There are alarm bells ringing in India’s neighbourhood again after the Maldives flutter when China protégé Abdulla Yameen tried every stratagem to reverse the people’s verdict that had unseated him from the presidency. The Chinese are still smarting from that blow.
This time it is another China protégé Mahinda Rajapaksha who is catapulted to the prime ministerial chair in Sri Lanka after he was roundly defeated three years ago in the presidential poll ironically by Maithri Sirisena who has now installed him as premier.
Ranil Wickremasinghe, who had teamed up with Sirisena to oust Rajapaksa from the presidency through the ballot box has this time around been at the receiving end with the difference that he has not been vanquished in an election but ousted by Sirisena without a parliamentary majority to bolster his claim.
Rajapaksa had given in to China in cornering Sri Lanka into a debt trap because of which Sri Lanka was forced to lease Hambantota port to the Chinese, surrendering a slice of Colombo’s sovereignty. Is he up to mischief again at a time when India was pushing through some projects with Sri Lanka?
It was apparent for some time that Wickremesinghe and Sirisena were not seeing eye to eye but that it would come to such a pass was a surprise, especially when it came to a tie-up with Rajapaksa. The bitterness that characterised the Sirisena-Rajapaksa relationship at one time was deemed to be an insurance that they would not come together.
The last has apparently not been heard of the high-stakes political battle because Sirisena’s action could lead to a constitutional crisis. As it stands, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Sirisena’s United People’s Freedom Alliance together have only 95 seats in parliament while Wickremesinghe’s United National Party has 106.
It is on the cards that with Sirisena having suspended parliament for two weeks, Rajapaksa and Sirisena together will attempt to cobble together a majority in parliament through hook or crook. Before Wickremesinghe was sacked, Sirisena’s party had snapped links with his party ending the coalition between the two parties. That was an apparent precursor to the replacement move.
Will the Americans step in to thwart covert Chinese moves to bring back Rajapaksa through the back door considering that Beijing is going all out to establish its martime supremacy which could affect American and Indian interests? Before Wickremesinghe’s sack, he had made a dash to New Delhi and confabulated with Prime Minister Modi. While the Modi government is waiting and watching, will India surrender the advantage to China so easily? There is more to the political moves than is evident on the surface.
Even during the 2015 elections which Rajapaksa lost to Sirisena, Rajapaksa, had received large payments from the Chinese port construction fund that flowed directly into campaign aides and activities. Rajapaksa had agreed to Chinese terms and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia.
After the manner in which power has changed hands in Maldives with a regime inimical to China taking over after presidential elections, Beijing is clearly focussed on re-asserting its influence in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa’s return is apparently a manifestation of Chinese assertion which Sri Lankans need to be wary of because it is an index of Chinese neo-colonialism.
The Chinese are not the ones to give up easily and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s entire edifice of power as president for life rests on his being able to spread China’s influence across the world with maritime hegemony exercised through pliant governments.
Grudgingly, the Chinese have moved back a step in Maldives seeing the writing on the wall but they would still do everything possible to get the new Maldivian government to kowtow to them so that the access to the sea that Beijing has gained is not lost.
In Colombo, the Rajapaksa regime would be under intense pressure to deliver for China and to thwart Indian attempt to counter-balance it. Too overt a Lankan action in Beijing’s support will, however, go down poorly with the Lankan people who were three years ago exasperated by the manner in which China was short-changing Colombo and had voted Rajapaksa out in disgust.
The immediate bone of contention would be the docking of Chinese submarines. Also, there would be attempts to scuttle Indian investment which had been in principle agreed upon. How much Sirisena would be prepared to toe the Chinese line remains to be seen but for his own preservation in power he may well be pliant and accommodative.
There are also Indian projects in the pipeline with Japanese participation and it would not be easy for Colombo to brush them aside while claiming it is not tied to the apron strings of the Chinese. But before everything else, the constitutionality of the manner in which Sirisena got Wickremesinghe out of prime ministership and brought in Rajapaksa would have to be sorted out.
Evidently, there is further action in store if Sri Lanka goes by constitutional principles and practices. But how the Chinese would guide the behind-the-scene activity remains to be seen.No less a person than Sri Lanka former president Chandrika Kumaratunga had exposed in 2016 how Rajapaksa had demanded and received bribes from Chinese companies.
In a candid interview aired by the Independent Television Network on November 8, 2016, she said he had demanded monies to the value of 50 per cent from all six projects she had signed with the Chinese government prior to her departure from office.Indeed, if Rajapaksa is confirmed in his position as prime minister, India needs to watch out.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist.
He has authored four books.