose the latter option. Sri Lanka is, after all, more than a “swing state” in the competition for maritime supremacy among China, India, and the US.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.