India and China contending for dominant role in Sri Lanka

India, China seek gains in Colombo

BIG BROTHER: The Indian and Sri Lankan presidents have signed a series of agreements on aid, loans and infrastructure, treading on Beijing toes in the process

Friday, Jun 11, 2010

India and Sri Lanka signed a series of aid, economic and diplomatic deals on Wednesday, the latest move in an intense struggle between New Delhi and Beijing for influence over the island nation.

The signing took place on the first day of a visit by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to New Delhi, his first since winning his presidential election in January and parliamentary poll in April. The deals range from loans for major infrastructure projects to agreements to share electricity and boost cultural exchanges.

Dubbed “the new Great Game,” the battle between China and India for primacy in the Indian Ocean is set to be one of the major themes of the coming decades, analysts say. Sri Lanka’s geographic position is its main draw.

“China wants to be the pre-­eminent power in Asia and whether Asia ends up multipolar or unipolar will be determined by what happens in the Indian Ocean. Currently there is a power vacuum there and the Chinese want to fill it,” said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.

Among the deals signed was a US$44 million loan for the construction of railways to be carried out by companies owned by India’s railways ministry. Most Indian assistance is focused on the northern parts of Sri Lanka, dominated by the Tamil minority and devastated by years of war.

New Delhi also announced the opening of consulates in the Jaffna and, significantly, in the port city of Hambantota, where Chinese contractors are building a vast deep water port in a project largely financed China’s Export-Import bank.

Indian strategists believe the port, expected to be completed by 2020, is a key link in a chain of such projects from Myanmar to Pakistan, the so-called “string of pearls,” which seek to extend China’s maritime influence.

“China is building up naval forces and is eager to secure safe bases and anchorage in the Indian ocean. But India’s position and coastline give a tremendous operational advantage,” Chellaney said.

Beijing has already embarked on a major road-building program and is helping with the construction of a power station. A US$204 million loan to build a second international airport has also been agreed. In March, Sri Lanka said China was supplying more than half of all its construction and development loans.

Rajapaksa’s visit sparked protests by those representing India’s Tamil community.

“India is caught in a strategic quandary,” said Iskander Rehman at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. “Its sizeable Tamil population means that it feels a natural sense of solidarity with the Tamil civilian population but it knows that if it criticizes the government too harshly it may risk losing even more strategic space to the Chinese.”

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