India will have warm words for Sri Lanka's president Gotabaya Rajpaksa, but China's cash will talk louder
Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's visit to New Delhi comes in amidst the greatest assertion of Chinese power across the Indian Ocean since the 15th Century
Ever since his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, now appointed prime minister, was defeated by India-backed Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, Gotabaya has worked assiduously to rebuild his relationship with New Delhi
Though Chinese investment is critical for cash-strapped Sri Lanka, its leaders have understood that accommodating Indian interests is is also critical
But while Colombo understands Beijing's influence in next-door-neighbour Sri Lanka, most visibly, through its control of Hambantota port, is a critical strategic threat, this concern collides with self-interest
Led by Grand-Admiral Zheng He, flying the flag of the Ming dynasty, 48 great ships of the line rounded the coast of Ceylon in February 1411, carrying some 30,000 soldiers. The grand-admiral had first arrived there in 1408, demanding Ceylon's king, Vira Alagakkonara, kneel before his emperor and acknowledge him as the son of heaven. King Alagakkonara refused, and Zheng He sailed away. Now, he had returned to deliver retribution: The king and his aristocrats were made prisoners and taken to China.
Zhu-Di, third emperor of the Ming, left behind a stele introducing himself thus to the Buddha, the Vishnu of Tenamram and Allah: He was, reads an imperial inscription, bearing the date 15 November, 1409, "The King of Great China, supreme overlord of kings, full-orbed moon in splendour". He made made generous offerings to the deities: A thousand qian of gold, 5,000 qian of silver, silk , scented oil and incense.
The followers of these gods Zhu-Di did not seek to propitiate. "Their dens and hideouts we ravaged," the scholar Timothy Brook recounts Zhu-Di's advisor Yang Rong having written, "and made captive that entire country, bringing back to our August capital, their women, children, families and retainers, leaving none."
Fei Xin, a soldier on the expedition, recorded the outcome in his memoirs, somewhat more pithily: "Now, the barbarians are respectful."
Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's visit to New Delhi comes in amidst the greatest assertion of Chinese power across the Indian Ocean since the 15th Century — an assertion that many fear could rewrite the security and trade architecture that has ensured peace across the region since the Second World War. Already, Beijing has extended its naval reach into the Indian Ocean, opening its first base in Djibouti, planning a second in Gwadar and investing in ports like Tanzania's Bagamoyo.
In response, New Delhi has demonstrated large ambitions: Brushing up against Chinese power in Himalayas, it has signalled a willingness to use military force. This coming March, the Indian Navy will stage multinational exercises on the Pacific Rim, showing its willingness to partner militarily with other countries and uphold the status quo.
Ever since his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa — now appointed prime minister — was defeated by India-backed Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, Gotabaya has worked assiduously to rebuild his relationship with New Delhi. Though Chinese investment is critical for cash-strapped Sri Lanka, its leaders have understood that accommodating Indian interests is is also critical.
But while Colombo understands Beijing's influence in next-door-neighbour Sri Lanka — most visibly, through its control of Hambantota port — is a critical strategic threat, this concern collides with self-interest. India's weakening economy is — and will — struggle to match the cash Beijing brings to the table, compelling Colombo to engage in complex trade-offs.
The story of Sri Lanka's ghost airport helps illustrate the problem. Ten thousand square metres of terminal space, a sprawling 92,000 square metre duty-free shopping area, 12 check-in counters with inline baggage scanning, 20 immigration desks, a 3.5-kilometre runway capable of handling Airbus A380s: Built on the back of an $190 million loan from China's Exim Bank, the Mattala Rajapakshe International Airport was meant to be the hub of a new Sri Lanka, driven by the great port at Hambantota.
But Mattala has turned out to have all the life of a dinosaur skeleton. In 2018, according to Sri Lanka's civil aviation authority, it handled just 708 flights in the entire year, down from 1,418 in 2017. International airlines terminated their last operations from Mattala last year. Projections that Mattala would be handling a million passengers, 6,250 flights and 50,000 tons of cargo by 2028 now look like an astrologer's fantasy.
Ever since 2018, New Delhi and Colombo have been discussing the prospect of the Airports Authority of India acquiring a 70 percent stake in the airport project — but, in spite of prodding from the Ministry of External Affairs, civil aviation bureaucrats have shown a hard-nosed scepticism about the airport ever making money.
In essence, Sri Lanka's new government needs someone to pay the ill-considered debt it picked up — but India simply isn't in a financial position to play Santa Claus.
Sri Lanka has dragged its feet, too, on a string of projects agreed on in 2007: among them, a Liquid Natural Gas-fired 500 megawatt capacity power plant in Kerewelapitiya, near Colombo; an LNG storage unit and a piped gas system. There’s been no progress, either, in developing oil storage tanks in Trincomalee, building on infrastructure dating back to World War II.
Beijing's relationship with the Rajapaksas blossomed after the end of the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, when China helped stonewall western efforts to investigate war crimes. New Delhi, faced with pressures from ethnic Tamil political leaders hostile to Sri Lanka, proved a not-always-reliable partner, even though Indian intelligence and logistical support was critical to winning the war.
In 2007, Rajapaksa signed a $1 billion deal with a Chinese consortium to construct a new deep-water port at Hambantota, the president's home constituency. Later, a Chinese-led consortium was contracted to construct and operate Colombo's South Container Terminal.
There were more investments, too: The $1.4 billion Colombo Port City, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and an $272 million contract to build the country’s first major post-colonial railway infrastructure.
New Delhi watched from the sidelines, taking no small satisfaction when many of these projects drowned in debt. In 2017, hard-pressed to meet its commitments for Hambantota alone, Sri Lanka’s new government was compelled to lease the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December.
Even though Gotabaya will be reluctant to irk India, the fundamentals of the country's position haven't changed. Sri Lanka's debt problem goes far wider than China. In fact, Chinese debt makes up just some 10 percent of the country's repayment burden. International commercial borrowings have made up more than half the country's debt since 2011, rising alongside a slowing of foreign trade, protectionism and declining government revenue.
Faced with a grim economic landscape, Gotabaya's government will have little choice other than to take what cash is on the table — and India is in no position to match China.
"The sinews of war," the great Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero once observed "is infinite money". That's true of geopolitics, too. For two generations, New Delhi's resources were adequate to ensure it a preeminent position in shaping the foreign policies of its neighbours: Nepal, Bhutan and even sometimes-prickly Bangladesh all orbited an Indian axis.
Now, as India enters the dangerous, uncharted waters of a changing world, it has begun receiving an unpleasant education in the inexorable relationship between wealth and power.
Sri Lanka will start a two-match series against Bangladesh on Wednesday, aiming for their first Test win since January 2020.
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