If you want to see the Sino-India global rivalry play out, you need look no further than Sri Lanka. The strategically located island country in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) shares historical and cultural ties with India. New Delhi perceives Sri Lanka as central to its traditional sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region.
China, on the other hand, wants to encircle India in the IOR under the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. Therefore, over the past one decade or so, China has flooded Sri Lanka with a barrage of predatory investments. Today, Sri Lanka is on the brink of a complete downfall and Beijing is silently trying to take over the island nation. However, India isn’t giving a clear path to China. New Delhi is giving all necessary support to Sri Lanka in the form of friendly loans and humanitarian assistance. Now, the balance may be tipping in India’s favour as Ranil Wickremesinghe took over as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister only recently.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, India’s friend, is back in power
First things first, the new Sri Lankan Prime Minister is a veteran politician. He is someone who believes in balancing things in Colombo.
Wickremesinghe has been elected as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka several times. However, his most prolific tenure has to be the one that started in 2015. He had taken over at a time when Chinese influence was peaking in Colombo and India-Sri Lanka ties were on a downward spiral following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pro-China policies.
Wickremesinghe had then come to power after a surprise victory with the aim of undoing the wrongs committed by then Rajapaksa government in terms of flawed economic policies and a heavily pro-China policy.
The sentiment in Sri Lanka at the time was that Mahinda Rajapaksa was selling out his country to Beijing. However, it is true that the Rajapaksas had their own reasons to move closer to China including global isolation following the bloody war against the LTTE and allegations of serious human rights violations by Sri Lankan forces.
In any case, Wickremesinghe came to power on the promise of balancing Sri Lanka’s relationship with Beijing and New Delhi.
Wickremesinghe- the man who brought Indo-Sri Lanka ties back on track
Wickremesinghe actually delivered on his promise of limiting Colombo’s dependence on Beijing and reducing vulnerability to Chinese debt.
To undermine the embitterment of Indo-Sri Lanka relations caused by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, Wickremesinghe visited India four times from 2016 to 2018. At the same time, Colombo also hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi two times and there was also some substantial progress like India’s help in setting up the 1990 ambulance system in Sri Lanka which played a critical role during the COVID-19 outbreak on the island nation.
In fact, he ensured that Indo-Sri Lankan ties were taken forward. He faced opposition from then President Maithripala Sirisena, but still ensured that the deal with India on Colombo port’s eastern terminal gets pushed through. However, Rajapaksas backed out of the deal in 2020.
Like all other political leaders, Wickremesinghe was moved by political compulsions and he didn’t severe Sri Lanka’s relationship with Beijing. However, he at least ensured that Indo-Sri Lanka ties were brought back on track and that China which had already gained a lot of influence with the Hambantota port project and other deals was kept at an arm’s length.
This is why Wickremesinghe’s re-election as Sri Lanka PM puts India in an advantageous position in Colombo.
Wickremesinghe helping India all over again
Right after Wickremesinghe’s election, it became clear that the message is against China and in India’s favour.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian gave a measured and timid reaction upon Wickremesinghe’s election. Zhao Lijian said, “As a traditional, friendly country to Sri Lanka, we closely follow the latest developments, and we also support the Sri Lanka government’s effort to sustain stability.”
He added, “For the debt issue, our position has been made very clearly on multiple occasions. We will continue to work with Sri Lanka to stay in communication, and help Sri Lanka in restoring political, social, and economic stability at an early date.”
Wickremesinghe himself is showing a tendency to lean towards New Delhi. He said, “No heavy Chinese investment under this Govt. They have sought investments but investments haven’t come in. I think discussions are on about rescheduling of repayment of loans. They have to talk to the Chinese Government, that’s all I know.”
Recently, the Sri Lankan PM also said that he had a conversation with India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and said, “I expressed our country’s appreciation for the support India has extended during this difficult period. I look forward to further strengthening ties between our nations.”
Wickremesinghe’s elevation as Sri Lanka’s PM is therefore a great news for India. Amidst the Sino-India powerplay in Colombo, the balance seems to be tipping in India’s favour.