Sri Lanka’s descent into a deep political crisis may seem sudden, but not totally so. On October 16, Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power in 2015 seeking better relations with India, told his ministers that India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was “trying to kill” him but Prime Minister Narendra Modi “may not be aware of the plan.” Despite the lack of any evidence to back up the claim, and assurances from India that this was not the case, the alleged attempted assassination of Sirisena was reason enough for him to dismiss his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and invite his former nemesis, the strongman pro-China, ex-president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa to replace him. Despite various human rights violations by Rajapaksa’s government, including accusations of war crimes against ethnic Tamils during Sri Lanka’s 1983-2009 civil war, he is still popular in the country.
Sirisena’s move may seem puzzling, especially because he was elected to move his country back toward greater democracy after Rajapaksa’s rule between 2005-2015, but ultimately, he is looking after his own interests: He has lost support and has proved unable to wean Sri Lanka off of its debts to China. It is not surprising that he made an “if you can’t beat them, then join them” calculation. Moreover, he was a health minister in Rajapaksa’s government, and ideologically, the two are not far apart, both rooted in a movement that emphasized economic socialism and Sinhalese (Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic group) Buddhist nationalism.
Currently, both Wickremsinghe and Rajapaksa claim to be prime minister, and the political establishment is split between their supporters. Sirisena’s actions may not be legal as the country’s constitution prevents the president from removing a prime minister unless they resigned or lost the confidence of parliament, neither of which has yet happened, according to Wickremsinghe. Parliament has been suspended since Friday, and the future of the government will be decided by a vote of confidence. Defections of Members of Parliament (MPs) have occurred in both directions. Wickremsinghe’s center-right United National Party (UNP), which is close with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently has 105 MPs in the 225 member chamber, while Sirisena and Rajapaksa together have 98 MPs. Sirisena’s move brought into the open the various rivalries between Sri Lanka’s various political factions. The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda explains: “The most serious challenge… is the possibility of widespread political violence in Sri Lanka as supporters of the SLFP [Sirisena’s party], UNP, and Rajapaksa loyalists clash over the current crisis. Protesters have already moved to bar former members of Sirisena’s cabinet access to government facilities and, in at least one instance, this has resulted in bloodshed.”
The crisis highlights the role of powerful Asian rivals, India and China. While Sirisena tried to free his country from Chinese debt, he was instead drawn back to China after being unable to do so, and ended up giving “China a controlling equity stake and a 99-year lease for Hambantota port, which it handed over in December 2017,” a move which alarmed the United States and India, which fear its potential strategic applications. Despite statements of neutrality, there are persistent rumors that China is favoring Sirisena and Rajapaksa. A deputy minister in Wickremesinghe’s administration, Ranjan Ramanayake, accused China of paying for Rajapaksa to buy legislators: “I am telling China not to spend their millions to buy MPs in Sri Lanka. They want to buy the country wholesale.” This sentiment is being felt increasingly across the world, from Malaysia to Brazil. It should come as no surprise that China is focused on its national interests, and is not just a benevolent, non-interfering state that wants to build infrastructure for the good of the world. What else could explain the haste by which Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Rajapaksa, before the resolution of the crisis?
The crisis in Sri Lanka illustrates the role China can play in upsetting local political calculations elsewhere, even without direct interference. The New York Times quotes Brahma Chellaney, an analyst and critic of China, who often advises the Indian government as saying: “The political turmoil, more than Rajapaksa’s return to power, works to China’s advantage. In country after country, China has exploited internal disarray to advance its objectives.” In Sri Lanka’s case, China’s “deep pockets” have meant that even though the Sirisena government initially promised to re-evaluate Chinese investment, it was unable to because India and the United States were unable to provide an equivalent amount of money for its projects — or to get it out of Chinese debt. However, now that China’s “debt-trap” strategy has been demonstrated, other countries must do their most to avoid it, and richer countries like the United States should step up and offer alternative investment schemes.
This goes to show that the greatest factor in the battle for influence in Asia is economic power, rather than military capability, technological advancements, and geopolitical positioning. From this perspective, the Trump administration’s decision to slap tariffs on China and designate it a strategic competitor are a reasonable reflection of reality. China is not going to become more like the West any time soon. China is increasingly brazen in its actions, both domestic and foreign, lately. It recently arrested and forced the sitting head of Interpol to step down, and is responsible for imprisoning up to a million ethnic Uyghurs in prison camps.
Rajapaksa is toxic to much of the Indian political establishment, and not just because of his pro-Chinese orientation; he too is accused of human rights violations. During his presidency, Rajapaksa’s government defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant Tamil group that sought to create an independent homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka; the majority of Sri Lankans are ethnic-Sinhalese, a mostly Buddhist group, while Tamils are mostly Hindu. The Sri Lankan government’s military campaign, which concluded with the LTTE’s defeat in 2009, was marred by atrocities. With elections coming up in India in 2019, it would be difficult for difficult for any Indian government to grow too cozy with Rajapaksa, as they could potentially need coalition partners from the state of Tamil Nadu, the government of which sees itself as the protector of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, and has called on Rajapaksa to be brought to trial.
India has only issued a predictably bland statement so far, stating that it was “aware of the developments and watching the situation closely.” Despite the firebrand persona of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, he has taken a rather timid approach in projecting India’s geopolitical interests in South Asia.
While it is good to wait the situation out and not take sides in an internal political matter between two factions, India should also avoid leaning too much toward caution. Sri Lanka is clearly in the Indian zone of influence in Asia, and if Wickramasinghe and his allies, who form the majority in parliament and are on good terms with India, are coerced out of power, than it is in India’s interests to get more involved, especially since it can claim to be defending democracy in Sri Lanka, in addition to its own national interests.
India’s backseat approach to Sri Lanka drives home the point, often made, that India cannot fully hope to counter China in its own backyard and elsewhere until it really doubles down on economic reforms, which the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has only embraced partially. India needs to foster local growth and economic interconnectivity in South Asia. It has a huge stake, geopolitically, in Sri Lanka, and cannot afford to let it drift away. The time is coming for India to follow the lead of the United States and Brazil’s president-elect, and grow beyond insisting publicly that it does not view China as a competitor, but as an economic and strategic rival and openly embrace relationships with other countries that seek to balance and contain China.
India must avoid erring too much on the side of caution, however reasonable this may be. When President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives declared a state of emergency and jailed political opponents in February, it was too early for India to intervene directly, and it rightly contended itself with expressing a desire for constitutional and democratic processes to take their course. It avoided giving off the impression of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, especially since it was not invited to do so by the legitimate government of the Maldives. However, if Yameen were to hold on to power illegally, or seek to annul the election, it would be justifiable for India to intervene there militarily, especially if the opposition calls on India for help, as it did in February. In Sri Lanka’s case, military intervention likewise ought to be on the table, one that is better than India remaining silent and watching a geopolitical noose be slowly drawn around it, especially if it is proven that the democratic and legal processes of the country are being thwarted with financial pressure, thuggish force, or extra-constitutional decisions.
The peoples of the the world should realize that China is not interested in their countries’ national interests, just its own state interest, and combat this through arms, alliances, and money. Or else, Chinese economic rapaciousness will swallow up nations.