Last week, the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo came up with a scoop on the island nation's Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son Yoshitha Rajapaksa taking over as the Chief of Staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
This is not surprising since the Rajapaksas, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are dominating the current government in Sri Lanka.
Yoshitha’s elder brother Namal is the Youth and Sports Minister, while Mahinda's another brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, is Irrigation Minister.
What has caught everyone by surprise is how the Chinese embassy beat the media in breaking the news of Yoshitha becoming the Chief of Staff in the PMO. No one was aware of it until the Chinese Charge D'affaires put out a tweet on the development.
The Chinese embassy breaking the news signifies that the Chinese government is back as a force to reckon with in the island nation.
The Chinese, who had been in the wilderness between 2015 and 2019 after Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted out of power, seem to have made a comeback after Gotabaya was elected the president.
The Rajapaksas have been asserting that the Lankan government follows an “India-first policy” and that Colombo considers New Delhi to be its “elder sister”. China is just a friend, they claim, adding that India should not worry about the presence of the Chinese in the island nation.
China had been active between 2000 and 2015 in Sri Lanka, making investments in various projects before it had to beat a retreat during 2015-19. The Chinese, it appears, are back in business now, with high ranking officials visiting the island nation in the last few months.
Website 9dashline.com in an article says that China is bringing a new dimension to the Indian Ocean region through its naval assets.
Saurabh Singh of the New Delhi-based South Asian Center, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence and Strategic Analysis, says in the article that Sri Lanka turned to China soon after the Easter blasts last year in which 259 people were killed.
The Xi Jinping dispensation provided the Lankan government equipment, hundreds of hand-held metal detectors, a significant number of walk-through safety inspection gates, X-ray security inspection systems, hand-held vehicle scanners, a few explosive detectors and explosives and narcotics trace detectors, all worth $4.2 million.
Beijing also sent a technical team to Sri Lanka to help its official install the equipment and train personnel. A warship frigate has also been donated and China has also agreed to provide vehicles to the Sri Lankan police.
China is keen to rope in Sri Lanka as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and has increased its stake in the Colombo international deep water container terminal to 85 per cent towards this effort.
China has also financed the construction of the Hambantota Port, as a result of which it now controls the port. China has a 99-year lease of the port for dues to it amounting to $1.1 billion.
Sri Lanka, however, has refused to provide access to Chinese naval ships there. The problem for Sri Lanka is that it needs huge sums of money for development that can only be provided by China.
The Rajapaksas' government owes China nearly $4.8 billion and no country in the world will be able to help Sri Lanka repay it to Beijing. Thus, China seems to have got a strong foothold in the Indian Ocean region through its presence in Sri Lanka, much to the chagrin of India, Japan, Australia and the US.
With New Delhi not in a position to help Colombo financially, the Indian government has no option but to do the tightrope walk on Lanka.
India still has been trying to provide help to Sri Lanka, like assisting in the probe into the Easter blasts through the National Investigation Agency.
However, New Delhi's options are limited given its weak financial muscle.
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