This is a crude attempt to secure New Delhi’s support, says former diplomat

Amidst concern in India over the growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, the joint opposition platform here has begun questioning China’s role in the island nation ahead of the January 8 presidential election.

Earlier this week, leader of the United National Party (UNP) and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe pledged to scrap the $1.34-billion Chinese-funded Colombo Port City Project, citing threats to the environment, once the joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena comes to power.

Beijing’s investments

The port city — Sri Lanka’s largest single foreign investment inaugurated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September — is being built alongside an existing Chinese-built container terminal, visible from Colombo’s famous Galle Face green stretch. China, as per the agreement with Sri Lanka, will gain ownership of a third of the nearly 580 acres of reclaimed land where the port city is to come up.

Recently, Champika Ranawaka — leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya or National Heritage Party, a party predominantly of Buddhist clergy — had warned that Sri Lanka was heading towards bankruptcy due to heavy reliance on borrowing from other countries.

In an interview to a local daily, the former Minister said the cost of many of the Chinese-funded projects in Sri Lanka, including the expressway connecting Colombo city to the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, was overestimated. Critiquing President Rajapaksa’s development projects, he said: “The south of the country will be given away to China and the North to India.”

India vis-a-vis China

On Friday, Mr. Sirisena in his election manifesto said his government would maintain equal relations with India and China, as if to allay fears over Sri Lanka’s apparent tilt towards China.

On the joint opposition upping its anti-China rhetoric ahead of polls, foreign policy commentator and former diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka said it was a “crude attempt” to secure New Delhi’s support.

It was, he said, with a utilitarian purpose of “seeing whether the decision-making circle in New Delhi, equidistant as it is at the moment, would tilt in favour of the joint opposition.”

Irrespective of the party in power, Sri Lanka has historically had good relations with China, recognising the need to have support from a big power, Mr. Jayatilleka said, with a few exceptions on the part of the UNP. The current idea, however, may backfire for the joint opposition, he said, if sections of voters fear that the dramatically large projects may be halted. “Voters may regard China as the patron of the ruling family,” he said.

Explaining his leader’s comments, UNP spokesman on economic affairs Harsha de Silva said the party had nothing against China, but was critical of the lack of transparency in how the projects were carried out along with “those close to the regime”.

Pointing to findings stated in Mr. Ranawaka’s recent publication on the Sri Lankan economy, Mr. De Silva said a benchmark of $600,000 was set as the cost of constructing a kilometre of railway line in the country.

Tilt toward India?

While India’s IRCON was executing it in the island’s north at a cost of $2.5 million per km “with additional features”, a Chinese firm was constructing railway lines in the south at a cost of $10.5 million, he said.

“In all these mega deals, the loans come from a Chinese bank. The question we are asking is, can such huge costs be justified?” UNP parliamentarian asked.

The joint platform, he said, was for a strong economic bond with India to leverage its huge market. Given the geographic proximity to India, “Sri Lanka should become the gateway to India,” he said.