Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has just dissolved the nation’s parliament and called for new elections to be held on the 5th of January, 2019. Normally this would not be a controversial act but for the fact that it comes after Sirisena suspended parliament after naming a new Prime Minister who happens to be a very familiar face. To understand why the events in Sri Lanka’s parliament have caught the interest of the wider world, one must become familiar with the background behind recent events in Colombo.
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. At the same time supporters of Rajapaksa have also taken to the streets to demonstrate their loyalty to his contested political leadership.
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.
Now though, the US, UK and Canada have all publicly condemned President Sirisena’s move to call for new general elections. While some have been busily engaged in looking for a hidden Chinese hand, three western powers led by the United States are now openly meddling in an issue that is between the Sri Lanka President, the “outgoing” Sri Lankan parliament and Sri Lanka constitutional lawyers.
By contrast, far from revelling in the wake of Rajapaksa’s apparent political revival, Chinese media has stated that the events in Colombo present an opportunity for China and India to mutually cooperate with a nation that has close ties to both Beijing and New Delhi. The highly influential Chinese newspaper Global Times has published an editorial by Hu Xiaowen titled ‘Sri Lanka provides right ground for implementing ‘China-India Plus’.
Hu points out that far from the schism between Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe being a black and white matter of the former being pro-China and the latter being pro-India, in reality Wickremesinghe oversaw important joint Sri Lankan-Chinese projects while Rajapaksa did the same in respect of Indian projects. Hu summed up his assessment of the situation by stating,
“In the context of current international situation, Sri Lanka will follow balanced diplomacy for the sake of its own interest. China and India share equal opportunities to invest and seek development in the South Asian country.
Sri Lanka’s development streak deserves China and India’s support and respect. It is not a battleground for rivalry between the two Asian powers. On the contrary, as Sri Lanka ranks high among South Asian countries in economic and social development, it is an ideal partner to carry out the ‘China-India Plus’ plan. India should become less suspicious and cooperate with China in Sri Lanka to jointly enhance the latter’s self-development capabilities”.
Thus, at a time when the US and its closest allies have taken the side of one Sri Lanka politician against his rival(s), China is not only doing the opposite but is doing something even more diplomatically astute. China wishes to take the opportunity to foster deeper relations with India so that politicians in nations like Sri Lanka needn’t feel boxed into a “conflict of loyalties” towards Beijing vs. New Delhi. China in fact has always left the door open to further cooperation with India and now that India is facing its own tariff barriers to the US market while being bullied by Washington not to purchase Russian weapons, Indian officials are quietly breaking some of the ice that has existed in respect of Indo-Chinese relations.
This is not to say that China does not have clearly defined and acknowledged geopolitical interests, but for China, these interests present an opportunity to expand a multilateral approach to shared 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.
While the US and its allies have denied the Sri Lankan political system agency over its own affairs, China accepts realities on the ground in Colombo for the complex web of inter-personal and political feuds that they are, while hoping that the overall outcome can be one that leads to a more harmonious relationship between Sri Lanka and both of its major partners – China and India.
Overall, should the general election proceed peacefully, this could be the best long-term solution towards consolidating a meaningful new parliamentary majority that will lead to the formation of a Sri Lankan government that has the unambiguous command over the national parliament. In any case, the choice is for Sri Lankans and Sri Lankans alone. After the US accused Russia of taking sides in its own 2016 election, Washington should know better than to openly take sides in the current political row in Sri Lanka.