Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa flew to India on Thursday afternoon on a two-day official visit, his first overseas trip since assuming office.
The trip is a clear sign that the new president is comfortably cozying up to its giant neighbor, which may likely displease China, which has heavily invested in the South Asian island due to its strategic interests.
Rajapaksa — who was elected to power in the Nov. 16 presidential election with an overwhelming 52% of the votes — is leading a delegation to New Delhi, following an invitation extended to him by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Dinesh Gunawardena, Sri Lanka’s minister of foreign affairs, told Anadolu Agency the president will meet with Indian leaders on Friday where bilateral issues will be discussed at length.
Rajapaksa will be accorded a grand welcome in India at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the official residence of the Indian President, in New Delhi, where a special ceremonial reception will be held in honor of the Sri Lankan president.
The visit also came hot on the heels of a statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who said he “appreciates” Rajapaksa’s continuous support and contribution to the China-Sri Lanka friendship and cooperation.
Xi said he looks forward to starting a “new chapter” in the China-Sri Lanka Strategic Cooperative Partnership.
Since Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Tamil rebel group LTTE ended in 2009, China has been at the forefront, helping the island nation of 21 million to develop in terms of infrastructure and as a result, China pumped millions of dollars into Sri Lanka during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, elder brother of the incumbent president.
With Chinese loans, the former president realized numerous infrastructure projects — including highways, a port, airport, convention center and tallest tower in South Asia among others.
However, some of the projects such as the country’s second international airport in Rajapaksa’s hometown Hambantota is considered a white elephant as no commercial airlines fly to it. Some critics termed Sri Lanka’s increasing dependence on China a “debt trap.”
Equal partners for business
Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s former foreign secretary, said the incumbent president has stated categorically that Sri Lanka wants to remain neutral in its foreign relations and stay out of any conflicts among world powers.
“His [Rajapaksa’s] elder brother, who was the president from 2005 to 2015, was committed to non-alignment. But when his efforts to revive the ravaged economy after the terrorist-inspired 27-year conflict ended in 2009 were rebuffed by the World Bank and the West, he was forced to turn to China,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Kohona, a former permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the UN, also said that under the new president, the relationship with India will enjoy priority attention, but all other countries, including China, will be welcomed as economic partners.
“China, with its Belt and Road Initiative, is the economic dynamo of the world, and Sri Lanka is well situated to benefit from the growth of China and other Asian economies,” he said.
Kohona said Rajapaksa’s foreign policy would strike a middle path to court countries as “equal partners for business and investment” and it would avoid “becoming a tool of any power,” either militarily or economically.
Soon after being sworn in to the country’s highest office, Rajapaksa in his maiden speech said: “We hope to work with all countries in a friendly manner, and we want to remain neutral in our foreign relations and stay out of any conflict among the world powers.”
However, Maya Majueran, director of the Belt and Road Sri Lanka think tank, a local group of professionals, said the Chinese investments and Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka cannot be changed due to its geographical location.
“China will always ensure that they have their influence and that they will do whatever they want,” Majueran told Anadolu Agency.
In 2017, owing to growing debt, the previous coalition government signed a $1.1 billion deal with China, giving control of the southern port in Hambantota on a 99-year lease to convert debt to equity. The port was constructed with loans from China under the Belt and Road Initiative.
In an interview with Indian journalist Nitin Gokhale of Strategic News International, Rajapaksa said that giving away the Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease was a mistake by the previous government and that the deal must be renegotiated.
Majueran said Rajapaksa’s announcement was more or less his way of showing India and the rest of the world that he is trying to remain neutral.
According to Majueran, Sri Lanka at present does not possess necessary connections to convert the Hambantota Port into a profit-making entity within a short period. “But China has the market power in the shipping industry, so they have the ability to convert the port into a profit-making entity,” he said.
He said that although it is very unlikely for Beijing to renegotiate the lease, but there could be a possibility for the Chinese to take a step back and agree to reduce the lease period just to show Colombo that they are also “flexible”.
George Cooke, deputy director of Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in Colombo, however believes that whether Sri Lanka decides to sign agreements with India or China in terms of development, it’s important to ensure a “win-win” situation to the country.
“This is where negotiations become critical, because when we sit down at the negotiating table with another country, they come to get the most for their side. So, we too must go in with the objective of getting most out of the situation,” Cooke told Anadolu Agency.
He also cautioned that it’s important to be mindful that countries such as India and China, are not only extremely powerful countries on the world stage, but “one is our immediate neighborhood, and the other has heavily invested in our country.”
“This is where we have a golden opportunity. Obviously, these countries are interested in us, and this is something that we should optimize to our advantage,” he added.