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Issue No.: 573 | March 2015

Political Transition in Sri Lanka and Its Impact on Asia Balance Of Power

B. N. Mehrish
The newly elected Sri Lanka President Sirisena is known for his anti-China stance.

There is regime change in Sri Lanka. The January 8, 2015 presidential election in Sri Lanka – one of the most crucial election in its history – in which Rajapaksa’s attempt to continue in power for third term was challenged by the opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena. When Rajapaksa amended the constitution, aiming for a third term, it was a turning point in how Sri Lankans saw him. Interestingly during his 10-year rule Rajapaksa has remained "the darling” of Sri Lankans and enjoyed widespread support. He succeeded in brutally ending the ethnic war by killing Prabhakaran, the leader of Tamil Tigers.

The newly elected Sri Lanka President Sirisena is known for his anti-China stance. David Brewster, a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University observed that Mahinda Rajapaksa paid the price for being friendly with China. Sri Lanka’s alliance with China during Rajapaksa’s autocratic rule prompted fears in India. Rajapaksa allowed Sri Lankan territory to be used for Chinese military activity in the Indian Ocean. In September 2014, President of China, Xi Jinping announced Chinese investments estimated at $ 4 billion in loans for construction of malls, hotels and marinas. The building projects were largely carried out by Chinese workers. Chinese analysts have denied that China wants Sri Lanka to be a colony. (New York Times)

Tough Job Ahead

Maithripala Sirisena has to face tough issues according to macroeconomic indicators. Overdependence on private and international capital markets, crony capitalism and borrowing to fund public investment by the previous regime have caused huge external debt, according to development economist Dr. Muttukrishna Saravanathan.

China has offered love, loans aplenty to South East Asian countries and expressed the desire to become a partner with ASEAN countries at an East Asian summit in Myanmar. China has offered ASEAN countries $20 billion in preferential and special loans to develop infrastructures. China reiterated its resolve to safe guard its sovereignty and its position that maritime disputes should be settled bilaterally rather than collectively or through arbitration. ASEAN leaders hope to persuade their giant neighbour to take a less bellicose approach to the overlapping claims. ASEAN as a group has been reluctant to antagonize China.
Challenges for India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken several foreign policy initiatives to counter China’s competition and rivalry with India’s Asian neighbours. Under the leadership of Modi, India has reciprocated high level dialogue with Vietnam, not withstanding China’s reservations are crucial for Asia’s balance of power.

Prime Minister Modi signalled his effortless transition by pulling off a diplomatic coup by inviting leaders of SAARC at his oath ceremony. The western perception of Modi changed rapidly. World leaders have lauded Modi’s charismatic leadership. Among the many challenges that Modi’s government will face in the near future one will definitely be foreign policy. West Asia is in turmoil and the world economy is still in the doldrums. India’s neighbourhood holds the key to its emergence as a regional and global power. To improve relations with India’s neighbours will be the biggest challenge to Modi’s foreign policy agenda. Modi’s diplomacy has been aptly described as "destiny diplomacy.” 

India and Sri Lanka must script a fresh understanding on bilateral ties and Tamil issue. With the ouster of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the island nation has got a crucial opportunity to heal the wounds of the past. It is significant that Sirisena’s victory was made possible through the support of Tamil and Muslims in addition to a sizeable chunk of the Sinhalese vote. This gives him vital elbow room on the Tamil issue. Creating greater space for Tamils in Sri Lanka’s polity will be Sirsena’s biggest challenge. As far as India is concerned, Prime Minister Modi should promote economic and strategic relations with Sri Lanka to serve as an important pillar of development in the Indian Ocean.

Former Professor of Politics
University of Mumbai





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