Sirisena likely to stop China ‘tilt’

He had highlighted the foreign debt “trap” in manifesto

Updated - November 28, 2021 07:40 am IST

Published - January 10, 2015 12:15 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Indian High Commissionet to Sri Lanka Y. K. Sinha greets the new President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on Friday.

Indian High Commissionet to Sri Lanka Y. K. Sinha greets the new President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on Friday.

Sri Lanka watchers in India believe that with Maithripala Sirisena coming to power in Sri Lanka, the island nation’s tilt towards China will be reduced considerably. They have been critical of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for his “tilt towards China” and ignoring India’s pleas to grant devolution of powers to the Tamil-majority northern region, as he had repeatedly promised.

“The tilt towards China will be reduced considerably with this stunning victory, and, if India is willing, it can be given the advantage of that,” said Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta (Retd.), a defence analyst who had served in Sri Lanka.

During Mr. Rajapaksa’s tenure, China won a primary role as a donor and investor, also loaning approximately $500 million for development projects. It also bagged some of the biggest projects, including the $1.5-billion Colombo port reclamation project for state corporations, a trend Mr. Sirisena has promised to reverse in his manifesto, calling foreign debt a “trap” for Sri Lanka.

India has also been concerned about China’s strategic influence in Sri Lanka, and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had reportedly complained twice in recent months about the docking of Chinese submarines in the Colombo harbour. “India must reclaim the strategic space that it has lost by default to China now,” said Maj. Gen. Mehta.

Downplaying the impact of the upset win, the Chinese government issued a statement congratulating Mr. Sirisena. “Our friendship runs deep, and successive governments of Sri Lanka have had a friendship policy towards China,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei in Beijing.

However, diplomats advise caution in expecting changes in China’s relations with Sri Lanka. To begin with, they point out that relations between Mr. Modi and Mr. Rajapaksa have been quite warm. The Hindu had also reported how Mr. Rajapaksa’s social media team was led by Arvind Gupta, the BJP’s IT cell chief who helped script Mr. Modi’s success in the May 2014 general elections, which had led to speculation about the government’s support to Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign.

Others also point out that Mr. Sirisena’s actions on foreign policy must be evaluated once he settles down in office. “It is too soon to tell just what he will do on issues that matter to India,” said former Deputy NSA Leela Ponappa, who served at the Sri Lanka desk in the External Affairs Ministry. “In the past too, leaders have been in a position to keep their promises, but haven’t,” she added referring to Mr. Rajapaksa’s promises on the Tamil issue.

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