Sri Lanka and China on Tuesday agreed to deepen strategic and defence cooperation, following talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Presidential Secretariat here.
The countries would step up high-level exchanges, including those of defence authorities, with the aim of deepening the ‘China-Sri Lanka Strategic Cooperative Partnership,’ according to a joint statement released by President Rajapaksa’s office.
Sri Lanka signed nearly 30 agreements with China, including one launching negotiations on a free trade agreement. The leaders authorised the $1.4-billion port city development project, Beijing’s latest investment in Sri Lanka, and cleared the decks for several infrastructure projects besides launching the final phase of a power plant in Noracholai, located in Sri Lanka’s North Western Province.
Sri Lanka has had strong ties with China, which has consistently backed the country at the U.N. Human Rights Council where it faces a U.S.-backed resolution that calls for an international probe into its rights record. Reiterating China’s position, President Xi — in a letter published on the front page of Sri Lanka’s state-run Daily News on Tuesday — said that China “resolutely opposes any move by any country to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs under any excuse.”
Amid accusations of China developing ports — in what is often referred to as ‘string of pearls’ circle of influence — around India, the Chinese President said in his letter that Sri Lanka was a “pearl in the Indian ocean.”
President Rajapaksa recently assured cooperation to China’s 21st century Maritime Silk Road initiative, strengthening apprehension over the island “playing the China card” against India, where President Xi is headed on Wednesday.
Ever since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009, sections in New Delhi have been worried about the increasing influence China seems to have over the island nation. However, foreign policy analyst and Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleke observed that Sri Lanka’s policy makers had a tendency to overplay the ‘China card.’
‘China card against India’
Sri Lanka’s defence bureaucracy, he said, seems sustained by a notion that China will function has a counterweight to India. “There is exaggeration in that understanding,” he said, adding that the ‘China card’ was drastically diminishing in size in the context of emerging Indo-China relations in the last few years, and particularly so after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed charge. The defence bureaucracy also had a “garrison state delusion’ that Sri Lanka could be another Pakistan or, they seemed to China as being to Sri Lanka what the US is to Israel.
Critics also point to the nature of assistance offered by China. Development economist and principal researcher at the Jaffna-based Point Pedro Institute of Development Muttukrishna Sarvananthan said he was pessimistic about Sri Lanka’s engagement with China as “political imperatives override economic imperatives”. Observing that much of the economic engagement was politicised, he said progress on Indian projects had slowed down since 2012, after India voted against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council. “The housing project began in 2010, but the progress has been slow. Similarly, the government seems to be deliberately delaying completion of the northern railway line,” he said. In 2014, India abstained from voting on the resolution, pressing what analysts termed a “reset button” in Indo-Lanka diplomacy, however China's apparently growing influence remains a concern among many.
Economic engagement ought to be read carefully, Mr. Sarvananthan stressed, noting that Chinese commercial loans were rather expensive with high interest rates, while India’s assistance included a considerable grant component. “There are serious implications for our [Sri Lanka’s] growth and debt,” he said. In December 2013, Sri Lanka’s outstanding debt to China in disbursed loans was nearly Rs. 196 billion, according to The Sunday Times here.
On the overall engagement with China, Mr. Jayatilleke said it is time the more hawkish decision makers realised that Sri Lanka does not enjoy an open ended strategic commitment on the part of China. “Sri Lanka should also understand that neither India nor China is in the business of intruding into each other’s sphere of interest that would be in variance to their strategic core,” he said.