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Hidden Chinese hand in Sri Lankan chaos

Security

Hidden Chinese hand in Sri Lankan chaos

By Sudhir Selvaraj

Absolute chaos has descended on Sri Lankan politics over the past few weeks described as a “constitutional crisis”. Things got so bad earlier this week that parliamentarians got into a brawl during a session of parliament.

It started on 26 October when President Maitripala Sirisena appointed former president Mahindra Rajapaksha as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka ousting the incumbent Ranil Wickremsinghe. This drew widespread opposition from Wickremsinghe’s supporters and activists, as well as from the international community for bypassing democratic customs and institutions and acting unconstitutionally.

Sirisena defeated Rajapaksha in the 2015 presidential election largely with the help of Wickremsinghe. However, in the recent past Sirisena and Wickremsinghe have clashed over the governments proposal to lease one of its ports to China.
Rajapaksha’s ascendency to a major political office concerns many because of his alleged links to corruption on a large scaleand his questionable tactics adopted in the final push against the LTTE in 2008 which ended a near three-decade long civil war in the island country.

There is another troubling aspect in the form of the hidden hand of China in the domestic politics of Sri Lanka.
The hints of a Chinese hand in Sirisena’s action are strong. Rajapakasha is viewed as being very pro-China. During his term in office, China extended a large line of credit to Sri Lanka despite possessing an uncertain economy, and unhealthy feasibility studies for a port he wanted to build. Following Rajapaksha’s electoral defeat in 2015, and unable to pay off the large amount of loans, Sri Lanka has leased the Hambantota port and 15,000 surrounding acres to China for 99 years. This gives China further access to the Indian Ocean emphasizing its strategic importance.

Rajapaksha’s return to frontline politics is seen as an example of how Chinese aid and investment helps influence domestic politics of nations for China’s advantage. Others examples of this include the alleged Chinese involvement in Asian elections such as in the Philippines and in Sri Lanka. If true, this action serves as another example of confirming China’s attempt to build a ‘string of pearls’ around India in the Indian Ocean as a means of checking a competitive regional power.

This is ultimately part of China’s recently declared third era for China. The first era was Mao Zedong’s achievement of uniting the country after the bitter civil war. Next came the period of stabilization and economic and political development under Deng Xiaoping and now is the time for Xi Jinping.In this phase, there is a promise to consolidate affairs at home (matters of the economy and corruption) while reaching outwards and spreading its international influence. This was laid out by Xi in his 2012 speech, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

China recently removed presidential term limits which means President Xi could serve for life rather than the former term limit of 2023.

As it stands now, after a vote of no-confidence, Sri Lanka currently does not have a Prime Minister or Cabinet. A snap election has been called for 5 January to determine the next prime minister of the Island Nation. Many observers will be watching to see what role China plays in the coming months.

Image Credit: CC by Rajapaksha/ Flickr

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M. Sudhir Selvaraj

M. Sudhir Selvaraj writes the Weekly Security Brief for GCN. He is a fellow with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His interests lie in security of religious minorities, secularism, U.S. foreign policy and politics of South Asia. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at King’s College London. He has a master’s (with distinction) in International Relations from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and graduated cum laude (with honors) from Concordia College, Minnesota with majors in Political Science and Global Studies and a minor in Business.

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