Most people in the island nation of Sri Lanka and its Asian neighbors were stunned last week when President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the populist strongman who had ruled Sri Lanka for a decade before the scrappy alliance between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe forced him out of power in 2015. It was a shock not just because the move was almost certainly unconstitutional — in Sri Lanka, a prime minister can only be dismissed if he or she loses a vote in Parliament — but also because there was no indication that Rajapaksa was willing to serve under the former lieutenant who had plotted his ouster.
For Sri Lankans, the integrity of their constitution — and a hard-won balance between the powers of the presidency and those of Parliament — is at stake. The rest of Asia is watching not only because a return of the militaristic religious and ethnic nationalism associated with Rajapaksa could destabilize the country, but also because this looks like yet another twist in the Indian Ocean’s greatest story at the moment: the attempt by China to gain influence over a sea that India has traditionally regarded as its own sphere of influence.
Rajapaksa’s decade in power had been marked by a growing closeness to Beijing. China sold him the arms he needed to bring a bloody end to the Tamil Tiger rebellion in Sri Lanka’s north and east — an operation that gave his administration a reputation for unusual callousness when it came to human rights. Rajapaksa in turn granted the Chinese unprecedented concessions, infrastructure contracts and military cooperation. New Delhi largely seemed to ignore this till the presence of a Chinese submarine in Colombo’s port in 2014 spurred it into action. It was widely believed in both India and Sri Lanka that New Delhi had a role to play in creating the unlikely alliance between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe that led to Rajapaksa’s defeat. That work seems to have come undone, putting Beijing once again in the driver’s seat in Colombo.
Some of these tensions were visible, bubbling just under the surface, in the events leading up to Sirisena’s presidential coup. The reason for the prime minister’s dismissal was a supposed assassination plot against Sirisena — one which, according to reports, the president blamed on India’s security services. An Indian named M. Thomas, who had been arrested in September, claimed knowledge of a plot to kill the president and one of Rajapaksa’s brothers. The Wickremesinghe government had been dismissive of this claim; Sirisena seized on it as a good reason for making a clean break.
Of course, there are disputes about infrastructure in the mix as well — if there’s one thing we know in the Belt-and-Road era, it’s that infrastructure is a geopolitical time bomb. The president and the prime minister were also at loggerheads, apparently, about whether a container terminal at Colombo’s port should be developed using Indian investment or not. The prime minister said yes; the president, no.
Meanwhile, the president suspended Parliament till mid-November — which means that Rajapaksa has a few weeks to cobble together the legislative majority he’ll need to stay in power. Right now, that looks difficult to achieve: Wickremesinghe’s party members seem firmly behind him. But rumors have already begun to spread about the possibility of money changing hands. One senior member of Wickremesinghe’s party has already claimed that “Chinese money” is “buying” members of Parliament for Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka has barely emerged from a decades-long civil war; it is not ready to become another front in an India-China cold war for control of the Indian Ocean. More importantly, neither New Delhi nor Beijing should take Colombo for granted. China’s advance into the Indian Ocean appeared to have received a setback earlier this year when the Maldives’ authoritarian, pro-Beijing leader was voted out; now, the Chinese no doubt think they’re back in the game.
Assuming that would be a mistake. No democracy in South Asia — or, for that matter in Southeast or Central Asia — is going to swing permanently into a pro- or anti-China camp. Their leaders will do what’s in their immediate political interest. On this occasion, for example, Sirisena was quick with the damage control after his accusation that Indian intelligence might be trying to kill him, issuing a statement that relations with New Delhi were strong and calling up Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa was a frequent visitor to New Delhi after he lost power, even though he blamed India for his defeat; perhaps he, too, is trying to reset relations with India. It’s too soon to declare that a pro-China policy is back in Colombo.
The truth is that voters in almost all Asian countries — and therefore politicians — are now hyper-sensitive about any apparent dependence on either China or its rivals. And that’s how it should be, even if it means that both New Delhi and Beijing — and Washington — feel that they aren’t completely in control of events.