Sri Lankan strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa has for long, swung between China & India. There was a time in the early years of this decade when the western world and India had shunned the Rajapaksa led Sri Lankan regime, a strong reason why Sri Lanka fell into the palm of China. All this while the USA has maintained its distance from Colombo, making it drift towards deepening Chinese influence. However, things are changing. First, India reinstated confidence on the Rajapaksas who are in power again and now, the USA too is making an entry, as Mike Pompeo’s upcoming visit can be seen as an ice breaker in the Sri Lanka-USA bilateral relations.
During his Asia tour just a week before November 3 US Presidential Election, Mike Pompeo will visit India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Maldives. As per a Reuters report, the USA will urge Sri Lanka to make “difficult necessary choices” on its economic relations during the visit of Mike Pompeo. This whole visit and in particular the visit to Sri Lanka are direct US attempts to uproot China’s deepening influence in the Indian Ocean Region.
After totally ending the LTTE terror threat, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan government were blamed for atrocities and human rights violations. All the western democracies including the USA distanced themselves from Colombo, which led to further drifting of Sri Lanka into China’s sphere. The Sri Lankans were put on the FATF grey list which isolated them further economically.
Atrocities on Tamils complicated their relationship with India and it soured beyond recovery. The relationships worsened further as the Rajapaksa brothers lost power in 2014 and India was blamed for interfering in these elections. So, the Sri Lankans were left with neither any big country nor any international financial institution to finance their development projects and many more capital intensive projects.
With Colombo isolated, they had no other option than to go with the only country which was lending a helping hand. The Chinese have all this time continued to flush in billions of dollars into Sri Lanka. Multiple controversial infrastructural projects financed by Chinese companies came up under the previous reign of Mahinda Rajapaksa. This adversely affected the balance of power in the Indian Ocean Region, as in the event of not able to pay back the loans, Sri Lanka had to give Hambantota port on 99 years of lease to China.
This was a wake-up call for both Sri Lanka as well as India. The compromise of Sri Lankan sovereignty was the first loud example of China’s debt-trap diplomacy. The compromise of Hambantota port and 15,000 acres of land around it has made Sri Lanka realize the mistake it made by becoming too dependent on China.
Since then, the Sri Lankan government has tried to mend its ways with India and has even reached out to PM Modi on different occasions. The neighbourhood first policy of PM Modi has given hope to Sri Lanka for improved relations and balancing China with India to safeguard its sovereignty.
After the 2019 victory of Gotabaya & Mahinda Rajapaksa, a large part of the Indian commentariat thought that Colombo will move away from India again. Sri Lanka reiterated that its first priority would always be India and it will follow ‘India first’ policy. These statements came from Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage and it was a really interesting remark which showcased Colombo’s move away from China. He also stated that giving the Hambantota port on the lease was a mistake.
Since then India has forwarded multiple lines of credit to Sri Lanka and has increased its economic relations with Colombo together with Japan. However, Sri Lanka has been doing flip-flops since then and now many voices are rising which are nudging the Sri Lankan government to take more loans and financial assistance from China. The people supporting this point of view in government are citing some shady policy analysis to prove that China is not following any Debt Diplomacy. Following this, Colombo has taken $500 million in loans from China.
During such a situation, when Sri Lanka is using Indian assistance and financial support to balance Chinese investments, the USA is trying to permanently remove any prospects of Chinese investments in Sri Lanka.
Just before Mike Pompeo’s visit, Dean Thompson, a senior State Department official for South & Central Asian Affairs said that “We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practises,” adding “We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity.”
The recent development of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa concentrating power within the post of President in the backdrop of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the island nation. It is very obvious that the USA will try to bring Sri Lanka out of Chinese influence and may very well stop the flip flops of the Rajapaksa brothers, turning Sri Lanka into a permanent friend. This will be a final blow to Chinese dreams of dominating the Indian Ocean Region with its hypothetical string of pearls strategy as the USA will remove the jewel of the string of pearls, that is, Sri Lanka.