The New Indian Realpolitik

China Is Pushing India’s Foreign Policy Into Uncharted Waters

A Indian Navy officer in Colombo, Sri Lanka April,2018 Dinuka Liyanawatte/REUTERS

After 50 days of political turmoil, a measure of normality is returning to Sri Lanka. A Supreme Court ruling on December 14 declared President Maithripala Sirisena’s dissolution of Parliament illegal, forcing the president to backtrack and reappoint the country’s erstwhile prime minister. The crisis had erupted in late October, when Sirisena dismissed his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a member of the opposition and former president. The president would later explain his sudden move by alleging that Wickremesinghe had plotted to assassinate him and was undermining national interests.

But Wickremesinghe decided to remain in his official residence and refused to step down. His coalition in Parliament accused Sirisena of executing a coup. In response, the president moved to dissolve the Parliament and called for early elections. Chaos, at times even violence, engulfed the legislature. Barely ten years after the end of a brutal, decades-long civil war, Sri Lanka was once again facing the threat of conflict.

Last week’s resolution broke the stalemate, but the country’s factious politics will likely continue to destabilize its government until the next presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2020.

In the meantime, the crisis in Sri Lanka has thrown into relief the competition between India, the region’s traditional heavyweight, and China, the surging power to its north. India prefers Wickremesinghe, while China has a relationship of long standing with Rajapaksa. But the manner in which the two powers expressed their preferences made clear that New Delhi faces a reckoning: having once intervened at will in Sri Lanka’s affairs, India is responding now with uncharacteristic caution.

This circumspection shone through when the crisis first flared up in October. Two days after Wickremesinghe’s sacking, the Indian government issued a perfunctory statement expressing “hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected.” China’s ambassador in Colombo, by contrast, had already met with Rajapaksa and hailed him as “the new prime minister.” Beijing’s sympathy for Sirisena’s

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