Sri Lanka is in the midst of a serious political crisis after President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with former political rival (and former President) Mahinda Rajapaksa. According to Sirisena and his supporters, the proximate causes of Wickremesinghe’s dismissal were personal, cultural and class differences that Sirisena called irreconcilable. Furthermore, it was claimed that the sacking of Wickremesinghe was due to an Indian backed assassination plot which resulted in the abrupt about face in respect of the Sri Lankan President’s loyalty. Later however, Sirisena assured Indian Premier Modi that he had never made such an accusation.
But while Sirisena has assured India that stories regarding an Indian assassination plot are ‘fake news’, an inevitable geopolitical justification for Wickremesinghe’s sacking has been offered from many quarters of Indian media.
According to the Indian narrative which has increasingly permeated western corporate media, the traditionally/”formerly” pro-India Sirisena dismissed the pro-India Wickremesinghe in favour of the pro-China Rajapaksa due to pressure from Beijing. Of course, no one has been able to present any evidence of any Chinese involvement in the matter while China itself has taken a diplomatic line on the matter that has respected Sirisena’s decision in a rather subdued manner.
At present, Wickremesinghe has refused to leave the sprawling Prime Ministerial compound and has recently warned that if he is not formally reinstated, “bloodshed” could occur among his supporters that have taken to the streets to protest the President’s move. While constitutional experts continue to debate the legality of Wickremesinghe’s removal by the President, Parliamentary Speaker Karu Jayasuriya appears to have sided with Wickremesinghe.
The fact of the matter is that in political systems where personal rivalries tend to predominate over broader ideological concerns, there is often an element of wishful thinking on the part of those seeking to draw instantaneous geopolitical conclusions after a shift in factional loyalties or a surprise election victory. While the small Indian Ocean nation of Maldives recently saw a pro-China leader ousted in favour of a pro-India leaning leader, many are saying that Sri Lanka’s current parliamentary crisis was an attempt by China to readjust the balance of geopolitical loyalties in the region after “losing Maldives”.
Yet by asserting that both Maldives and the vastly larger Sri Lanka are little more than chess pieces to be traded between rival powers China and India, such arguments tend to negate the legal political agency of both nations while equally, such “grand chess” analogies tend to negate the more mundane and perhaps embarrassing reality that personal rivalries tend to trump geopolitical or ideological loyalties in times of dramatic political shifts across multiple nations, with Sri Lanka and Maldives merely being two examples of many.
In the case of the former rivalry between Sirisena and Rajapaksa which has now turned into a rivalry between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa now finding that his recent foe (Sirisena) has become an unlikely reunited political friend – it would appear that the human element of a very melodramatic policy saga is the primary motivating factor, although the geopolitical fallout as a consequence of these personal feuds will ultimately be all too real.
Those in India looking for a “Chinese plot” in Sri Lanka are sounding increasingly like those in the US opposition who for two years have been looking for a “Russian plot” behind Donald Trump’s victory even as Trump piles more sanctions on Russia than any US President since the end of the Cold War. Likewise, as Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was previously thought not to be in the pro-China camp in his nation, the idea that somehow Beijing made him “an offer he couldn’t refuse”, continues to sound more like a childish conspiracy theory than anything one could call tangible given the fact that while there is plenty of evidence pointing to a falling out between Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, there is no evidence pointing to a “Chinese plot”. Sirisena’s assurances of friendship to India further make such claims of a “Chinese plot” appear to be a product of wishful thinking among Indian commentators seeking vindication for their multiple anti-Chinese conspiracy theories.
Taking things a step further, when it comes to meddling in the foreign affairs of south Asian nations, India has historically done far more than China.
While still disputed by India, it is now common knowledge that elements of India’s national intelligence agency, the RAW helped to fund, arm and train the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) in its early years. This short sighted attempt to gain leverage over the political situation in Sri Lanka was however ultimately ill advised as it was always foolish for India to think that Tamil ethno-nationalists would cease their ambitions having carved out a separatist enclave in Sri Lanka without then seeking to do the same in southern India. In an attempt to gain leverage over the situation in Sri Lanka though less objectively devious measures, India sent a peace keeping force to Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990, although the mission was widely perceived as an abject failure.
While India failed to help Colombo end its conflict with the LTTE, many LTTE loyalists in India became infuriated and began committing atrocities against prominent Indian officials due to their “betrayal” of the LTTE case. Most notably former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE member in 1991. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi resulted in the inevitable plummeting of support for the LTTE in India while throughout the course of the last decades of the conflict, Sri Lanka’s all-weather partners China and Pakistan continued to provide much needed material support to the war effort.
Ultimately Sri Lanka was able to neutralise the LTTE and bring an end to the decades long insurgency in 2009. The victory was achieved through a combination of persistence in terms of an unrelenting political and military campaign against the extremists as well as the fact that as the conflict wore on, many peace loving Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka became enraged at the LTTE making their lives a living hell. As a result, some Tamils gave crucial intelligence to Colombo, while others openly rebelled against forced conscription into the LTTE by local terrorists.
This combined with India realising that it effectively burnt its own bridge in the 1980s and could no longer meddle in the situation as it once did, along with the continued political and logistical support of China and Pakistan, helped Sri Lanka defeat the LTTE militarily in a victory that was considered resounding even by observers with a pro-separatist bias.
Likewise, India’s persistent meddling in Afghanistan and Pakistan is well known as New Delhi has attempted to gain leverage against its western neighbour by allying with Afghan ultra-nationalists over the decades whose implicit aims threaten Pakistan’s territorial integrity. Even today, India’s partners in Kabul refuse to recognise the Durand Line as the internationally recognised border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. India’s RAW likewise has engaged in aiding Baloch nationalist terrorism in south-western Pakistan over the years.
By contrast, China has done little in terms of meddling in the affairs of south Asian nations. In fact, during the Cold War, it can be argued that China was vastly more concerned with “containing” the USSR’s Vietnamese partner than it was concerned with meddling in South Asian affairs.
Since the 1980s, China has pursued a non-interventionist approach to international affairs while even prior to the rise of the anti-interventionist Deng Xiaoping, China was far less prone to interventionism than the other global Cold War superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union.
This is not to say that China does not have clearly defined and acknowledged geopolitical interests. China in fact seeks cooperation on a win-win basis with countries throughout Asia including with India. Bangladesh provides an example of a nation that has been an Indian ally since its conception but one that has in recent years cooperated ever more on joint economic initiatives with China. Likewise, while not “turning on India”, Bangladesh’s leading politicians have in fact expressed interest in Belt and Road connectivity projects. The Chinese diplomatic model does not deny the win-win possibility of south Asian nations having mutually positive relations with both Beijing and New Delhi. It is increasingly only in India where policy makers and commentators tend to apply a zero-sum mentality to such relationships.
Win-win relationships on a multilateral level can only be viewed as negative if one views all geopolitical relations as a zero-sum game. It is this same zero-sum mentality that leads both politicians and geopolitical analysts to be quick to point out a “foreign plot” when much of the time the reality is far more subtle and manifold in its origins and developments. This is made all the more ironic as while India seemingly cannot accept Sri Lanka or Maldives having good relations with both China and India, Indian leaders insist that it is possible to have win-win relations with both Russia and the United States, even though US sanctions legislation says otherwise.
Therefore, while the crisis in Sri Lanka is very real, it is irresponsible to blame China for the fact that Sri Lanka’s internal political class have loyalties divided among each other. To confuse internal disputes with a geopolitical one risks provoking an already tense situation in a manner that benefits no one.