India-China ‘Great Game’ in Sri Lanka?

china-sri-lanka-2Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is on a week-long visit to China on the invitation of the Chinese government — a development that sections within the government and diplomatic circles here see as a “strong message” from Beijing.

The visit assumes further significance in the wake of controversial remarks made by Yi Xianliang, the Chinese Ambassador to Colombo, that pointed to apparent tensions between the Sri Lankan government and Beijing.

At a press conference here, Mr. Yi asked why Colombo sought more loans from Beijing if it found them “expensive,” as the Sri Lankan Finance Minister had observed. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry defended the envoy, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera met Mr. Yi and “advised” him to take up such matters through Foreign Ministry channels rather than the media.

A top source here, requesting anonymity, said that the incident — which was “uncharacteristic” of Chinese diplomacy — coupled with Mr. Rajapaksa’s trip to China, was a clear message from Beijing.

“Not just to our government, but also to New Delhi,” the senior official said, referring to competing strategic interests that the two powers are known to have in the island nation.

Mr. Rajapaksa, during his two terms in office, was widely perceived as being close to Beijing. With Chinese loans, he built a massive port and airport in the southern city of Hambantota, which the current government has termed financially non-viable “white elephants.”

This invitation points to a public display of support, observers noted, weeks after pro-Rajapaksa actors floated a new political party and invited him to lead it. It also comes about a month after his brother and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa travelled to China to attend a defence seminar.

The former President’s political ally and Democratic Left Front Leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara said that by “inviting the former President, the Chinese government has shown how much they value the relationship with the former President and appreciate his political stature.”

When contacted, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Mr. Rajapaksa was on a “private goodwill visit” on the invitation of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, a state-backed think-tank. “President Rajapaksa made positive contributions to the development of China-Sri Lanka relations during his term of office. The Chinese side appreciates what he has done for the friendship between the two countries,” the Ministry told The Hindu.

Ahead of his departure, Mr. Rajapaksa told editors of select local newspapers that India had adopted a softer line with the new government though it had “sold the Hambantota port to the Chinese.”

Recalling the incident involving Chinese submarines that had docked at Colombo harbour in 2014, when he was in power, he said: “They [New Delhi] made a big issue about the submarines, but today even if you give the entire port [to China], it is not a problem for them [India]. This shows the difference in diplomatic relations.”

Last month, Sri Lanka said it would sell 80 per cent of the $1.5-billion port in the southern city of Hambantota to a Chinese company to tackle the country’s debt burden. (The Hindu)

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