Talk on China in Rajapakse 2.0: Ports and Geo-Political Challenges
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On 02 August 2021, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) organised a talk by Prof Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, author and Senior Advisor on Security and Geopolitics, Sri Lanka, on "China in Rajapakse 2.0: Ports and Geo-Political Challenges in Sri Lanka”. Dr Arvind Gupta, Director VIF, welcomed Prof Asanga Abeyagoonasekera and delivered the opening remarks. He stated that China-Sri Lanka relations are closely observed by India, as there are concerns in India about the scope of that relationship. With its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has enhanced its presence in the South Asian region. However, there is a lack of understanding of the relationship, and there is a lack of knowledge on the data and policies.

Prof Abeyagoonasekera started his talk by stating that the ports and geopolitical challenges have shaped the China-Sri Lanka relationship. He outlined the island nation’s challenges since President Sirisena’s regime (2015-Easter Sunday bombing) which saw recalibration of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. He compared President Mahinda Rajapakse (R.1) and President Gotabaya Rajapakse (R.2) regime. He re-emphasised China’s infrastructure diplomacy, espe-cially in the maritime sphere. Finally, he elaborated on Sri Lanka’s conundrum it is facing.

Both presidents’ periods started with chaos, multiple economic, environmental and healthcare crises. Both have used an ultra-nationalist political posture to come out of these crises. There is quick weaponisation to satisfy the majoritarian Sinhalese Buddhist senti-ments. President Mahinda Rajapakse period (2005-15) “the 1.0 era” is articulated as the “Mahinda Chinthanaya” era. He based his foreign policy on the non-aligned principles and thereby, a balanced foreign policy. Even President Gotabaya Rajapakse adopted a neutral and equidistant foreign policy.

Nevertheless, in reality, they do not practice a balanced or a neutral foreign policy. This duality is visible as it promises a neutral posture but in practice have adopted a China tilted policy, which has raised questions among big powers. He stated that President Gotabaya is closer to China than President Mahinda policy. Starting from August 2020 there was a dramatic shift in the regime especially with the pandemic and China’s vaccine diplomacy.

He further stated that China’s economic intentions are clearly stated; however, its political dimensions are not visible. The Rajapakse’s political party, SLPP and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) declared their close cooperation on the CCP’s centenary. Multiple workshops were also conducted at think-tank level; China’s China Reform Foundation (CRF) signed MoUs with Pathfinder Foundation, Sri Lanka. During a telephonic conversation between the two presidents, President Gotabaya expressed the willingness to adopt the development model of CCP especially in the rural areas. Due to this duality, sovereignty concerns, national security concerns, internal political interference, human rights, media freedom and trust deficit issues are rising. There has been rising incidences of securitisation and surveillance state, for instance, appointment of 28 military officers to senior positions. He compared this new model of development to the existing models in Pakistan and Myanmar. In the new model, majoritarian China has adopted an ‘aggressive wolf warrior’ approach.

Looking at the foreign policy, Prof Abeyagoonasekera highlighted the appointment of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanth Colombage, who mentioned that Sri Lanka would follow India’s first policy and Sri Lanka will not do anything harmful to Indian strategic secu-rity interest. However, in 2021 August, he stated that there was no evidence of genocide in China’s Xinjiang area. This shows the amount of China’s influence on Sri Lanka’s foreign poli-cy. The recent visit of the Chinese Minister of Defence clearly expressed his appreciation of Sri Lanka's position on Taiwan and Hong Kong administrative region. And in turn China supports Sri Lanka’s on human rights concerns. The infrastructure layer, for example, leasing of Hambantota port, which was taken for 99 years, is the fastest acquisition ever done in the Sri Lankan in 30 days. However, when there were protests against India’s East container terminal, the project was stopped. Whereas there were no protests when Hambantota port was leased out to the Chinese.

He stated that the Sri Lankan side is missing the strategic depth. He compared the formation of the special economic zone at Djibouti and later made into a military base. The same con-tract is made with Sri Lanka. The conundrum of the Island is to balance its foreign policies, the triple spheres - Delhi-Beijing-Washington DC. Sri Lanka, however, is not able to balance its foreign policies. Sri Lanka needs to show sensitivity to India’s security interests. There was no High Commissioner for two years in New Delhi, and the former HC Austin Fernando returned in January 2020. The growing trust deficit is evident because of multiple projects that have been suspended. China’s triangular power projection surrounding India - Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti, are causing concern for India. A new roadmap is to be established. However, a new road map is not necessary, if a balanced foreign policy is followed. There is a popular perception that the Dragon cannot be investigated.

He also questioned an article written by Deborah Brautigam and Meg Rithmire, who stated that the Chinese ‘Debt Trap’ is a myth. Prof Abeyagoonasekera suggests that the debt trap is not a myth and it is quite visible. China’s involvement in domestic politics is visible, constitu-tional coups, political funding and CCP and SLPP strategies are in place. As per the quantita-tive analyses, and based on the central bank records, the scale of the Chinese funding is not so much and therefore, fails to gauge the strategic depth of the Chinese funding. Prof Abeyagoonasekera assessment is that the economic quantitative projection fails to capture the strategic depth of these projects. The Chinese projects have a long-term strategic design that could easily bring the ‘hybrid model’ of civil-military activity. This could be a security concern for Sri Lanka and the region.

Prof Abeyagoonasekera suggested immediate measures to recalibrate the Sri Lankan foreign policy from China-tilted to a balanced foreign policy. A 20-point foreign policy, which is cur-rently not available to the scholarly community and the Parliament, should be made available. If the Chinese projects are transformative, then they must be gone ahead. For example, the future government can amend certain clauses of the 99-year leases or the port city. Further, commitment to rules-based order is important, and it is essential to introduce democratic rooms and address human rights concerns, especially minority concerns. The Indo-Lanka’s relationship is the key, and the new roadmap should ensure Sri Lanka's commitment to a rule-based order.

The talk was followed by discussion in important issues, such as, what was the larger public opinion in Sri Lanka on these developments, what was reflected in mainstream media, revisiting of Chinese agreements, voices of democracy in Sri Lanka, national security concerns, and implications over India’s southern region, and many more. Prof Abeyagoonasekera responded to all the questions.

Dr Gupta delivered the closing remarks. He reiterated the need to recalibrate Sri Lanka’s for-eign policy in the wake of the developments in Sri Lanka and particularly the loss of balance in Sri Lanka’s policy. There is a strategic angle to China's relationship, where there is a lack of transparency and also China's new approach of the “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Their bold and aggressive moves are visible in their interactions with the political parties with individual leaders and getting the entire Colombo project cleared in 30 days. On the other hand, India and Sri Lanka are geographically close and have a long history of relationship, despite the ups and downs. For India, the task is to give a fresh look to India’s neighbourhood first policy and consider factors mentioned in the talk.

Event Date 
August 2, 2021

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