On December 15-17, China’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, visited the island’s Northern Province. The visit is significant. The Northern Province is just a few kilometers away from the Indian coast. Moreover, only a fortnight earlier, the Sri Lankan government cancelled a Chinese project that was to be located in islands off the coast of the Northern Province.
The project which was awarded to China’s Sinosoar-Etechwin Joint Venture in January involved construction of hybrid renewable energy systems in Nainativu, Delft and Analaitivu islands in the Palk Bay.
In early December, the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka tweeted that the project had been suspended due to “‘security concern’ from a third party.”
Although the “third party” was not named in the tweet, it was obvious that it referred to India, Sri Lanka’s giant neighbor to the north. The location of a Chinese project on islands that are just 50 km from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is a security concern for India, one that New Delhi had reportedly raised with the Sri Lankan government from early this year. India also put forward a proposal to build a similar but more environment-friendly system and at a much lower cost. Months of talks between the two sides culminated in Colombo dropping the Chinese proposal.
Soon after Colombo’s decision, Qi set off to the Northern Province. At Jaffna, he visited several sites of religious and cultural significance to the local Tamil population, including the centuries-old Nallur Kandaswamy temple and the Jaffna Public Library, where he donated books and laptops.
Besides the cultural outreach, Qi interacted with local fishermen and also visited the Guilan Sea Cucumber Hatchery and Farm at East in Ariyalai, and the New Silk Road Foodstuff factory at Mannar. These Sino-Sri Lankan joint ventures are said to be providing livelihoods to thousands of local fishermen. Qi also donated $100,000 worth of fishing nets and dry rations to a fishermen’s co-operative.
Significantly, Qi visited Point Pedro, the northern-most tip of Sri Lanka where he was seen asking local officials how far India is from Point Pedro. Officials reportedly told him it was around 30 kilometers.
Historically, India has exercised enormous influence over Sri Lanka; the two countries are separated by a narrow channel of water and share cultural and linguistic links. However, Chinese influence in Sri Lanka has surged over the past decade.
Sri Lanka’s proximity to India’s southern coast and key Indian Ocean sea lanes has made it an attractive destination of Chinese investment; China together with Hong Kong account for roughly 37.4 percent of Sri Lanka’s FDI. China has built several infrastructure projects in the island, including the Hambantota port project, the Colombo Port City Project and the East Container Terminal at Colombo. Some of these are controversial. Unable to repay loans, Colombo was forced to hand over the Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease.
India has been wary of Chinese investment in Sri Lanka, particularly in the north and east of the island – areas that that are not only close to the Indian coast but also inhabited by Tamils over whom India has exercised considerable political and diplomatic influence.
In 2018, China attempted to storm this Indian “bastion” in Sri Lanka when it proposed a $300-million housing project for war-affected areas. Colombo turned down the Chinese offer after India expressed concerns. The renewable energy project is the second Chinese infrastructure project to be cancelled in the Northern Province.
But Beijing has its eyes set on the Northern Province as evident from Qi’s public diplomacy there, which seemed aimed at winning over the island’s Tamils.
Sri Lankan Tamils have been close to India for centuries, with hundreds of thousands of them even fleeing there for sanctuary during the civil war that raged between 1983 and 2009. However, ties between fishermen of the two countries has soured over the past decade over the question of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters or engaging in deep-sea trawling.
This has severely undermined the livelihoods of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. New Delhi has failed to resolve this festering conflict.
And China seems to be wading into this conflict by strengthening the livelihoods of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen through its investment in fishery-related industry. It is winning their hearts and minds.
Should another Chinese project in the Northern Province be canceled by Colombo in response to Indian concerns, Beijing will be hoping that the local population will protest against India.
China, which strongly backed the Sri Lankan government’s military offensives against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and has shielded it from international probes into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Tamil civilians, is little bothered about the continuing violation of Tamil rights.
This is an issue that will be hard for the Tamils to forget.