Thursday, August 20, 2015

Sri Lanka vote deals blow to China

The crucial Aug. 17 parliamentary election in Sri Lanka - what increasingly looks like a "swing state" in the sharpening geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region -- was a close contest, giving no party an absolute majority and thus ensuring the next government will be coalition-based. But in one respect, the poll outcome was decisive: By thwarting pro-China ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa's political comeback bid, it represented a defeat for Chinese diplomacy.

     Sri Lanka, located virtually at the center of the Indian Ocean, straddles some of the world's busiest sea lanes. Beijing has already pumped billions of dollars into this small, strategically located island-nation, seeking to turn it into a pivot of its "Maritime Silk Road" to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The Maritime Silk Road is the new name for China's strategy of building a so-called "string of pearls" along vital Indian Ocean shipping routes. Sri Lanka -- where China has already built the large Hambantota port -- is central to the Maritime Silk Road initiative.

     The Chinese diplomatic drive in Sri Lanka, however, faces an uncertain future following two setbacks this year. The first came in January, with the shock defeat of Rajapaksa the first time around, to one-time ally Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential contest. Rajapaksa, during his nearly decade-long rule marked by increasing authoritarianism and accusations of nepotism and corruption, cozied up to China, awarding Beijing major contracts designed to make his country a key stop on the Chinese nautical "road."

On Sri Lanka's terms

When Sirisena won the presidency, however, he suspended the Chinese construction of a $1.4 billion, Dubai-style city on reclaimed land off Colombo, the capital. Several other Chinese projects have also been put off or delayed as Sirisena has ordered investigations into corruption and environmental breaches. Investigations are also underway into an alleged $1.1 million bribe paid by a Chinese state-run company to Rajapaksa's failed presidential re-election campaign and the alleged role of his two brothers and his wife in misappropriating public funds. Nikkei Asian Review

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