10 August, 2022


Protect Sri Lanka’s National Interest From Big Power Rivalries

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

It may have been due to serendipity that the visits of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping occurred within a fortnight of each other. As a result there seemed to be a competition between these two economic giants to be more generous to Sri Lanka.  If China has reached the number one spot in terms of economic assistance to Sri Lanka today, Japan has historically been the most generous to the country in the long haul since Independence in 1958.  Almost all of Japanese assistance has come in the form of outright grants or concessional and low interest loans. Therefore a basic sense of gratitude, which Sri Lankans are known to possess, would dictate that Sri Lanka’s leaders should be sensitive to Japanese concerns. This requires mindfulness on the part of Sri Lanka’s leaders.

While the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe was in Sri Lanka, the first Japanese prime minister to visit the country in 24 years, a Chinese warship and a submarine docked in the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) at the Colombo Port.  According to media reports the two People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-Navy vessels were berthed from September 7 to 13 and left Colombo Port for international waters on September 13, three days prior to the Chinese President’s arrival.  The media also reported that the two PLA naval vessels were due in Colombo again in October and thereafter in November and has sought official clearance for these visits with approval already being granted. It was after a two week hiatus that the mainstream media reported the entry into Colombo Port of these naval vessels.

It may have been a coincidence that the entry of the Chinese naval vessels into Sri Lanka occurred during the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister.  It may also have been the case that the entry of the Chinese ships into Colombo Port during the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister was beyond Sri Lanka’s control.  Japanese concerns were made clear in the joint statement of Prime Minister Abe and President Rajapaksa at the conclusion of the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka on September 7, the day the Chinese ships entered into Colombo Port. The significance of Sri Lanka’s physical location was a prominent feature of the Japan-Sri Lanka Joint Statement.  It pointedly referred to Sri Lanka’s geographical relationship to the sea and was titled “A new partnership between maritime countries.”

The very first item in the Joint Statement referred to “the strategic geographical location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean sea lanes straddling Asia and Africa. Bearing in mind the importance of ensuring the freedom and safety of navigation in the region, the two leaders decided to establish the Sri Lanka-Japan dialogue on maritime security and oceanic issues in order to effectively address issues of mutual interest in oceanic issues.” Only thereafter, having made the point about international naval security issues, did the joint statement refer to issues of Sri Lanka’s national reconciliation and trade and investment.  There is an importance that Sri Lanka has that exceeds its economic potential that both the visiting heads of government spoke about. Sri Lanka possesses a strategic location at the bottom of the Asian continent that looks into the Indian Ocean.

Deepening Involvement

The priority given in the Japan-Sri Lanka Joint Statement on maritime issues of freedom of sea lanes would seem to reflect the larger international concerns about China’s growing investments in Sri Lanka and its physical presence in the ports of the country. One of the flagship Chinese projects is the reclamation of 223 hectares land from the sea to build Colombo Port City at a cost of USD 1.4 billion. While the Chinese will bear this cost, they will get 20 hectares of land free hold in perpetuity and another 88 hectares on a 99 year lease.  This might seem to be a worthwhile economic price to pay, but it also has a diplomatic cost as this grant of land to China in the Indian Ocean itself is bound to cause concern with countries who are also dependent on the security of the shipping lanes off the Indian Ocean, most notably India.

China has invested heavily in the construction of the new Hambantota Port in which it will have control over 4 of the 7 berths for 35 years and a majority of 53 percent of the shares in the company that will operate the port.  A section of the Colombo Port is managed today by this Chinese government company which would enable Chinese interests to be given priority in that part of the port. The Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT) is a joint venture between China Merchants Holdings International and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), and was launched by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in April this year with the opening of a 46-metre main control tower equipped with state-of-the-art technology.

During the visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping the two countries signed 27 agreements which would further the cooperation between them.  In addition, there are reports of other agreements which are not known to the public.  Among the 27 agreements signed by Sri Lanka and China were ones concerning not only further development of Hambantota Port and reclaiming land for Colombo Port City mega-project, but also other economic and technical cooperation, power and energy, agriculture, healthcare, urban development, highways and road development, maritime and marine research, media and arts and science and education.  This Chinese governmental involvement in Sri Lanka compensates for the limited investment by international private sector companies in the Sri Lankan economy that keep going elsewhere to the Asian regions, particularly to neighboring India and to rapidly growing countries such as Vietnam rather than coming to Sri Lanka.

The economics of these Chinese led projects, which are not based on market calculations, but rather on government to government negotiations, are not known. Some of the economic indicators are not so positive, as evident in the Chinese-built Mattala International Airport which cannot cover even its operating costs, let alone pay back on the massive loans taken.  The issues for Sri Lanka will arise when these debts fall due and it is payback time.  At that point of time, it will be necessary for political goodwill to prevail over economic obligations. This is also where Sri Lanka’s national interests can clash with its economic indebtedness. Therefore, in order to become a less indebted and middle income country with self-sustaining growth, it is also important for Sri Lanka to diversify its sources of investment funding and include the sophisticated economic and democratic practices of Japan, India and the Western countries.

Political Reconciliation

One key reason why foreign direct investment from international private sector companies has been so limited in Sri Lanka is its failure to make the transition from being a post-war country, one in which there is no war, to being a post-conflict country in which there is political reconciliation. Unlike governments which invest in other countries with geopolitical and strategic considerations in mind, private sector companies are mindful of investing their funds in countries which have not resolved their long standing internal conflicts which can once again erupt to lead to human rights violations and breakdowns in law and order.  It is therefore important for Sri Lanka’s future that it reaches reconciliation within itself, which is the surest way to woo foreign direct investment and to put a stop to international pressure by foreign governments and human rights organizations which deter such foreign direct investment.

The second item in the Joint Statement between Sri Lanka and Japan made specific mention of what needs to be done.  “Prime Minister Abe, while recognizing the progress made so far, reiterated the importance of dialogue among all stakeholders for national reconciliation and further efforts to promote the implementation of the National Plan of Action on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). He also highly appreciated the specific actions such as holding the election of the Northern Provincial Council in September 2013, submitting to Parliament the Bill on Assistance to and Protection of Victims and Witnesses, finalizing the report of the Joint Needs Assessment on resettled IDPs, and expanding the mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Missing Persons including the establishment of an Advisory Council comprising internationally recognized persons of eminence as domestic initiatives.”

While welcoming Chinese offers of support, Sri Lanka also needs to transcend its past war, and heal the wounds of war through national reconciliation on the lines agreed to with Japan. In the joint statement with Japan, President Rajapaksa reiterated his government’s ongoing engagement with the international community and the United Nations system and Prime Minister Abe welcomed the continuing engagement of the Government of Sri Lanka, in particular with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and its willingness to conduct high-level dialogues with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the invitation extended to him to visit Sri Lanka during 2014. There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan government would value Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge to stand by Sri Lanka and protect it in international forums.

China has been a most friendly and supportive country to Sri Lanka.  Successive Sri Lankan governments have had close relations with China beginning with the government of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister the sagacious D S Senanayake who entered into the Rubber Rice Pact of 1952 in defiance of the United States which sought to isolate China at that time. China also gave invaluable military assistance to Sri Lanka during its long war. There is no disputing that Sri Lanka has a duty to be grateful to China for all it has done in the past and what it is doing in the present.  But care must be taken that this sense of gratitude will not be at the expense of other countries that have also been supportive of Sri Lanka and which are important to Sri Lanka’s wellbeing.  This would include Japan and India, both of which have security and regional big power concerns about China.  Ignoring their concerns must not be at the expense of Sri Lanka’s own national interests.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Jehan Perera good points! But Sri Lanka civil society organizations like yours should ask for the ENVIRONMENTAL and SOCIAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT of the Chinese Port city in Colombo.

    It is well known that tides and wave patterns can change and cause huge erosion to other parts of the country due to such land reclamation.

    ALso, questions arise as to where the earth/ sand for the so called Colombo port city will be sourced from. What will be the ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL COSTS FOR COSTAL COMMUNITIES THAT MAY EXPERIENCE MASSIVE EROSION DUE TO THE NEW CONSTRUCTION.
    Sri Lanka civil society has been asleep for too long and needs to wake up and act for the people of the country and not merely dance to western and Japanese donors tunes!

    • 3

      Yes Don, environmental groups need to be on the ball – the Colombo port city – Jarapassa’s Hubris – for Namal’s Formula 1 car race track and more Casinos will be an ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER for impoverished coastal communities on the west and south coasts..!

      Sri Lanka is far more exposed and vulnerable to environmental disasters and sea level changes due to its EXTREME EXPOSURE at the tip of the South Asian land mass. There is no land on either side of the island to buffer or protect it from shocks or Tsunamis that originate far away!
      Because of this it will be more difficult to reclaim land from the ocean because of this. Also, sea level rise can magnify a COASTAL COMMUNITY NATURAL DISASTER when there is erosion upstream and down stream of the Colombo port city project.

      This should be ABOLISHED and ALL the environmental groups and JVP must join to educate the Sinhala Modayas on the ENVIRONMENTAL disaster that this will mean for coastal communities along the western, southern and northern coasts – a SLOW TSUNAMI!

  • 5

    India will take over northeast Lanka and DIVIDE the country in the wink of an eye, if China gets too comfortable in Colombo and Hambantota!

    There will then be a Ukraine/ Crimea like scenario and civil war in Sri Lanka – with India, Japan, USA on one side carving out north east Sri Lanka for the Tamils (as Russia did Crimea for the Russians), and on the other side, Sinhala Modayas of the south will be ruled by the corrupt and criminal Rajapaksa Brothers military junta with Chinese backing – as is North Korea and Burma!

    Voila the miracle of Asia!

  • 2

    Dude Jehan, seems that your beloved Rajapaksa regime is gonna be an environmental and security DISASTER – in the long run! Hope the Opposition can unite before its too late!

  • 2

    This dude who is a regular at cocktail parties of foreign embassies mainly white and japanese, a huge beneficiary of funds from these countries, is shouting wolf when others benefit !Just think HYPOCRISY

  • 2

    Jehan Perera’s title is something content is some thing else.

    Actually, he is asking the Sri lankan govt to move to Japanese side.

    • 0

      The on going to die will not drink the medicine. Advising them is futile.

      Though on different directions, Jehan and Dayan has been giving free consultation for long time to Royal Government. Internal guys like you know better than Jehan. I agree, it is too late to swing towards Japan. We saw how hard Blake tried to make turn towards West. Many Sinhalese supported JVP in the 70s. If their wish had been realized, the process might have been accelerated a lot. Now it is taking little bit of time. But soon, not more than within two years, the child will be on the hand of Lanka Maatha. Good wishes for you and the King!

  • 2

    Jehan Perera is talking crap. Japan is a western puppet. Japan’s time is over. So, Japan has moved it’s manufacturing and businesses overseas. China and eventually India and pakistan are threatened by the western powers. IT is said, once Syria and Russia are over, they may take Iran, Pakistan and India. In between may come China too. So, global politics are very different.

    Sri lankan problems will be related to those concerns.

  • 0

    Hello Jehan,
    The Rajapaksa regime is mortgaging the bottom half of Sri Lanka. They will collect it or abandon it one day. India will not allow China controlling the area closest to them. Though China is supporting that through the help of the Armed Forces.

    You should ask the question why China is NOT doing the same projects in Mannar, Trinco, Palaly and KKS. China knows that in the near future there will be a federal or Con-federal solution to bring peace to Sri Lanka or face years of drawn out conflict. I will let you figure out the consequences to China’s investments in the areas I mentioned before if such a political solution is in place.

    The book review – see link below – will give you a deeper understanding of the need for the Tamils’ struggle to ensure protection of their cultural – Linguistic status, and also for the Sinhalese wish to preserve and expand their cultural – Linguistic and Buddhist way of life in the same Island. If one dominates, the other will be assimilated. A federal or con-federal solution that was talked about during the CFA is a just solution for both communities to live in peace pursuing their interests in the same Island without one dominating the other.


  • 2

    Dr Jehan gets his bread from the West.

    Naturally he would like the West to take care of the national interests of our majority of the inhabitants too.

    But West can’t do it . Can they
    Because they have to look after the “national” interests of their own citizens in the Diaspora plus their mates in Lanka and the Politicians who represent them.

    There is a another problem too.

    Where can they find the dosh to give Sinhala Buddhist inhabitants , carpeted roads, highways, freeways, LEDs, ,Harbours and Airports when they have to do Quantitative Easing to pay even the NGOs…

    • 3

      K.A Sumanasekera

      “Dr Jehan gets his bread from the West.”

      Where do you get yours, Temple Trees cucina?

      “Naturally he would like the West to take care of the national interests of our majority of the inhabitants too.”

      Happily you would like this island to be an autonomous region of middle kingdom.

      “There is a another problem too.”

      Its you.

      “Where can they find the dosh to give Sinhala Buddhist inhabitants”

      Well from commissions receivable from various projects I suppose.

  • 2

    Thanks for the interesting article, Jehan.

    I agree that Sri Lanka needs to be careful about how it spends its borrowed money – wasting it on Formula 1 tracks is not what I regard as necessary or valuable development.

    Regarding the Hambantota Port, I have heard that the project was offered to the Indians before it was offered to the Chinese.

    Becoming closer to China doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka needs to distance itself from Japan or India. It can be a win-win situation. Sri Lanka can set an example by developing diplomatic, trade and cultural relations with nations that are hostile to each other, and play a role as a peacemaker in the region.

  • 1

    Jehan has to go long way learn international political order had been established after end of Second World War since 1945.

    You like it or not that SWRD, SRB, CBK and Mahinda R. has follow more balance and moderated foreign policies since 1956 up to now.
    That credit has goes to them without hesitation.

    Jehan has write new theses of NEW International Political order.

  • 1

    A very objective analysis by Jehan. The consequences of Abe’s visit to Sri Lanka and Modi’s visit to Japan and Xi’s visit to Sri lanka and then to India are too close to call. One has to wait and see. This is perhaps the spirit of Jehan’s paper.Bensen

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