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Sri Lanka, Maldives, and the new great game

  • Published at 06:07 pm December 17th, 2018
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Is trouble brewing in the Indian Ocean?

The “great game” of the Kipling era was between Britain in India and expanding Tsarist Russia. Now a new one has emerged in the Indian Ocean, with multiple players on one side and China on the other. 

China under President Xi Jinping is concerned for secure sea trade access for its growing economy but its bases in the Indian Ocean are only part of asserting its challenge to US world hegemony, notably with the BRI. China now controls Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar port in Pakistan. It has a new military base in Djibouti.

The US has a new Indo-Pacific command and links with India, Australia, and Japan in the “quadrilateral strategic dialogue.” Australia and the US have pre-empted China by combining to fund a new naval base in Papua New Guinea. 

All these players are expanding their naval and air power. This new version of the “great game” has not involved conflictthus far. Another, regarding rights in the South China Sea, has come dangerously close.

Rivalry in “soft power” is equally significant, here as elsewhere across the globe, and has been a prominent feature of the recent political developments in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both strategically located across major sea trade routes.

Of these two, the political crisis in the Maldives seems settled with the peaceful election of President Solih, replacing President Yameen, and the return from exile of earlier President Nasheed. 

In “great game” terms, this was a setback for China and gain for India, marked by Prime Minister Modi’s attendance at Solih’s inauguration and his promise of financial help.

Such help is needed. Yameen had taken on debts of $3 billion to Chinese companies to pay for major projects including airport expansion and a bridge connecting its island to the capital Male. 

Any restructuring of debt will be under Chinese courts. Fear that the Chinese were gaining too much influence or control was one element in Yameen’s defeat.

The total Maldives population is small, but the island’s archipelago covers a large area of ocean across east-west sea routes and so, is of strategic importance. 

Sri Lanka is much larger in land area and population. It is also more divided by ethnicity and religion.  Some 70% are Sinhala Buddhists, 20% Tamil Hindus, 9% Muslims, plus some Christians. 

Under President Rajapaksa, supported by the Buddhist majority, the long civil war against the LTTE and Tamils was finally brought to a savage and brutal end in 2009. Reconstruction and reconciliation were slow and grudging. 

There was growing opposition to his autocratic and corrupt rule and to his massive expenditure on major infrastructure projects which was building up debt to the Chinese.

In particular, a new Hambantota port, in Rajapaksa’s home district in the south-west, together with an associated airport and economic zone, soon proved so uneconomic that a 50-year lease of the port had to be given to the Chinese government. 

This drew international attention, not only to Sri Lanka’s plight but to the extent to which Chinese worldwide finance for BRI projects was primarily on loan terms, served Chinese interests, and might become a form of colonial dependency. Similar criticisms have been directed at the IMF and its “Washington consensus.”

Nevertheless, Rajapaksa’s election defeat in January 2015 and his replacement by Sirisena was a surprise. The new president was not one of the traditional elite but the son of a farmer. 

He had served as Rajapaksa’s health minister until breaking with him. His alliance of dissatisfied Sinhala, Tamils, and Muslims was united only in opposition to Rajapaksa.

Tamil resentment of Rajapaksa was understandable given his role in the civil war and aftermath. His alienation of the Muslim minority was more recent. 

They tried to keep their heads down during the 26 years of civil war but by 2018 had become the target of harassment by hardline Buddhist activists. In March, there were violent communal riots in the central city of Kandy. 

President Sirisena’s choice of India, not China, for his first state visit and then his 19th amendment of the constitution, were widely welcomed. The amendment transferred significant powers from the president to parliament and prime minister. 

For this role, he had chosen Wickremesinghe, son of a media magnate. Operating a new balance of powers may not have been easy, but their growing antagonism and policy differences seemed to owe much to differences of personality. This has led to an ongoing political deadlock.

It started by Sirisena dismissing parliament, in contradiction to the constitution, and selecting Rajapaksa to form a new government. Despite bribery offers, Rajapaksa failed to demonstrate a majority and lost two no-confidence votes. 

Wickremasinghe refused to stand down and the speaker refused to recognize either side as the government. The 2019 budget cannot be passed. Wickremesinghe’s supporters, strengthened by 25 Tamil MPs, have voted to suspend ministerial salaries.

The Supreme Court’s interim order against a Rajapaksa government is likely soon to be confirmed soon. Sirisena was rumoured likely to acknowledge defeat and withdraw the dissolution of parliament, but so far he is standing firm.

A further bizarre element is that Rajapaksa could still come out on top. He and his allies did so well in local elections earlier this year that they stood a good chance of winning national elections in 2020.

Unfortunately, this new strength seems to reflect the success of Buddhist activists in rallying support in a widening rift with minority Muslims and Tamils. No renewal of war with the Tamils is likely and tension with the Muslims may be contained. 

Even so in Myanmar, the Bamar Buddhist majority was fed fears of losing control to ethnic or religious minorities and the Rohingya tragedy resulted. Manipulated fear is dangerous.

As the immediate future of Sri Lanka is confused, this part of the Indian Ocean “great game” remains open. Can a balance be reached between India and Chinese influence, seeking trade and investment from both? 

Selina Mohsin is a former ambassador.