China’s Indian Ocean priorities
The month had been a busy one for President Ranil Wickremesinghe. He probably clocked more air mileage during October than any other president did before him. He travelled across continents to fulfil overseas engagements. As the Presidential Secretariat note on the 3rd Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum says President Wickremesinghe attended the opening ceremony “in a show of solidarity.” During the visit, he met with President Xi Jinping, who assured China would provide “friendly, practical and timely support for Sri Lanka’s debt optimization programme.” China seems to have timed its decision to restructure Sri Lanka’s debts on the eve of the visit of the Sri Lanka head of state.
President Xi Jinping in his address at the inauguration of the meeting announced eight major steps China will take to support “the joint pursuit of high-quality BRI cooperation.” These steps include creating an international multilateral network, supporting “a global open economy”, practical cooperation strategies, promoting green development, fostering opportunities for science and technology innovation, enhancing interpersonal relations and encouraging “unbreakable ties among member countries.” In other words, creating a new world order as visualised by President Xi. These steps are likely to increase the strategic importance of Sri Lanka for China. In particular, Sri Lanka will occupy a central role in building a multidimensional Belt and Road connectivity network to integrate ports, shipping and trading services under the Silk Road Maritime. Similarly, Sri Lanka is likely to be geographically indispensable in building the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor and the Air Silk Road. China will remove all restrictions.
President Wickremesinghe in his bilateral meeting with the Chinese President, expressed Sri Lanka’s hope to establish a maritime economic corridor linking China, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and South Africa. It is interesting to note President Xi Jinping acknowledged the challenging nature of this endeavour and encouraged President Wickremesinghe to take the lead. It will be interesting to see how and when President Wickremesinghe proceeds to walk the talk and handle India’s reaction to it. The arrival of Shi Yan 6, the Chinese geophysical and seismic research ship, in Colombo Port on October 28 has to be viewed in the context of China’s growing strategic interest in the Indian Ocean. India and the US had been expressing their concerns over the visit of Chinese dual use research ships ever since the research vessel Yuan Wang 5 visited Sri Lanka last year. Sri Lanka is reported to have requested China to postpone the visit of Shi Yan 6 to November. Apparently, China has turned down the request. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the vessel has been authorised to carry out a two-day survey of the Western waters off Colombo. A team of scientists from the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) is joining the Chinese researchers on board the vessel.
Of equal interest is the arrival of warships of other navies to Sri Lanka around the same time. Republic of Korea’s naval ship ROKS ‘Kwanggaeto the Great’ arrived at Colombo port on October 26 on a formal visit. The Korean warship was to depart the island on October 28. Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer Akebono (DD 108) also arrived at the Trincomalee harbour on an official visit on October 28. The warship was to leave on October 31, to take part in an exercise with the Sri Lankan Naval ship off Trincomalee. President Wickremesinghe’s tight ropewalk to balance the relations with India and China is likely to get tougher when President Xi Jinping starts implementing the eight major steps referred to “the joint pursuit of high-quality BRI cooperation.” The strategic ripples that surrounded the visit of Chinese maritime research ship Shi Yan 6 to Colombo during the month is perhaps the forerunner of the strategic conundrum Sri Lanka will be facing in the coming months, if not years.
Politics of cabinet rejig
On the home front, President Wickremesinghe carried out the much- awaited Cabinet reshuffle. He replaced the controversial health minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who survived a no confidence motion against him after allegations of incompetence and corruption in procurement of medicines surfaced. In his place, the President appointed the better qualified Dr Ramesh Pathirana as Minister for Health. He will be the minister for health in addition to the portfolio of industries he is already holding. Similarly, Minister for Agriculture Amaraweera will now hold the additional portfolio of plantation industries. The cabinet reshuffle exercise seems to have satisfied neither the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) nor the opposition parties. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, expressing the party’s disappointment, criticised the President for ignoring the SLPP’s significant support while allocating ministerial berths. It is possible the President may carry out yet another minor cabinet reshuffle to retain SLPP support. However, Rambukwella, despite the allegations of corruption, has been retained as Minister for Environment. This sends a strong message that his continued influence within the party and the government.
President Wickremesinghe fulfilled yet another popular expectation with the announcement of the election schedule at the UNP convention. As per the schedule the presidential and the parliamentary elections will be held in 2024, followed by provincial council elections in 2025. His speech at the convention convened to rejuvenate the party as “smart” one, was probably a curtain raiser of his election agenda. He explained the dire circumstances in which he became President and listed his achievements. The seasoned leader sent an ominous warning of the future. He said “We must confront this reality and seek answers. Some parties advocate for constitutional changes, while others call for reforms in the presidency and government. They request a change in leadership. However, I want to convey one thing: I cannot rejuvenate this country without the support of other political parties….” A month more and Sri Lanka will usher in an election year.
As mandated in the Constitution, presidential elections are scheduled for the second half. The second tranche of the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) is expected anytime now. The budget is less than two weeks away. A nation waits in suspense…” Suspense indeed, not for the people, but for the political class (including the SLPP), who are probably in a tizzy to find a suitable challenger to take on Wickremesinghe seeking one more term.
Good News on the Economic Front
On the economic front, the good news is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has given a conditional nod to the staff level agreement for Sri Lanka to gain access to SDR 254 million (about $330 million), subject to the approval of the IMF Executive Board. The two IMF conditions are: a) implementation of all prior actions b) completion of financing assurances on debt restructuring in a timely manner. These are more easily said than done. The Anti-Corruption Act was passed in July 2023 to comply with IMF conditions; however, cases of corruption continue to be reported in the media. Two crypto fund companies have been approved to operate in the special economic zone of Colombo Port City. Worldover crypto fund operations have been mired in cases of money laundering. Enforcing the anti-corruption mandate is going to be a little more difficult with homegrown access to crypto operations in SEZ, outside the pale of laws of the land.