Sri Lanka’s election upset last month, in which longtime President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost to the less China-friendly Maithripala Sirisena, appeared to represent a snag in Beijing’s “String of Pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean Region. One of the major reasons: Sirisena’s party campaigned on the strong promise to cancel the $1.4 billion port project in Colombo that Xi and Rajapaksa signed back in September. Now Beijing can breathe easier; Sri Lanka is going to let China go ahead with the project after all, The Diplomat reports:
The election of Sri Lanka’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, last month was thought by most analysts to be the harbinger of a cooler between Sri Lanka and China. […]The Colombo Port City project was heavily criticized by both India and Sri Lanka’s then-opposition. India expressed concern at Chinese ownership of land near the main commercial port in Colombo, which India uses as a trans-shipment port. India was also worried that Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese warship and submarine to dock at Colombo last year. Sri Lanka’s current Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was a member of the opposition under Rajapaksa, said before last month’s election that if his party came to power, they would cancel the Colombo Port City deal with China. Wickremesinghe cited environmental concerns for this viewpoint. However, many other Sri Lankan opposition politicians, including the current president, expressed concerns that his country was being sold to China for the personal benefit of the Rajapaksa family.However, the fact remains that Sri Lanka does not want to be on China’s bad side, despite President Sirisena’s desire to improve ties with India and distance himself from China. Moreover, Sri Lanka needs Chinese investment, which is significantly greater than India’s in that country. It is for this reason that President Sirisena’s government decided this Thursday to go ahead with the Colombo Port City project in order to avoid a “misunderstanding” with the Chinese government.
A quick glance at a map will explain why Sri Lanka’s hospitality is so valuable to Beijing. China’s ability to get its products to market and to import resources, especially oil, rely on open trade routes through the Indian Ocean and the South and East China Seas. That makes its capacity to project power into those zones a major strategic priority. Especially with India taking a stronger foreign policy stance, if China wants a pearl (i.e. friendly port) in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is the oyster to go for.