Behind Sri Lanka’s political turmoil lies an India-China struggle for influence

Gleaming cranes stretch out on the waterfront in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo as Chinese companies construct a $1.5 billion new commercial district, including hotels, marinas and a motor racing track. They have already built a giant container terminal nearby and a huge port in the south.

Now India, the traditional power in the region, is muscling into port and other projects, pushing back hard against China.

The big fear for India is that Sri Lanka, just off its southern coast and on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, could become a Chinese military outpost.

But the battle is creating political turmoil in Sri Lanka. A bust-up between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over how far to accommodate Indian interests is a key reason the nation’s unity government has just fallen apart, government officials and foreign diplomats said.

Wickremesinghe, who was fired on 26 October and replaced by veteran pro-China politician Mahinda Rajapaksa, told Reuters about arguments at a cabinet meeting chaired by the president last month over a proposal to grant development of a Colombo port project to a Japan-India joint venture.

“There are arguments in the cabinet, sometimes heated arguments,” he said. Wickremesinghe did not name the president but said: “There was a paper put forth to not give it to India, Japan.” He added that he insisted that the ultimate decision should respect a memorandum of understanding signed between India, Japan and Sri Lanka.

It was the first account of what transpired in the 16 October meeting and the government’s pushback against India.

Wickremesinghe declined to respond when asked if he believed the India-China struggle was behind his firing. But Rajitha Senaratne, a former government minister who attended, confirmed the president and the prime minister had argued at the meeting. (Firstpost)

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