While Sri Lanka’s General Elections will be held on the 5th of August, China is nurturing political parties of Sri Lanka to bring the island nation under its agenda of expansionism. Chinese interest in Sri Lanka stems from the ambition of establishing a dominant geopolitical control in the Indian Ocean. China’s acts of aggression in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and more recently in Galwan Valley coupled with the coronavirus pandemic has raised geopolitical challenges as a consequence global backlash. China’s clandestine involvement in Sri Lankan general elections can be well termed as a containment strategy to further increase its regional dominance in South-Asia and the Indian Ocean.
It is crucial here to address the agenda of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port—a classic example of China’s debt-trap diplomacy. Under China’s ‘Belt and Road Project’, the port serves as a vital part of the project due to its strategic location on one of the busiest sea routes between Asia and Europe. When Sri Lanka was unable to repay its debts to China, it was decided that the Hambantota would be leased to China Merchant Port Holdings & Co. for 99 years under a deal of $1.1 billion. The deal has further deepened China’s influence in Sri Lanka, and also faced protests from the locals. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had promised to revisit the deal during his election canvassing in 2019, but later China refused to negotiate the same.
The issue of Chinese investments has become one of the most crucial agendas in the upcoming elections since a chunk of Sri Lankan voters is of opinion to disapprove Chinese investment ventures in the country, owing to the misadventure of the Hambantota Port Project and the ever-increasing debt trap, amounting to $55 billion, with China accounting around 12% of Sri Lanka’s debts. Chinese investments are also responsible for forcing the island nation to cancel deals with Quad nations as Japan-funded railway project was just canceled in June 2020 and objections were raised against $450 million grant of US by Sri Lankan officials.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has provided an avenue for China to bring a shift in its foreign relations and diplomacy when the Lankan President intensely sought a loan of $500 million to tackle coronavirus in Sri Lanka. The loan gave a boost to China’s ascendency in Sri Lanka. Thereafter, Song Tao, Minister of International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC), held a video conference with the leaders of major political parties of Sri Lanka in order to harvest, or rather extract bipartisan bonds, under the pretense of fighting the pandemic. The conferences, con have been termed as a ‘goodwill gesture’ in wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Coming back to general elections in Sri Lanka, China, as Japanese newspaper Nikkei describes, ‘is cultivating a wide swathe of political allies’ ahead of polls. Chinese embassy, according to China’s state-owned Wire agency, has donated the masks to the election commission. China’s ambassador is maintaining good relations with all the parties across the political spectrum. From 2015 to 2019, Chinese officials met leaders of right-winger United National Party as well left-winger Sri Lanka Freedom Party. In 2019, leaders from all Lankan political parties clicked photos with members of CPC. ‘China is investing in all political players,’ as WION anchor Palki Sharma puts it. Thus, it is not a matter of concern who wins these elections, ‘China will be a winner.’
It will be intriguing to see what does happen in the future but two things are to be noted: One, Sri Lanka, if all situations remain the same, is going to be hostile towards India and other Quad nations. Second, China may have a stronger strategic position in the Indian Ocean which is the cause of worries.
Harshil Mehta is a columnist, political observer, and news analyst. He tweets @MehHarshil.
Jahnvi Sharma is a law student at GGSIP University and commentator on geopolitical issues. She tweets at @JahnviSharma1.