Wooing Sri Lanka From China's Embrace

A welcome to all?

Photographer: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

Is Sri Lanka the next Myanmar? After the stunning ouster of strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in last week's elections, another small, strategically vital Asian nation would appear to have rejected China's embrace. Whether the U.S. and India can exploit this opportunity, however, will depend on whether they recognize what's unique about Sri Lanka.

The first thing to appreciate is that voters weren’t necessarily driven by resentment of China. They elected Maithripala Sirisena as president because they had tired of the opacity and perceived cronyism of Rajapaksa's administration, symbolized in part by multibillion-dollar projects handed out to Chinese companies with little oversight. Elites had begun to fear that Beijing would soon demand more political and military influence as part of its largesse. Yet, unlike Myanmar, which shares a land border with China, such concerns remain somewhat theoretical. Sri Lanka has vast infrastructure needs -- and therefore good reason not to reject Chinese money entirely.

If other nations want to compete, they're going to have to demonstrate they are as willing and able as China to carry out large projects. India is itself seeking Chinese money for infrastructure. At the same time, Japan, Sri Lanka's largest donor, has shown interest in increasing its investments in the region, and there should be room for Tokyo and New Delhi to combine forces.

The second thing that's different about Sri Lanka’s transition is that it has sidelined the people who have been most directly implicated in past human-rights abuses -- including President Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya, who served as defense secretary during the last stages of the brutal war against Tamil Tiger insurgents. This should make it easier for the U.S. and India, which has a large and vocal Tamil minority, to work with the new government and eventually strengthen military-to-military ties. The U.S. shouldn't drop its backing for U.N.-led efforts to investigate allegations of Sri Lankan war crimes, but it should allow the new president a chance to promote internal reconciliation and accountability. The campaign to end Sri Lanka's longstanding culture of impunity will have far higher chances of success if it is led from within, rather than imposed from abroad.

Finally, there is the reality that China still has a legitimate interest in expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean, given its dependence on the region's shipping lanes. By the same token, Sri Lankans could benefit greatly if Beijing's plans for a "Maritime Silk Road" integrate the infrastructure and economies of the whole region. So in one sense, India and the U.S. shouldn't be aiming to "win" Sri Lanka back at all.

Ideally, China will continue to cultivate its interest in Sri Lanka as one investor among several -- and play by rules more aboveboard than before. Worthwhile public projects should proceed with open bidding and labor and environmental safeguards. And needlessly provocative actions -- such as the docking of Chinese submarines at Sri Lankan ports, which Rajapaksa allowed -- should cease.

President Sirisena's incoming government has as much reason as the U.S., India or Japan to broaden foreign involvement in his country in this way. After all, it's what Sri Lankans voted for. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.