Significance of Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa administration
The return of the Rajapaksas to power in the Sri Lankan general election last month has led to significant interest in regional states. Pakistan was among the first to felicitate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on their respective appointments. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited Colombo to renew Pakistan’s desire to reinvigorate bilateral relations and to invite the Sri Lankan leadership to Pakistan.
The Rajapaksas are clearly the most influential political family in Sri Lanka with proven credentials. It was during Mahinda’s earlier tenure of office that the India-originated, Tamil insurgency was finally rooted out with notable support from Pakistan. President Gotabaya had trained in Pakistan and is known to be a strong administrator. On the other hand, India has never been comfortable with Sri Lanka asserting an autonomous nationalist line in regional affairs, which has been the hallmark of the Rajapaksa brothers. India’s efforts to stage-manage Sri Lanka’s domestic politics have not always succeeded and India is likely to be uncomfortable with political developments in Sri Lanka.
In the broader regional plane, Sri Lanka was brought much closer to China during the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa with substantial Chinese investments in Sri Lanka’s national development. These, including the construction of Hambantota port, have been cited by the West as examples of debt-trap diplomacy under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The port is, however, Sri Lanka’s national asset and the Rajapaksas are likely to be very dismissive of the use of Sri Lanka’s example as a critique of the BRI.
Political developments in Sri Lanka carry significance as they ostensibly affect the geo-strategic power play centered presently on the Indian Ocean
China too has welcomed the change of government in Sri Lanka. Political developments in Sri Lanka carry significance as they ostensibly affect the geostrategic power play centered presently on the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka, a small country of some 22 million people, is known as a shining pearl. It has the best social indicators in South Asia, a civilizational heritage that is authentic and imbues it with true South Asian identity. The level of literacy is over 90 percent. During the Cold War years, it pioneered and promoted the concept of establishing a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean region.
It also championed the concept of South Asia regional cooperation under the SAARC. Sri Lanka has maintained a high profile at the UN and in multilateral institutions and bodies including the United Nations. Its geostrategic location required deft handling of its diplomacy is given global and regional circumstances. This role requires keeping foremost Sri Lanka’s national interests and in the present situation, exercising due care in its relations with India, Pakistan, China, and the US.
It is a delicate balancing role that the Rajapaksa brothers are expected to play. The strength of Sri Lanka’s democracy and political institutions and the popular support of the Rajapaksas will matter. The immediate challenge for the government will be to revive economic growth. It appears that China will be inclined to assist Sri Lanka in a substantive way to promote economic growth and build national infrastructure. Except for India, most other South Asian states see merit in the BRI, in particular, in its inherent concepts of inclusivity, equal-footed partnership, and mutual advantage.
The US Indo-Pacific strategy is essentially a geopolitical stratagem, although recently the US and Japan have floated the idea of instituting better utilization of infrastructure development assistance and are setting up a $60 billion fund to assist Asian states in this regard.
In the years ahead, the competition between the US and China is expected to intensify in the Indian Ocean region. While India is in the US camp, other smaller states in South Asia will find it difficult to protect and promote their interests in a continuously polarizing regional and global environment. In such situations, a strong government with confident leadership matters. Sri Lanka hopefully has this with the Rajapaksas at the helm.
*Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.