From the Hill: Obama, Sri Lanka and the Chinese Equation

Washington, D.C. (February 4, 2015) - HAF's Senior Director and Human Rights Fellow, Samir Kalra, Esq., provides his perspective on the potential for improving US-Sri Lanka relations. Please post your comments directly on the Hill by clicking here.

Now that President Obama has concluded a historic and highly successful three-day visit to India, he needs to turn his attention to another South Asian nation, where recent political events have gone largely unnoticed.

At the beginning of January, India’s southern neighbor, Sri Lanka, held presidential polls that saw the surprising election of opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, a former member of the ruling government. Growing discontent amongst incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s traditional Sinhalese Buddhist (the majority ethno-religious group in the country) power base and a coalescence of ethnic and religious minority support propelled Sirisena to an unlikely victory.

The new political order that emerged from the elections will likely result in significant geopolitical implications that reverberate far beyond Sri Lanka and may provide a unique opportunity for Obama in Asia. While much of the attention surrounding Obama’s Asia pivot has been centered on East and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the middle of the Indian Ocean makes it an important part of a larger continental strategy. This is particularly critical given that China has exponentially increased its influence in South Asia over the past several years.

Under the previous Rajapaksa regime, Sri Lanka and China moved increasingly closer through strengthened economic and military ties, at the expense of the U.S. and India. 60 percent of the military equipment used by Sri Lanka’s Air force and Army is Chinese in origin, and China is now the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment into the island nation. Moreover, between 2012 and 2014, China committed more than $2.18 billion in assistance to Sri Lanka, while the two countries enjoyed more than $3 billion in bilateral trade in 2013, reflecting a 368 percent increase since 2005.

Sri Lanka has also provided China with coveted access to sea lanes and ports in the Indian Ocean and ushered in an era of unprecedented maritime cooperation. In 2014, for instance, Rajapaksa and Chinese President Xi Jinping formed a Joint Committee on Coastal and Marine Cooperation, and Sri Lanka became the first country to back Chinese plans to create a Maritime Silk Road. Sri Lanka has even allowed China to dock its submarines at Sri Lankan ports, much to the chagrin of India.

And most importantly, China has ignored Sri Lanka’s human rights violations and unequivocally stood by Rajapaksa in the face of international censure.

Rajapaksa’s electoral defeat thus has the potential to dampen Sri Lanka-China relations and put a dent in China’s broader regional strategy to become the sole dominant economic and military power in Asia. As C. Raja Mohan, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Non-Resident Associate, recently noted, “[T]he exit of Rajapaksa, the architect of Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China, is a diplomatic problem in the near term for Beijing.”

Although a change in leadership will not necessarily alter the Chinese equation overnight, it may slowly lead to a loss of influence and lessen dependence on Chinese economic and military investment. In fact, according to Mohan, Sirisena indicated prior to the election that his government would “review some of the Chinese projects that Rajapaksa had approved and restore Sri Lanka’s traditional policy of maintaining balanced relations with all the major powers, including India, China, and the West.”

This could provide an opening for the U.S. to move beyond its previously thorny relationship with Rajapaksa and reset relations with Sri Lanka.

The U.S. had been at odds with Rajapaksa over his failure to address alleged war crimes committed during the final phase of the country’s civil war between the Sinhalese-majority government and ethnic Tamil separatist groups that ended in 2009. Deteriorating religious freedom and human rights conditions, including the suppression of Tamil political and religio-cultural rights and an upsurge in attacks by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists on Hindu, Christian,and Muslim minorities, had also become a source of friction between the two countries. This led to an American sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution in 2014 calling for an independent investigation into the final phase of the war and an inquiry into ongoing human rights abuses.

Although it is still unclear whether Sirisena will curb human rights abuses, reign in Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, and take meaningful steps towards accountability and reconciliation, he may be better positioned to do so given his support from both ruling-party parliamentarians and minorities.

And the U.S. can help play a constructive role in this regard by utilizing quiet diplomacy to nudge Sirisena in the right direction on human rights issues, while simultaneously engaging him on bilateral trade and defense cooperation. American and Indian geopolitical interests also converge in Sri Lanka, and they should work closely together to marginalize Chinese influence with the new government.

Obama should therefore seize on this opportunity and move quickly to develop a positive relationship with the new Sri lankan government. Failing to do so would be a strategic miscalculation.