China-Sri Lanka Ties: Same As It Ever Was?

Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka's Prime Minister, recently concluded a four-day visit to China. A bevy of deals was signed, including agreements pertaining investment, infrastructure and economic development. The two nations hope to sign a bilateral trade pact soon.

China also welcomed the resumption of the contentious Colombo Port City project. Previously, Wickremesinghe had said that the project would be cancelled. (It was subsequently suspended.)

Moreover, President Maithripala Sirisena was highly critical of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka during his electoral campaign. Nonetheless, Sri Lanka cannot ignore the economic imperative to maintain cordial ties with Beijing. "There is a restoration of the [bilateral] relationship with China," says Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council. "The relationship became strained in the aftermath of the change of government and the halt placed on all Chinese infrastructure projects. But now all projects are moving forward, including the most controversial Port City project."

More broadly, it's the potential heightening of strategic ties that will be watched most closely by policymakers in places such as Washington and New Delhi. Colombo has indicated that it will join China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative, a decision with geopolitical implications.

Commenting on changes in China-Sri Lanka ties since Sirisena assumed the presidency, Perera says that "China's use of Sri Lanka to achieve China's military objectives will not be permitted by the new government, which is conscious of Indian and Western concerns in this regard."

At the same time, one could also view Wickremesinghe's China trip as another reminder of a trend that's becoming increasingly clear under Sri Lanka's current coalition government: In a host of ways, the present administration doesn't necessarily look that different from the previous one.