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Sri Lankan Elections
A Snag in China’s “String of Pearls” Strategy

The race came down to the wire, but today Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded to Maithripala Sirisena. It marks the end of a decade of Rajapaksa’s rule, under which Sri Lanka grew increasingly close with China. Bloomberg reports:

The [election] result, considered improbable just two months ago, risks disrupting President Xi Jinping’s moves to increase China’s presence in the Indian Ocean. China has invested heavily in Sri Lanka over the past decade and supported Rajapaksa in the face of U.S.-led inquiries into human rights abuses allegedly committed during the end of a 26-year civil war. […]

Under Rajapaksa, China became the island’s top investor, biggest government lender and second-biggest trading partner. Xi visited Sri Lanka last year to promote his so-called Silk Road trade route rejuvenation project, which is backed by a $40 billion infrastructure fund and includes a maritime route encompassing the island.

Chinese government lending to Sri Lanka increased 50-fold over the past decade to $490 million in 2012, more than double the combined amount from the U.S. as well as allied governments and lending agencies. Growing economic ties have spurred military cooperation: China last year sent submarines twice to dock in the capital Colombo, triggering protests from India.

China’s President Xi was willing to invest so heavily in Sri Lanka because its longtime friendship was an asset for a China whose ambitions are being increasingly checked by India and by its rivals in the South China Sea. That’s because Colombo was key to his “string of pearls” strategy, a plan to establish a series of friendly ports and bases that enabled Beijing to project naval power farther afield and to ensure fast and safe sea trade across the Indian Ocean region. Now that plan may have met a setback:

[New President] Sirisena, who deserted Rajapaksa in November to lead the opposition bloc, has promised to establish “equal relations” between China, India, Pakistan and Japan.

“China certainly will not have the uncritical support of the Sri Lankan government that it had under Rajapaksa,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a group that promotes ethnic reconciliation.

China certainly won’t give up on Sri Lanka and walk away from its investments, but this could be a serious loss for Beijing’s strategy. Like a chain, a string of pearls is only as strong as its weakest link.

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  • Corlyss

    “Sri Lanka elected a new President today, and he’s much less friendly to China than the last one.”
    Lesseee. Who will last longer . . . China, or li’l ol’ Sri Lanka? . . . China, rock in ocean, China, rock in ocean . . . China, rock in ocean. I’m going to bet on China. New elected president will be given a chance to “understand” the realities on the ground, and then he’ll be removed if he don’t see the light.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Precisely right, but let me add something….the whole point of a ‘string of pearls’ is that the failure of any single one of those pearls will not be sufficient to render the string useless. Sri Lanka may (for now) be less useful to China, but there are plenty of other places that will be able to ‘fill in’ in the meantime

      • Corlyss

        Agree. I fully expect the Chinese to protect their investment in Sri Lanka – they are playing the long game. Those who play the long game 1) don’t throw money away; 2) they don’t run at the first sign of a bump in the road; 3) they know how to be patient to get their way; and 4) often they have an enormous geographical advantage. China is the big dog in the neighborhood. We’re the dog famously advertising we’re no longer interested in freedom of the seas, open access to commerce, etc. Thanks to Obamacare and the explosion of the welfare state and Obama’s hellish determination to import as many non-productive future Democratic voters as possible, when the next security minded President arrives, he will have no money with which to build up the military, particularly the navy, that Obama has eviscerated.

        PS got a notice today that Kaplan has jumped ship from Stratfor to return to CNAS from which he can delve more deeply into his research on geography’s influence on policy.

    • Dan Greene

      “New elected president will be given a chance to “understand” the realities on the ground,”

      Actually this sort of behavior is exactly the way in which we, in cooperation with national elites were able to remove the strategically uncongenial governments that briefly came to power in South Korea and Japan.

      • Corlyss

        So? We’re the good guys. Don’t forget that. The techniques may be the same but the ends are different. It annoys the hell out of me that people, esp. lefties. don’t seem to get that with their obsessive moral-equivalency blather. All states are not equal just because they act like nations or have a seat in the UNGA.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “String of Pearls” is this really a strategy? How many Pearls on this string? And are they really Pearls? Or just common 3rd world easily fractured rocks.
    It seems to me all of China’s shipping routes are being sat on by swiftly arming and angry countries that see China as the enemy. That China has made enemies of all the countries sitting on its shipping routes is the opposite of a sound strategy, it’s a monstrous misstep. China is more vulnerable to a loss of foreign trade than any other major power with 40% of its GDP dependent on foreign trade. That it has made enemies of all the nations off its coasts, when it could easily be destroyed by an embargo, is the most stupid policy I have ever heard of.

  • Anthony

    “String of Pearls” signals military phrase which originated in defense contractor study in early oughts. The Chinese prefer (or preferred as late as 2014) “Maritime Silk Road” – but we in U.S. (generally) are inclined to view China’s rise from military perspective. Xi had proposed in 2013 a Maritime Silk Road as a joint effort with other Southeast Asian countries – Sri Lanka being just one. “The Maritime Silk Road has a win-win significance for both China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.” No walking away.

    • Dan Greene

      Yes, you are right on.

      The origin of the phrase (from Wikipedia): “The term as a geopolitical concept was first used in an internal United States Department of Defense report titled “Energy Futures in Asia”.[2] The term has never been used by official Chinese government sources, but is often used in the Indian media.[3]”

      The dishonest thing about the term is that is clearly is meant to have the ring of Chinese terminology, so the general insinuation is that the Chinese were the originators of the phrase and that it represents an identifiable Chinese strategic approach that is focused on naval bases rather than on trade. In reality, given our extensive basing world-wide, it comes much closer to our approach to the world.

      • Anthony

        You’ve said it concisely Dan and I concur.

    • Corlyss

      Almost makes me nostalgic for the Opium Wars . . .

  • Corlyss

    I bet they think the “neurotically vain” twit will heed them. It would be a delicious confrontation, one that was presaged in the 3rd installment of Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards, the British version, that aired c. 1992.

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