It is premature to conclude that the defeat of incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Sri Lankan presidential election last week is a strategic setback for Beijing, which has invested so much in building a special relationship with the island republic. But the exit of Rajapaksa, the architect of Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China, is a diplomatic problem in the near term for Beijing. How China adapts to the new circumstances in Lanka, which has become so central to China’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean, is a story worth following.
China’s current quandary in Sri Lanka does bring into sharp relief the problem that major powers face in dealing with significant internal political change in countries of interest. Big powers can get into trouble by identifying themselves too closely with the regime in power. Some of the gains made by investing in an unpopular regime are likely to be lost when its opponents wrest control of the government. There are both risks and rewards, then, in being drawn into the domestic politics of other countries.
A little over three years ago, when Myanmar launched political reforms at home, President Thein Sein suspended work on a controversial Chinese project to build a dam on the Irrawaddy river. The Myanmar military, which welcomed China’s tight embrace during a quarter century of Western sanctions, found the relationship with Beijing too suffocating and has significantly diversified the country’s international relations in the last few years.
Naypyidaw, however, is acutely conscious of the need to maintain a reasonable relationship with China, its giant neighbour to the north. Beijing, in turn, has ordered its companies working in Myanmar to show greater sensitivities to public concerns and reach out to the non-governmental organisations in the country.
China is not the only one that faces these problems. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprising political mandate in last year’s general elections saw Washington scrambling to engage a political leader it had denied a visa for nearly a decade. Modi, for his part, has looked beyond the personal to boost India’s relationship with America. Put simply, diplomatic wrinkles of the sort that China faces in Sri Lanka today can indeed be ironed out.
It has been widely assumed that China had overcome the problem of dealing with regime change in other countries. There was a time when Mao’s China took strong political positions in favour of or against governments in other countries, as it viewed international relations through the ideological prism.
Deng Xiaoping, in contrast, affirmed the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. Put simply, this meant Beijing would deal with whoever is in power. Discarding communist internationalism and ending support for revolutions abroad helped Beijing rapidly expand its influence in world politics over the last four decades.
But as China’s worldwide interests grow and Beijing pursues them vigorously, the formula of non-intervention has come under stress. While aggressive economic engagement quickly delivers spectacular infrastructure projects, it also generates deep discontent among multiple constituencies, ranging from NGOs to local trade unions and capitalists.
When Beijing injects a military dimension to the bilateral ties, it stirs the domestic political opponents of the regime and wakes up other powers with a strategic interest in the nation. When it closely aligned with the ruling regime, as Beijing did with Rajapaksa in Lanka, China’s claims of non-intervention were of no political consequence.
Unsurprisingly, the leaders of the new government had promised, before the election, that they 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.
It is widely presumed that India, much like China, upholds the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. New Delhi’s observance of this principle in the subcontinent has always had exceptions. This was inevitable, given the deep interconnections between the domestic politics of India and those of its neighbours. Both push and pull factors made Delhi look like a meddlesome big brother in the past.
After the military intervention in Sri Lanka during 1987-90, Delhi has certainly learnt some political lessons. It now recognises the importance of engaging all political forces, encouraging them to resolve their domestic quarrels, and resisting the temptation to impose its will on them.
Delhi, however, has failed to build on the natural economic geography that binds India and its neighbours. Its reluctance to open its markets and improve trade facilitation on the borders is matched by its inability to implement projects in the neighbourhood and promote Indian investments.
If Beijing has overplayed its economic hand in Sri Lanka, Delhi’s commercial strategy has been underwhelming. Without a more purposeful regional economic policy, Delhi is in no position to contest China’s growing influence in the subcontinent, or take advantage of its temporary diplomatic setbacks.