| Matthew Pennington |
WASHINGTON (AP) – The surprise defeat of Sri Lanka’s authoritarian leader and the new government’s early steps to end repression have stirred US hopes that the South Asian island nation can revive ties with Washington and distance itself to some degree from China.
The United States takes an important step toward rebuilding the relationship when its top diplomat for South Asia, Nisha Biswal, travels to Colombo on Monday. It is the first visit by a senior State Department official since Maithripala Sirisena won Jan 8 elections. Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister is expected to visit Washington this month.
Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, relations with China intensified, with heavy Chinese investment in the strategically located island along busy sea lanes between the Persian Gulf and East Asia. Once-robust ties with the US deteriorated sharply, even as President Barack Obama pushed to engage nations across Asia and consolidate America as a Pacific power.
Obama wants a deeper partnership with Sri Lanka, and US officials say the early signs are promising.
Within a week or so of taking office, former Rajapaksa ally Sirisena rolled back restrictions on the press and civil society. He also vows to reduce powers of the presidency that been inflated by Rajapaksa when his popularity ballooned during the ending of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war.
US-Sri Lanka relations were strained over Rajapaksa’s reluctance to investigate thousands of reported civilian deaths in the final chapter of the quarter-century conflict in 2009, when government forces crushed Tamil rebels who had been fighting for an ethnic homeland.
Sirisena has been cautious about promising action on accountability, but he did offer an early gesture to minority Tamils, who supported him at the polls, when he quickly replaced an unpopular ex-military governor appointed by Rajapaksa in the former battle zone in the north of the country.
The new government also says it is reviewing one of a series of major Chinese-financed infrastructure projects: A $1.5 billion land reclamation for a “port city” in the capital, Colombo. That’s a blow to Beijing’s progress in winning an ally in the Indian Ocean.
But officials in Colombo are also being careful not to alienate Beijing. Rajitha Senaratne, a Cabinet spokesman, said Sri Lanka does not “need to tilt towards any side.”
“China has been a historical friend of ours, India is also the same,” he told The Associated Press. “Our exports go to the EU and US” The new government assured India it will not align itself to any world power.
Two recent port calls by Chinese submarines at a Chinese-built terminal in Colombo , one before a visit in September by China’s leader Xi Jinping, fuelled speculation that Beijing’s wants a “string of pearls”, or port access along sea lanes linking the energy-rich Persian Gulf and economic centers in eastern China.
The submarine visits spooked India, which lies just 30 miles from Sri Lanka and shares US uncertainty about Beijing’s intentions as China’s military power grows.
Washington has its own strategic reasons to be interested in Sri Lanka.