Sri Lanka: Business as usual

Wednesday, 12 December 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 China continues to expand its footprint in Sri Lanka. It also continues to defy all criticism about creating debt traps saying Sri Lanka’s debt to China remains much smaller compared to its debts to Japan or Asian Development Bank though neither of the latter two have sought 99 or 45 years lease on projects they have supported which makes China a very different investor or benefactor – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


By Swaran Singh

Despite much hyped six-weeks of political turmoil since President Maithripala Sirisena unceremoniously replace Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Mahinda Rajapaksa – who has himself been since sacked by Parliament and barred from holding this office by Court of Appeal – little has changed in everyday life. 

Even the Sri Lankan Government as also its interactions with its major partners have continued to keep their usual snail pace with little visible change in sight. As usual, China’s infrastructure building juggernaut remains unstoppable and increasingly most visible locomotive of transformation of this island nation.

Six weeks of Rajapaksa as prime minister have seen him ignore extortions of national Parliament and file an appeal in country’s Supreme Court contesting Court of Appeal judgment against him; and, his Cabinet last month signed two important infrastructure contracts with Chinese companies. 

One, a $32 million contract to enhance the deep sea berth capacity by extending the quay at the state-run Jeya Container Terminal in Colombo was given to China Harbour Engineering Company. Second, another $25.7 million contract for the purchase of three Gantry Cranes for the same Terminal was awarded to the Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries. Apparently tenders had been floated much before and the necessary procedures were followed. 

With these upgradations, this terminal is expected to become capable of berthing simultaneously two 350 meter ships. Colombo – where a Chinese company now handles 38% of total cargo – already claims to be the largest port of South Asia and twelfth largest in the world. 

As for China, these two new contracts also make it the largest investor in Sri Lanka. Chinese companies have already completed investments of over $15 billion involving various infrastructure projects in transportation, water, electricity, ports and other sectors. 

Much of this Chinese contracts had happened during Rajapaksa’s tenure as President of Sri Lanka. Hambantota – gift of Rajapaksa to his constituency – was China’s single largest project in South Asia. In many quarters, therefore, these two contract given to China last month are likely to be read in terms of Sri Lanka’s return to China under Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. 

But under Rajapaksa’s watch last six weeks also witnessed India’s Coast Guard ships CGS Samar and Aryman visiting Sri Lanka during 1 to 7 December. They arrived in Colombo following their India-Sri Lanka-Maldives Tri-lateral Coast Guard Exercise ‘Dosti’ during 25-27 November. Indeed, two Sri Lankan naval officers have been on these ships since 23 November when they departed from India learning first-hand about India’s coast guard operations. 

Likewise, under Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, India and Sri Lanka Coast Guards had strengthened their cooperation on their inter-operability through regular operational and professional exchanges with just last year witnessing four ship visits by Indian Coast Guard.  Even here hawks see these visits as response to China’s submarines repeatedly ferrying around underneath Indian Ocean waters.

The truth is that calling these seasoned politicians as pro-China or pro-India is an extremely simplistic assessment betraying lack of understanding what drives these leaders. More often than not, they are guided only by their own self-interest which is camouflaged as national interest. This is what makes China’s juggernaut unstoppable and this is not exclusive to Sri Lanka. 

So given the track record of these leaders’ speeches at least since 2015, UNP leaders’ diatribes calling all decisions by Rajapaksa government illegal, to be revoked later, seem nothing but glib talk. These have no relevance beyond presenting saleable pot-shots for media bites that keeps them in public light. 

Street protests and press conferences likewise remain limited to news rooms and television with rest of city traffic going around or staying clogged as usual. But all this also misses the strength of Sri Lanka’s democratic traditional and institutions that have repeatedly withstood such political whims and fancies. This is why Sri Lanka’s everyday life as also governance continues to muddle through piecemeal.

As regards India, it has clearly learnt its lessons and maintained a studied silence while China chose to play assertive and had congratulated Rajapaksa on his swearing in. However, it is the far away United States, European Union and Australia that have built sharp rhetoric raising intrusive questions asking democracy to be resorted within shortest possible time. 

The latest is that US Millennium Challenge Corporation has put on hold its discussions with Sri Lanka’s poverty alleviation programs given “this disruption in Sri Lanka’s democratic process”. But its Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Affairs, David Ranz – who recently held a meeting with Tibetan Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay – will be next week visiting Colombo for first-hand interactions with Sri Lanka leadership. Likewise, an EU team of experts is scheduled to visit Colombo early next year while after their series in the United Kingdom, Sri Lankan cricket team’s Australia tour is scheduled to start from 24 January. 

Surprisingly, for the first 11 months ending November this year saw tourist influx from UK rising by 60%, overtaking China, while the number of tourists from India rose by 21%. Colombo also continues to host regular visits and seminars including inaugural Colombo-Shangri-La Colloquium to be hosted by Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka in Colombo next weekend. 

One has to carefully dissect the difference in words and deeds of various stakeholders both inside and outside Sri Lanka. The last six weeks have seen them continuing to seek their interests with little change in their interactions and equations. So as was before, China continues to expand its footprint in Sri Lanka. It also continues to defy all criticism about creating debt traps saying Sri Lanka’s debt to China remains much smaller compared to its debts to Japan or Asian Development Bank though neither of the latter two have sought 99 or 45 years lease on projects they have supported which makes China a very different investor or benefactor. 

India has learnt from this changing geopolitics as also from its earlier interventions that makes it especially susceptible to emotional over-reactions. New Delhi has, therefore, chosen to be cautious for its intrusive postures could push Sri Lanka further closer to China. India’s six weeks of caution have generated appreciation across Sri Lanka. 

So while world’s largest democracy continues to wait-and-watch, it is the far way US, EU and Australia that have sought to project themselves as protectors and gold standards for democracies around the world. This indeed has unleashed several jokes in Colombo’s grapevine not only questioning their credentials Western democracies but also sincerity and efficacy of their insinuations. 

Thus it will be misleading to assume that things have come to a complete halt in Sri Lanka’s governance howsoever chaotic and slow-moving it may be; which anyway remains a norm across South Asia and beyond even in normal times. These six weeks have, however, showcased each of Sri Lanka’s major interlocutors’ distinct policy response to political events since 26 October, and these have been revealing with lessons that must catalyse their future mutual interactions and understandings.

[The writer is Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka (Colombo).]