Change of guard in Sri Lanka triggers introspection in China

Updated - November 17, 2021 01:02 am IST

Published - January 20, 2015 07:18 pm IST - BEIJING

The change of guard in Sri Lanka has triggered a debate in China that despite its economic heft, the country may still be lacking in diplomatic power to influence smaller countries when it really counts.

An editorial in the Global Times cautions that it would be premature to conclude that the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the arrival of Maithripala Sirisena as the President of Sri Lanka is a blow to China’s interests in the island nation.

Yet, it signalled that uncertainties had crept in, and the new dispensation in Colombo was sending mixed signals. The article pointed out that last week, Sri Lanka had stated that “it would review the construction of a Chinese-backed port close to Colombo, citing issues over transparency in the contract and environmental reasons”.

“But the new government also said the reassessment does not indicate a cancelation of the project, and construction can resume if the review finds no fault.”

On Friday, the Sri Lankan government declared that the $1.5 billion Hambantota port deal with China Communication Construction Co. Ltd. would be reviewed over concerns that the Chinese company was getting freehold land in a high-security zone.

Officially, the Chinese Foreign Ministry asserted that Sri Lanka’s new government will continue major projects with China and expand bilateral cooperation in various fields, citing a message that President Xi Jinping had received from Mr. Sirisena.

The commentary pointed out that the Chinese side would suffer heavy financial losses if the project was halted - a situation similar to Myanmar, where projects were being stalled, and triggering domestic concerns.

The editorial recognised India’s traditional ties with Sri Lanka, but stressed that competition between Beijing and New Delhi in Sri Lanka is “not exclusive” or confrontational. “All sides have learned to keep the necessary restraint in politically interfering with competition in the economic sector,” the daily observed.

The newspaper referred to media reports that suggested a change in the “geopolitical landscape in the Indian Ocean,” following the arrival of the new President.

But the daily also focused on the complementarities in the relationship, stressing that China was an “irreplaceable’ partner” to address Sri Lanka’s “urgent need of comprehensive economic development”. Besides, Colombo’s aspiration for becoming shipping hub in the Indian Ocean also depended on partnership with China, which had adopted the “21 century Maritime Silk Road strategy”.

The introspective piece also pointed to “uncertainties of small countries, which necessitate multiple layers of insurance”. “Driven by the need to maintain robust development, China needs to quicken the pace of going global, but meanwhile, it lacks the capability to avoid risks in the process, due to insufficient diplomatic influence.”

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