With Maithripala Sirisena, India's China headache in Sri Lanka may be finally over

Early signals indicate that Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s new President, is pursuing an India first policy, and this is a major set back for China.

Rajeev Sharma January 19, 2015 14:45:05 IST
With Maithripala Sirisena, India's China headache in Sri Lanka may be finally over

Since 9 January, when Maithripala Sirisena became Sri Lanka’s new President after his stunning victory over Mahinda Rajapaksa, early diplomatic signals emanating from Colombo hint that the new government in Sri Lanka is pursuing an India first policy, a setback of sorts for China. However, these are only early signals; but more about this later.

One can list out at least four such diplomatic signals from the Sri Lankans which hint at their India-first body language.

1) Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first foreign head of government to congratulate Sirisena over his electoral victory. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his congratulatory message to Sirisena on 13 January.

2) Indian envoy in Colombo Yash Sinha was the first among all foreign envoys to have been received by Sirisena, in fact within hours of Sirisena's victory on 9 January. In contrast, Chinese ambassador in Sri Lanka Wu Jinaghao was received by the new President only on 15 January.

3) External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was the first among foreign ministers to congratulate her newly appointed Sri Lankan counterpart Mangala Samaraweera on 12 January and invited him to visit New Delhi.

4) The new Sri Lankan foreign minister is already in New Delhi and has had substantive talks with Sushma Swaraj on Sunday. India is the first port of call for Mangala Samaraweera and, in fact, the first foreign visit by a member of Sirisena’s new cabinet. He is due to call on PM Modi on Monday.

Looking beyond these nuggets of diplomatic symbolism, India is likely to be the first destination of Sirisena’s foreign visit after becoming Sri Lankan President. He is likely to visit India early next month. Sirisena could have visited India this month itself but the Indians are busy with the upcoming visit of US President Barack Obama.

With Maithripala Sirisena Indias China headache in Sri Lanka may be finally over

India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, right, poses with her Sri Lankan counterpart Mangala Samaraweera in New Delhi, India. AP

The Sri Lankan foreign minister sent out positive vibes even before his official talks with his Indian counterpart on Sunday even as Sri Lanka released all 15 Indian fishermen from its custody ahead of Samaraweera’s visit.

Before his departure from Colombo for New Delhi, Samaraweera said his country would start its relationship with India on a “clean slate” and put the bilateral relationship back on track after it was “at times strained” during Rajapaksa’s tenure, an allusion to Rajapaksa regime’s dangerous dalliances with China.

Samaraweera told Swaraj during their talks on Sunday that "visit (by him) within five days of being sworn in reflects our priorities".

Several concrete outcomes came up during Swaraj-Samaraweera talks. They agreed to re-engage on the issue of repatriation of refugees currently in India back to Sri Lanka. A meeting on this between the concerned officials is targeted to be held before the end of this month.

Samaraweera also invited Swaraj to visit Sri Lanka. She has agreed to an early visit to Colombo during which the India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission will also be held. On this issue of fishermen, Samaraweera indicated that efforts are underway on matters relating to the release of boats. Some 84 Indian boats are still in custody of Sri Lankan authorities. Both sides have agreed that a long term solution needs to be worked out on the fishermen issue.

As stated upfront, these are the positive vibes and early signals emanating from Colombo which convey that Sri Lanka seems to be pursuing an India- first policy while seemingly putting brakes on its outreach to China. But it would be too early to determine Sri Lanka’s foreign policy with regard to China and India.

Under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka had become very close to China, particularly since May 2009 when the Rajapaksa had comprehensively won the nearly three-decade-long civil war and decimated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Rajapaksa government had come under the international community’s radar screen for its gross violation of human rights at the fag end of the civil war. The Indian government was under intense pressure due to compulsions of coalition politics to side with the international community on Rajapaksa government’s poor human rights. As India-Sri Lanka relations got strained on these issues, China took advantage of the situation and waded into the Sri Lankan strategic space in a big way.

In the last few years, Rajapaksa had allowed China to enlarge its strategic footprints in Sri Lanka like never before. The situation had become worrisome for India when Chinese warships and nuclear submarines docked in Sri Lankan ports several times since last August. Besides, China has become Sri Lanka's biggest source of foreign direct investment, accounting for 24 percent of Sri Lanka's total FDI in 2013.

Swaraj has strongly raised the issue of Chinese nuclear submarines and warships docking in Sri Lankan ports. The Indian sense is that the Sirisena-led Sri Lanka won’t let it happen again, though the two sides are averse to making a public announcement on this issue. That said, it would be a mistake for anyone in India to believe that Sri Lanka will distance itself from China to please India.

China has already gotten into Sri Lankan strategic space in a big way and a reversal of its steps seems highly improbable. But India will be satisfied if the Sirisena government does not go overboard in wooing China the way Rajapaksa had.

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