The Rajapaksas Open a Door for China in Sri Lanka

Through a resounding election victory, Sri Lanka has returned the Rajapaksa family to power. In the recent parliamentary elections, the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party won a whopping 145 seats out of 225, amounting to nearly a two-thirds majority.

But this wasn’t just any other election: It was a referendum on the style of leadership and politics that Sri Lankans prefer. For what it signifies, this election could have profound consequences for Sri Lankan democracy, the regional powers – India and China – and for peace and prosperity even as far as the South China Sea.

In many ways, the return of the Rajapaksas is a vote against the chaos of multiparty democracy in Sri Lanka.

In 2015, the combination of the then-President Maithripala Sirisena and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe notched a surprise victory against the Rajapaksas on an anti-strongman plank. Sirisena became president by promising a new dawn for Sri Lankan democracy, renewed outreach to the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island, and reduced dependence on China. In the months that followed that victory, the two leaders stayed that course: They passed the 19th constitutional amendment, which cut the powers of the president and restored parliamentary democracy. They reached out to ethnic minorities and their leaders. They even tried to renegotiate Chinese debt in the Hambantota port, located on the southern coastline.

Yet, not unlike coalition politics in many other democracies, chaos ensued. The president and the prime minister fell out. In late 2018, Sirisena even briefly replaced Wickremesinghe with Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, before the Supreme Court overturned that decision. The following year, deadly bombings shook Colombo on the Easter holiday, killing over 250 people and engendering suspicion toward the Muslim minority on the island. By 2019, the dysfunctional coalition government had run its course: In November last year, Sirisena lost his place to Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

With multiparty democracy battered, the Rajapaksa brothers revived strongman populism in the recent elections, rooted not in outreach to minorities, but in the propagation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. That rhetoric has won big. Take the representation of ethnic minorities in the new parliament, for instance: The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) – which forms the most prominent minority voice in parliament – has fallen to just 10 seats, after securing 16 in the previous parliament. Meanwhile, the Rajapaksas are all set to centralize power once more, with as many as five members of the family now in government. Already, there is talk of restoring sweeping powers to the president’s office.

All this is great news for Beijing. Over the last five years, China had struggled to navigate the rough-and-tumble of Sri Lanka’s multiparty coalition politics, as the island decentralized power and gave more voice to popular protests. Sirisena himself had come to power in 2015 riding on a campaign that vilified Chinese “debt traps,” as protests broke out against the port in Hambantota.

With the Rajapaksas returning, Beijing will now have a more familiar system to work with in Colombo. The new government is more likely to quash protesters than to turn down Chinese money, particularly as COVID-19 has shut down Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and dried up remittances from expatriates abroad.

For India, by contrast, the odds are much less favorable. Not unlike the last time the Rajapaksas were in power, New Delhi will struggle to compete with Chinese investment.

In recent days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to tout India as a friendlier alternative to Chinese debt traps in the Indian Ocean. In August this year, India pledged $500 million for bridges and causeways in the Maldives, forming the single largest infrastructure project in that country. Even in Sri Lanka, New Delhi has a long list of projects drawn up, including the development of a container port for $500 million and a currency swap arrangement for over $1 billion.

Yet in a year when the pandemic has ravaged the Indian economy – and taken it closer to a recession – spending will be much more politically difficult for New Delhi than for Beijing.

Even on Sri Lankan politics, New Delhi now faces some tough choices: India has traditionally enjoyed influence over the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island, owing to their cultural and ancestral ties to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. But over the past decade, India has dilly- dallied on the issue of Tamil rights and diluted its own appeal to Tamil politicians in Sri Lanka.

Now, with the Rajapaksas reviving Sinhalese nationalism and decimating their opposition, the Tamil lobby is all but finished. That means that the Modi government will have to decide whether to turn over a new leaf and align itself more strongly in favor of Sinhalese majoritarianism, even if that runs the risk of ruffling feathers in Tamil Nadu.

For Beijing, such choices are much simpler, owing to the absence of related political complications at home; when the Rajapaksas were in power previously, China steadfastly supported their centralized regime, even as it faced criticism over war crimes at the United Nations.

If China manages to reestablish primacy in Sri Lanka as a result of all these factors, there could be significant consequences for the Indo-Pacific – including for security in the South China Sea. With tempers flaring in that part of the world, and ties between China and its neighbors fraying, Beijing might try to set up a strategic outpost for itself in Sri Lanka. Owing to its geographic location, Chinese presence in Sri Lanka will mean increased influence for Beijing along vital trade routes feeding into the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Chinese military presence is not out of the question either: The fact that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has assumed the post of the defense minister only opens doors for Beijing, so long as it can maintain good ties with the president.

Sri Lanka’s reversion to centralization and strongman politics will have profound implications – not just for the country itself, but also for the region at large.

(c) 2020, The Diplomat