In a bid to win Lankan trust…

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Sri Lanka has suddenly emerged as a key player in the sub-continent with three of its biggest neighbours – India, Pakistan and China walking that extra mile to woo the newly-elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Perhaps it is the first time in years that a strife-torn country is being courted.

If we decipher the reasons behind this show of cordiality and friendship towards Sri Lanka, the strategic interests of the three nations hold utmost relevance. India is apprehensive of a growing camaraderie between China and Sri Lanka as we had seen during the rule of Gotabaya’s brother Mahinda, who as President, was determined to diminish India’s influence in Sri Lanka by reaching out to China. Mahinda now holds the post of the Premier in the Lankan government. The Communist nation would not leave an inch to India in terms of diplomatic and economic outreach to Sri Lanka. China is leaving no stones unturned to seek Lanka’s support in its One Belt One Road initiative to expand its dominance in the continent.

Pakistan on the other hand is content playing the role of a loyal second bencher to China. Having failed to amass enough approval against India on Jammu and Kashmir, Imran Khan’s government has little option than toeing the Chinese line. In fact, the rivalry is between India and China with Pakistan’s role cut to that of a little brother whose fortunes rest on its all-weather ally. Though Pakistan has assured Sri Lanka of cooperation but it is a ‘ploy’ to seek the new government’s endorsement of its anti-India vendetta, which looks wishful thinking.

China as of now is in a position of strength vis-à-vis India because of the 99- year lease of the Hambantota Port granted to the Communist Nation by the Ranil Wickramasinghe-government in 2017. The flawed policies of the Mahinda-led administration (that was ousted in 2015) put the country under debt leaving his successors with the ignominy of signing a deal with the China Merchant Port Holdings.

However, New Delhi has made the right moves to close the gap that resulted in the Lankan President’s visit to India after taking over as the Head of State – India was the first country Gotabaya flew down to after assuming office and India was quick to seize the opportunity by announcing a line of credit of $400 million for developmental projects in Lanka and another $50 million to help its neighbour combat the menace of terrorism. This was preceded by a congratulatory trip to Sri Lanka by Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar after Gotabaya’s victory in the Presidential polls.

The Rajapaksa family’s aversion towards India was a reason behind the chasm between the two countries that was compounded by the Mahinda government’s crackdown on the LTTE outfit bringing an end to 30 years of civil war. Though, Mahinda won the hearts of the Sinhalese Buddhists for his effort, his alleged human right violations irked the international community (including India) that labelled him as a mastermind of genocide. The Indo-Lanka ties have been bumpy since then.

However, New Delhi has made the right moves to close the gap that resulted in the Lankan President’s visit to India after taking over as the Head of State – India was the first country Gotabaya flew down to after assuming office and India was quick to seize the opportunity by announcing a line of credit of $400 million for developmental projects in Lanka and another $50 million to help its neighbour combat the menace of terrorism. This was preceded by a congratulatory trip to Sri Lanka by Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar after Gotabaya’s victory in the Presidential polls.

But will that suffice? Though the new President of Sri Lanka wants to re-evaluate the Hambantota Port deal, it is unlikely that he would dare to cross swords with China, a nation Sri Lanka is indebted to. However, China doesn’t want to take any chance and would use all options to have Sri Lanka by its side as validated by the visit of the Special Representative of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Wu Jianghao to Sri Lanka that conspicuously coincided with the presence of the Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Colombo.

It may not be easy for any country to wean Sri Lanka away from Chinese hold because of compulsion on the part of the island nation, but what stands in New Delhi’s favour is the willingness of the new government to smoothen its ties with India. In fact Gotabaya doesn’t want India and the rest to read much into its links with China when he says in an interview to The Hindu, “I want to tell India, Japan, Singapore and Australia and other countries to also come and invest in us. They should tell their companies to invest in Sri Lanka and help us grow, because if they don’t, then not only Sri Lanka, but countries all over Asia will have the same (problem). The Chinese will take the Belt and Road Initiative all over unless other countries provide an alternative. if other nations don’t invest in island nation, Beijing will take its Belt and Road Initiative all over.”

Gotabaya doesn’t seem to be in a hurry and is keeping all his neighbours in good humour. He is aware that he faces the daunting task of getting the Lankan economy out of an abyss and time is ripe to capitalise on the ‘favours’ his neighbours are keen on showering him with.

Under the current scenario, it is incumbent upon India to instill confidence in the Lankan regime of its sincerity in burying the hatchet and helping Sri Lanka towards taking strides to economic revival. However, New Delhi has to play its cards close to its chest lest should it further alienate China pushing it closer to Pakistan. And Beijing too can’t afford to antagonise New Delhi which could have an unpropitious effect on its economic interests in India and escalate strains between the two countries.

Amid this tussle, it’s the island nation that would be the biggest beneficiary as Navin Pait in India Today puts in, “In a broader assessment, from Sri Lanka’s perspective, India and China are not good substitutes for each other. India cannot step into China’s shoes and spread billions of dollars in order to buy influence in Sri Lanka… Nor can it as easily overlook human rights reports and the treatment of the island’s Tamil minority. For its part, China cannot move itself into the Indian Ocean and become Sri Lanka’s neighbour. This lack of substitutability gives Colombo the rationale, reason and space for engaging both.”

Gotabaya doesn’t seem to be in a hurry and is keeping all his neighbours in good humour. He is aware that he faces the daunting task of getting the Lankan economy out of an abyss and time is ripe to capitalise on the ‘favours’ his neighbours are keen on showering him with.

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