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Game of Thrones: Sri Lanka Emerges as China’s New Best Friend

As Burma emerges slowly from its decades-old tight embrace with China and countries across Asia turn to the U.S. for help in balancing against China’s muscle, China is starting to look a little lonely. Even Cambodia and Laos are showing Washington a little affection. The Hermit Kingdom of North Korea remains a true friend; Pakistan might wish it and China were best buds, but the Chinese seem to think it better to keep the generals in Islamabad at arm’s length. Beijing need not despair: there is a new candidate for BFF emerging in the Indian Ocean, right on rival India’s doorstep.

When the government of Sri Lanka brutally ended the long war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it did so with military equipment from China. And as Sri Lanka rebuilds damaged infrastructure and embarks on vast upgrade projects like a deep-sea port and surrounding “port city” in the Colombo Harbor, it is finding that Chinese companies are more than happy to put up the cash.

Bolstering the friendship is Colombo’s sense that India and the U.S. are no longer looking out for Sri Lankan interests. During the civil war, both Washington and New Delhi muted their criticism of atrocities by government forces — in part because the tactics of the guerrillas in that war were so appalling. But then the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution that tasked Sri Lanka with “promoting reconciliation and accountability,” with both the U.S. and India supporting the measure against Sri Lanka’s protests.

China didn’t go there, and the Chinese are now building and funding a number of big infrastructure projects, many of which are ports that will strengthen the China-Sri Lanka maritime economic and military relationship.

Meanwhile, reports the Washington Post, the Sri Lankan government is becoming increasingly autocratic and corrupt. Several prominent journalists and opposition activists have disappeared, and those that remain are intimidated into self-censorship. After a landslide victory in the 2010 elections, President Rajapaksa changed the constitution to give him control over the police and judiciary, and he abolished the two-term limit on presidents. A handful of family members hold some of the most powerful positions in government and big business.

Domestically and internationally, Rajapaksa seems to have the room he needs to solidify his position. China isn’t worried about crackdowns on the opposition. The U.S. and especially India are fearful of driving Sri Lanka firmly into China’s sphere. Officials from both Washington and New Delhi say their governments are determined to retain close relationships with Colombo.

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  • Anthony

    WRM, does China’s use of soft power come at our expense or at expense of millions of Sri Lankans? In region what options do U.S. and India pursue vis-a-vis Sri Lanka as game of thrones continue?

  • Luke Lea

    This is for beginners like me, including ViaMeadia editors, who are learning about China. My latest reading is The Fat Years by Chan Koon-Chung which just came out in English this past January. It is the most up-to-date description of what is going on in China at the top I’ve been able to find, and I don’t think you can fairly consider yourself fully informed if you haven’t read it. Here’s a good review off Amazon, by Panda Po:

    This is a disturbing book because it plumbs the nationalistic currents beneath the surface of Chinese political elites, which get very little exposure in the West. The book — cloaked as science fiction — hypothesizes a second financial crisis after 2008 when China emerges as the world’s number one superpower. The crisis is here, obviously though the second part seems premature.

    [Still, I could not help but speculate — you might want to skip this part — how the Party will respond to the current slowdown. They can’t spend 40 percent of GDP on infrastructure stimulus again: all the freeways, etc. have been built. Building consumerism in the countryside is a possibility — but there are few signs they know how to do it. That leaves a third possibility: a military build up. What would be labor intensive (for employment) and would add to China’s military might? I used to think aggression to the north and west, and I suppose that still could happen, though I am less inclined to think so at the moment. What does seem to fit is a naval build up: if China put its mind to it, it could convert its moribund ship building industry (overproduction of cargo ships has done it in) to the construction of a deep water navy. What form? I predict a repeat of the early 20th century German strategy: hundreds if not thousands of submarines to seize control of the China Seas. I doubt we could stop them. They would then control imports into Southeast Asia, thus assert political dominance. They could even isolate Japan. This is just a thought, nothing more. Should be easy to verify if they start down this road.

    If China emerges as the 800 lbs gorilla our Davos plutocracy will have to change its tune. Free mobility of capital may not seem such a good idea after all. The political and economic strength of the US — and, hopefully, the standard of living of our people — will be priorities once again. If the life of Americans is not an admirable one, we lose our cultural influence around the world. Money madness and blind consumerism leading to bankruptcy is not the answer. The American people need a good life they can afford — for their own sake and for the sake of everything we stand for.

  • Pirugenia

    Luke Lea, I like your approach, and wish I knew you through FB or your blog. You seem to be well informed, and have a well balanced mind.

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