Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China expected to be ‘low key’ as new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa takes the reins

  • Incoming leader says he will not allow the island nation to be pulled into a proxy contest among the world’s major powers
  • But analysts foresee a cautious creep towards the pro-Beijing policies of predecessor and brother Mahinda
Sri Lanka’s freshly elected president Gotabaya Rajapaksa will take a “low key” approach in restoring the cosy ties the country enjoyed with China during the 2005-2015 presidency of his brother, analysts said, as the new leader stressed on Monday that he would adopt a strictly neutral foreign policy.

Paul Staniland, a prominent scholar of Sri Lankan politics, said Gotabaya was more likely to “spread his bets by reaching out to a variety of powerful states in the region and beyond”.

Expectations before Saturday’s elections had been that he would not only sweep the polls against his main rival, Sajith Premadasa, but that he would also swiftly revert back to the overtly pro-Beijing foreign policy of his brother Mahinda.

In his inaugural speech, the president said he would not allow the island nation to be pulled into a proxy contest among the world’s major powers.

The 70-year-old won 52.25 per cent of the nearly 16 million votes cast, with the country’s majority Sinhala population overwhelmingly backing his platform that touted a return to his brother’s strongman leadership style and a focus on national security.

The Rajapaksa brothers – alongside their two other siblings Basil and Chamal – are immensely popular among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese population because of their role in crushing Tamil separatists and ending a 26-year civil war in 2009.



“We will remain neutral in our foreign relations, and stay out of any conflict of world powers,” said Gotabaya after being sworn in on Monday.

During the tenure of the outgoing president Maithripala Sirisena and the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – Sri Lanka’s key political mover and shaker of the last five years – the consensus has been that Colombo prioritised ties with the United States over Beijing.

But foreign policy researchers said that a return towards a China-friendly policy was not so clear-cut.

For one, there remains public trepidation about China from the Mahinda era, during which Sri Lanka chalked up large public debt due to the former president’s penchant for using cheap Beijing-backed financing to fund mega-infrastructure projects.

A quarter of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt, which stands at 45 per cent of GDP, is owed to China. Among the projects built using Chinese financing are the now-infamous deep water port and airport in Hambantota, the Rajapaksa clan’s stronghold.

The Sirisena government in 2017 was forced to hand over control of the seaport to Beijing as part of a debt-for-equity swap.

The Rajapaksas’ dalliance with China also rattled regional power India, and Mahinda has previously accused New Delhi’s top spy agency of engineering his shock 2015 defeat to Sirisena.

“This round is going to be about playing things in low key for China, but playing nevertheless,” said Jabin Jacob, an international relations professor at India’s Shiv Nadar University.

“Perhaps the Rajapaksas have learned from the first time that there are consequences to playing the China card with India,” Jacob added.

“It also does not help that the perception is that Chinese projects such as the Hambantota port and airport do not make money and have cost Sri Lanka.”

Hemant Shivakumar, a senior analyst for India and South Asia at the consultancy Control Risks, offered a similar assessment – suggesting the new president is not likely to make dramatic changes to foreign policy even as he seeks to rebuild strained ties with China.

“[Gotabaya] Rajapaksa is rightly perceived to be pro-China, and he will want to refocus the relationship and bring it back on track, while being cognisant of these [debt-related] issues,” he said.

The analyst added that there was likely to be a “convergence of interests” between Gotabaya and China, with Beijing eager to show the new government that it was a “good development partner” and the new president hoping to show he would engage with the Asian power on Sri Lanka’s terms.

Staniland, an associate professor specialising in South Asian security issues and political violence at the University of Chicago, said a likely effort by the new president to present Sri Lanka as open to having “multiple friends” would be in part due to “lessons of the past and a related desire not to rely too heavily on China”.

He said it would be unsurprising if “in the medium term we see an overall tilt back towards China even as Colombo maintains a ‘portfolio’ approach to its international relations”.

N. Sathiyamoorthy, a researcher based in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state close to Sri Lanka, offered an altogether different take – suggesting that the outgoing government of Sirisena and Wikremesinghe was in fact more China-leaning compared to the Rajapaksas.

He said Mahinda merely signed the Hambantota deals that had been “hanging in the air for decades” and that “it is quite likely that others in his place would have done the same”.

The same could not be said about the outgoing government, Sathiyamoorthy added.

He said the Sirisena government, while blaming the Rajapaksas for plunging the country into a “debt trap”, was ultimately responsible for green-lighting the 2017 deal that handed over Sri Lankan land to China on a long-term lease.

One mistake that the researcher – head of the Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation think tank – said the Rajapaksas were unlikely to repeat was their “indiscretion” in allowing Chinese submarines to be berthed in Colombo in 2014.

Located off the tip of southern India, Sri Lanka has found itself increasingly a theatre for the US-China strategic tussle, with both superpowers seeking to strengthen their presence in the Indian Ocean.

The Sirisena government – in particular Prime Minister Wikremesinghe – blocked further dockings of Chinese submarines but found itself having to furiously push back against rumours that it had secret plans to let the US build a naval base in the eastern region of Trincomalee.

Apart from policies towards the world’s two superpowers, the new president’s view of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will be parsed by observers.

Shivakumar, the New Delhi-based Control Risk analyst, said India would be scrutinising the new president’s national security policies in view of Sri Lanka’s extremist attacks earlier this year, as well as his policies towards the minority Tamils.

Gotabaya, who like his brother Mahinda has denied allegations of presiding over human rights abuses as they spearheaded the bloody civil war victory over Tamil separatists in 2009, has said he will significantly strengthen security and intelligence agencies that he says were sidelined by Sirisena’s administration.

Jacob said he expected Gotabaya to visit India followed by China in his first 100 days in office. “But it will probably be China that will load him with the goodies,” the China-India watcher said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: New president set for low-key china approach
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