Dhe fires at the current focal point of South Asia continue to blaze: Despite the Rajapaksa clan’s farewell to government power in Sri Lanka, which may only be temporary, the country has not yet found its way into a stable future. The island state collapsed under its debt burden in the spring, more and more people are starving, and the government was deposed.
The inflation rate is officially 83 percent. Medicines and many staple foods can only be obtained on the black market for exorbitant prices. Representatives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are negotiating the rescue of the strategically important island off the southern tip of India. The struggle for power on the resort island continues while the people suffer. And the great powers China and India are attempting, in some surprising ways, to secure or expand their influence.
The largest creditor China
Many would have expected Beijing to help the suffering island and provide billions of dollars in emergency aid. After all, China is the largest bilateral donor with a share of almost 20 percent of its debt mountain of Sri Lanka, has pumped billions of dollars into the construction of infrastructure there and, after repayment difficulties, has taken over part of it from state-owned companies – such as the strategically important port of Hambantota, which it has leased for 99 years. So far that has not happened.
But Beijing is trying to see if its long arm can still reach Colombo: the Chinese naval research ship Yuan Wang 5 moored in Hambantota for six days against the express wish of the American and Indian governments. As a concession to Delhi, it had to wait a day at sea because that was India’s national holiday. The government under Narendra Modi if the worldwide headlines had been lost, the white colossus with its four huge antenna trees would have arrived in Sri Lanka on the same day.
But the fact that the ship is docked at Hambantota at all is a testament to the influence that China continues to have over Sri Lanka. And it’s reminiscent of the submarine affair: Five years ago, China wanted to have one of its naval submarines moored in Colombo on the very day Modi had announced a visit. The then President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisenaturned down the poisoned offer.
The former general of the People’s Liberation Army and today’s political scientist in China, Zhou Bo, was recently quoted as saying: “It won’t be long before China sends an aircraft carrier group to the Indian Ocean. What will India do then?” That may come as a surprise, given that China kept its coffers locked in the months of need.
India is closely connected
India is quite different: the huge neighboring state supported Sri Lanka with commitments and dollars. Of course, in his second term, Modi saw an opportunity to strengthen an open flank. It was surprising that it opened up at all: China’s influence in India’s forecourt seems to be closely linked to the Rajapaksa clan. During the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 and 2010 it was felt everywhere. Then Delhi gained ground under his successor only to lose it again to Beijing from 2019 after Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the helm.