COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s new president heads to Beijing this week for talks with China’s leadership, seeking to smooth ruffled feathers after scuttling Chinese-funded projects and seeking stronger ties with regional rival India.
Maithripala Sirisena swept to power in January, ending a decade of rule by Mahinda Rajapakse, whose close alliance with Beijing had irked the island’s traditional close ally India.
Sirisena has moved to wind back Beijing’s influence, which became the strategically located island’s biggest foreign financier and enjoyed significant political and even military influence under Rajapakse.
Sirisena has unnerved China by suspending a $1.4 billion "port city" project in Colombo that India considered a security risk, and ordering a review of other Beijing-financed projects and loans amid allegations of corruption.
Experts say the president will be seeking a divorce of sorts from China during the three-day state visit starting Wednesday, while trying not to upset the economic giant.
Sirisena will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping along with other members of the leadership, Colombo said.
"The former government allowed China a free run in Sri Lanka," Sri Lankan political commentator Victor Ivan told AFP. "President Sirisena wants to maintain a normal relationship that will not irritate India."
The visit is about "bringing balance in Sri Lanka’s engagement with two Asian rivals", P. Sahadevan, professor of South Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, told AFP.
– Shifting influence –
Sirisena made India — rather than China — his first foreign trip after winning the January elections, seeking to rebuild ties with Delhi damaged by tensions over Beijing’s influence on the island.
Delhi was reportedly furious after Chinese submarines were allowed to dock at Colombo port last year when Rajapakse was still in power.
Beijing has been accused of seeking to develop facilities around the Indian Ocean in a "string of pearls" strategy to counter the rise of rival India and secure its own economic interests.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka and other Indian Ocean nations in March in a bid to counter that influence, and reassert Delhi’s traditional role in the region.
Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who visited Beijing a month after Sirisena came to power, has said the new administration will not allow Chinese submarines in Colombo.
Colombo is also seeking to renegotiate huge loans given by China for projects at rates as high as 8 percent, Sri Lanka Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake told reporters recently.
China had emerged as Sri Lanka’s biggest single financier, accounting for about 40 percent of some $2.03 billion in foreign money spent on infrastructure projects in 2013, according to the latest Central Bank of Sri Lanka report.
China was also one of the few countries to defend Sri Lanka’s human rights record under Rajapakse, who angered Western nations for refusing to cooperate with an international probe into allegations of war crimes on the island.
In contrast, the new government has won support from the West for its attempts at reconciliation between ethnic minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese, as well as moves to ensure accountability for crimes committed during the separatist war.
With Western backing and support from Delhi, the government has secured more time to address allegations that troops under Rajapakse’s command killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians while defeating Tamil rebels in the finale of the war that ended in 2009.