China, India and the Sri Lanka Elections


China, India and the Sri Lanka Elections
Image Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Nitin A. Gokhale
In less than a week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka will be facing the toughest political battle of his life as the country votes in the presidential elections on January 8. The Sinhala strongman, credited with ending a 30-year war against the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009 was expected to have a cakewalk until one of his closest colleagues Maithripala Sirisena walked out of the ruling combine and mounted a credible challenge after the fragmented opposition rallied around him.
The outcome of the polls will be watched keenly in at least two foreign capitals – New Delhi and Beijing – since both have large stakes in the island nation. While India’s strategic interests in Sri Lanka are vital, it also has cultural and religious ties with the Sri Lankan society going back centuries. China, a relatively new presence on the island, on the other hand, has made large strategic and commercial investments in Sri Lanka over the last decade, thanks to a decidedly pro-China policy adopted by Rajapaksa.

As the contest between Sirisena and Rajpaksa tightens with each day, there must be some worried folks back in Beijing. The Chinese presence in vital sectors of Sri Lanka is huge, and the opposition, led by Sirisena and backed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, is not exactly well-disposed towards Beijing.

Consider this: Between 2005 and 2012, China provided $4.8 billion as assistance to Sri Lanka. Of this only 2 percent has been in the form of outright grants; the remaining 98 percent took the form of soft loans. By contrast, a third of India’s 1.6 billion dollars in assistance to the island comprises outright grants.

There’s more. In the last two years (2012-14), China has committed in excess of 2.18 billion dollars, again mostly in the form of long-term loans. Most of these funds are destined for priority sectors like roads, expressways, ports, airports, power, irrigation, water supply and railways.

Rajapaksa’s supporters contend that all these projects are commercial ventures and Sri Lanka had no option but to depend on Chinese loans, given that the West has largely kept away, citing alleged human rights violations during the final phases of Eelam War IV. The argument is only partially true. The Chinese have cleverly played on Colombo’s fears of isolation and granted concessional loans. Critics of the Rajapaksa regime fear that the Sri Lankan government will be unable to repay such large loans in time, giving the Chinese an opportunity to turn part of the loan into equity, making them part owners of vital projects and installations.

The most glaring example cited by opponents of the Rajapaksas is the Hambantota Port Development Project. For the first phase, the Chinese provided almost 85 per cent of the total cost of $307 million. The second stage (signed in September 2012) will cost $810 million.

The interesting part is that the supply-operate-transfer agreement signed during Chinese President Xi Jingping’s September 2014 visit includes a 35-year lease of four out of seven container berths to a Chinese company. It is pertinent to note that the Hambantota project is just a few nautical miles from one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with more than 4,000 oil tankers passing by each year.

Although the Indian establishment will long regret not taking up Rajapaksa’s offer to develop Hambantota, New Delhi is surely worried about the Colombo Port City Project, a massive $1.4 billion plan to reclaim 233 hectares of land from the sea along a prominent promenade in Colombo. Of the 233 hectares, the Chinese are being given 88 hectares on a 99-year lease. Interestingly, another 20 hectares will be given to China on a freehold basis. In other words, China or the Chinese company will be a part owner of the project.

In the Sri Lankan capital, the South Container Terminal at Colombo Port is operated by a China-led consortium, which has a 35-year right of ownership under a build-operate-transfer agreement. The Chinese submarine that berthed in Colombo chose to use this terminal and not the main port and so did a Chinese naval ship earlier. The Sri Lankan government has tried to assure New Delhi on this count, by pointing out that all dealings with the Chinese are on a commercial basis and have no geo-strategic importance, a claim believed by no one in India. Why should India worry about increasing Chinese presence in the Colombo port? New Delhi has legitimate concerns since at least 70 percent of transhipment business at the Colombo port is India-related.

However, for India the greater worry should be Colombo’s enthusiastic endorsement of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and linking the development of Colombo and Hambantota Ports to the Chinese-led initiative. When Xi came to Colombo in September 2014, Beijing and Colombo announced the establishment of a Joint Committee on Coastal and Marine Cooperation to explore joint ventures in ocean observation, marine and coastal zone management, maritime security, search and rescue, and navigation security. This, Indian experts contend, would allow China a free run to carry out surreptitious maritime surveys and snoop on southern India.

The government of Narendra Modi is surely cognizant of these developments but it will take multi-directional efforts to regain the strategic space India has lost in Sri Lanka over the past decade. The previous UPA government, hampered by domestic political compulsions and its own confusion over India’s role in Sri Lanka, ceded ground to China once it refused to supply military hardware to Colombo in its war against the Tamil Tigers. In contrast, post-2005 China increased its military supplies to the Sri Lankan military manifold. By a conservative estimate, more than 60 percent of the equipment in the arsenals of the Sri Lankan Air Force and Army are of Chinese origin. In the near future, the Chinese are likely to take the defense relationship to the next level by supplying Sri Lanka with fighter aircraft and warships. Although annually more than 800 Sri Lankan officers across the three services still train in Indian military establishments, the Sri Lankan military’s dependency on Chinese equipment is surely something that worries India no end.

However, New Delhi would perhaps prefer to wait for the result of next week’s presidential election to recalibrate its own policies towards Sri Lanka, no matter who the eventual winner is.

Nitin A. Gokhale is the author of Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga.

A Race too close too call


For Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, this is a moment of reckoning. His bid to get re-elected for an unprecedented third term, is facing a serious challenge mounted by the Opposition re-energised after Mr Rajapaksa’s long-time party and ministerial colleague, Maithripala Sirisena defected from the ruling combine.

Mr Sirisena, backed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickramasinghe has turned the presidential election into a credible contest, a prospect that looked improbable even a month ago. A series of defections by smaller allies representing the Muslims has further eroded Mr Rajapaksa’s support.

Two major factors must worry Mr Rajapaksa. One is the division in his core Sinhala vote and the other is the prospect of minorities Tamils and Muslims voting heavily against him. This is a big change from 2010, when he won the elections comfortably thanks to a famous military victory over the Tamil Tigers that ended a 30-year war in the island nation.

Since then Mr Rajapaksa’s popularity has eroded considerably because of charges of authoritarianism, financial corruption and nepotism. A two-third majority in Parliament allowed the President to rewrite the Constitution and lift the restriction on holding the office of the President for more than two terms.

That at least five of Mr Rajapaksa’s immediate family members are in key government positions gives ammunition to his critics. In the last five years, the party took a backseat, leading to widespread corruption, lawlessness and cronyism, the Opposition has charged. Mr Sirisena, for long an insider, now says the concentration of power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family and large-scale corruption forced him to leave the government.

The real battle is to gain maximum support from the majority Sinhala vote in the 15-million strong electorate. In the 2010 elections, Mr Rajapaksa had polled more than double the votes secured by his main opponent, former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka in the Sinhala majority areas of south, central and western provinces but this time, Mr Sirisena has the advantage of ultra-radical, right-wing Sinhala party like Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and a prominent Buddhist monk Sobitha Thero, backing him against the President.

But it’s not a done deal yet.

Mr Rajapaksa, with his easy, if cultivated charm and an image of a decisive leader is adept at playing on Sinhala nationalist sentiment. He has already promised a new Constitution committing himself once again to the unitary status and has committed himself to establish a domestic investigative mechanism for probe into the alleged war crimes even while preventing any international scrutiny into alleged human rights violations. This appeals to the hardcore Sinhala voter base. In Colombo, revulsion against the Rajapaksas and yearning for change is palpable but the rural vote outside the capital still seems largely behind the President. Many Sinhalas, especially women, still root for Mr Rajapaksa’s “macho” image and his firm handling of terrorism.

Mr Sirisena also needs to make a dent in the Tamil heartland to get ahead of Mr Rajapaksa. With less than 10 days to go for the elections, Mr Sirisena has not spoken a word about the Tamil issue. His manifesto does not even mention the Tamils and their concerns although the influential Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that has widespread support in the North has decided on Tuesday to support him.

Mr Rajapaksa on the other hand, has launched an energetic campaign countrywide and is even touring the Tamil areas frequently. He has not only visited North and East more than once, but has made some promises, which will attract those who had suffered during the war.
Mr Sirisena in comparison appears wimpish and suffers from the perception that the Kumaratunga-Wickramasinghe duo and not him are the real power centres in the Opposition ranks. There is also lack of focus and cohesion among the disparate elements supporting
Mr Sirisena’s campaign. The JHU and the TNA for instance, hold diametrically opposite views on the contentious 13th Amendment that allows genuine devolution of power to the Tamils.

In the larger context these issues may not matter though since anti-incumbency against Mr Rajapaksa is giving the Opposition more than an even chance this time.

The close contest throws up another possibility. For the first time, Sri Lanka may be forced to count the preferential votes. According to the Constitution, a candidate, in order to win, needs to receive “more than one-half of the valid votes cast”, which is 50 per cent plus one vote. One possible scenario is that no candidate receives the required 50 per cent of the votes cast.

What happens then? The voters are allowed to indicate their second and third preferences when they vote in a presidential election. If no candidate receives more than one half of the votes cast, there will be a runoff and preferential votes will come into play. The process is complicated. Initially, all candidates except the two who received the most number of votes will be eliminated from the competition. Then, the second preferential votes of the eliminated candidates, if cast in favour of one of the remaining two candidates, will be added to their account. And finally, the third preferential votes of the eliminated candidates, if cast in favour of one of the two remaining candidates, will be added to their account. Only then the one who receives the “majority of the votes” will be declared the winner.

Political analysts in Sri Lanka say the country has never counted the preferential votes as there has always been a clear winner, even in some of the closest contests. In 1999 for instance, Ms Kumaratunga received 51.12 per cent votes while Mr Rajapaksa in 2005 scarped through with 50.29 per cent of the votes. Will it be any different this time? Will Sri Lanka be counting the preferential votes for the first time? President Rajapaksa would be hoping that the situation would not come to such a pass.

The outcome of the elections will be keenly watched around the world, especially in New Delhi. India’s relations with the Rajapaksas have been bitter-sweet and his tendency to play the China card against India has not really endeared him to New Delhi but Mr Rajapaksa’s alternative is an unknown entity so far. Whatever the outcome of the election slated for January 8, India will need to start afresh in recalibrating its relationship with Colombo.

The author is a strategic affairs commentator and long time Sri Lanka watcher