Sivanandam Sivasegaram


This article was prompted by a political commentary by RK Radhakrishnan in Frontline, 22.4.2022 reproduced in the INSAF Bulletin, April 2022. The article showed obsession with Chinese influence in Sri Lanka despite what its title (Imploding Island: Sri Lanka on Brink of Ruin) persuaded me to expect. I mainly seek to locate Sri Lanka’s post-independence foreign relations in historical context. [Editor’s Note: We are grateful to Sivanandam Sivasegaram for taking the time to produce this thoughtful piece, an original for the INSAF Bulletin].

Out of the Colonial Shadow

Sri Lanka’s foreign relations were freed of British dominance in 1956, eight years after independence, when the People’s United Front (MEP) alliance headed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by SWRD Bandaranaike overcame the British-favoured United National Party (UNP). The MEP foreign policy adhered to the principle of non-alignment adopted at Bandung in 1955, although the Non Aligned Movement itself was founded only in 1961.

The Lanka Samasamaja Party and the Ceylon Communist Party conditionally supported the government and encouraged diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, East European countries and China. Notably, relations with the Soviet Union and China, under consideration prior to 1956, materialised only in early 1957, also the year in which Sri Lanka (Ceylon until 1972) took over the British naval and air bases. The Colombo Harbour was taken control of in 1958. British ownership of plantations and control over agency houses for tea trade allowed Britain a say in the economy until 1972. The country’s political right disliked the Bandaranaike government as did the print media.

Weakening of Britain’s hold on its colonies led to rising U.S. influence, and post WWII global rivalry was between the U.S. with its NATO allies and the Soviet Union. Soviet influence was slow to build outside socialist countries. Anti-colonial struggles helped the Soviet Union to win friends in Africa. Indo?Soviet relations strengthened from mid-1950s so much so that Soviet Union under Khrushchev favoured India over China for aid from 1957. Indo?U.S. relations were friendly despite Soviet support and strategic neutrality based on non-alignment, but for a decade from 1971 when India invaded East Pakistan. Relations worsened when India exploded a nuclear bomb in 1978, but recovered slowly. Indo-Soviet ties held strong until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and ties with Russia remained warm amid growing U.S. influence in India culminating in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Alliance (Quad) in 2007 with an anti-China agenda. Quad was soon dormant and reactivated 9 years after in 2017, reaffirming India’s role as a junior partner in the resurrected outfit.

There is little evidence of Chinese power rivalry with the Soviet Union but ideological rivalry in the 1960s and 70s manifesting as contest for influence in rival liberation movements in the 1970s. Even as the Soviet Union was involved in the affairs of Angola and Ethiopia, China avoided confrontation. China, besides support for liberation struggles, built bridges of friendship by material support to countries like Tanzania and Zambia. Relationships established then stood China in good stead in developing partnerships in Africa well into this century.

In Afghanistan, however, China supported the mujahideen to resist Soviet military presence, which it saw a threat to China’s security. Asia was otherwise not an arena for confrontation between China and any state except India since 1962 and the brief encounter with Vietnam in 1978.

Cold War Era Rivalries in Sri Lanka

The Soviet Union and China sided with respective rival factions of the Communist Party, while China’s friendship with Sri Lanka grew steadily in the early 1960s when Sirimavo Bandaranayake was prime minister. There was no rivalry for influence in the affairs of the state even into the 1970s when Sirimavo was again Prime Minister, backed by a pro-Soviet Communist Party…

Anti-China venom is old hat in Sri Lanka. Tamil nationalists led mainly by the Federal Party (FP) ? now the dominant party in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ?were notoriously anti-left, anti-Soviet and bitterly anti-China since the late 1950s. Besides supporting India against China and Pakistan, affinity for India was boosted post-Bangladesh, but failed to deliver the goods for the Tamil nationalists who resented the warm relations between Indira and Sirimavo. Global and local circumstances forced the UNP, with affinity for UK and U.S. and distaste for socialist countries, to appear non-aligned when it returned to power in 1965?70. Yet, true to their class nature the UNP and the FP stood by U.S. imperialism in the Vietnam War. Following the failed People’s Liberation Front (JVP) insurgency of 1971, both UNP and FP accused China and North Korea of supporting the JVP without a shred of evidence. China cleared its name soon, but it took longer for North Korea.

China constructed (1970?73) the monumental Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) as a gesture of appreciation of Sri Lanka’s friendship and non-alignment. BMICH was followed by support for a several development projects, some outright gifts. After the UNP returned to power in 1977, President Jayawardene acted to offset Chinese influence by seeking Japanese involvement, and Japan fast became the biggest direct lender to Sri Lanka besides loans of comparable scale from the Asian Development Bank dominated by Japan.

Sri Lanka was not seen as hostile by India, despite its proactive neutrality in the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 and letting Pakistan Army aircraft to refuel on way to East Pakistan during the 1971 Civil War in which India was involved. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, prime minister on both occasions, was considered a good friend by both Nehru and Indira Gandhi to the end of their lives.

Indo-U.S. Rivalry and Souring of Indo-Lanka Relations

Sri Lanka, after it shed its colonial luggage in 1972 by declaring itself a republic, was dragged into a rivalry for regional hegemony when JR Jayawardene sought to steer Sri Lanka away from non-alignment towards a pro-U.S. policy. Jayawardene was also personally offensive to Indira Gandhi during his election campaign in 1977 by referring to her and her son Sanjay as “cow and the calf” (an allusion to the election symbol of Indira’s party at one time.) He went on to offer on long lease to the U.S. the ‘oil tank farm’ near the Trincomalee harbour. Indira Gandhi turned tables on him with a better bid than the U.S. offer, and Jayawardene shelved his leasing plans. Relationship remained strained, and Indira Gandhi indirectly encouraged Tamil militants to take refuge in South India and even have military training. The Lankan communal violence of July 1983 accelerated the process, and India played godfather for a host of rival Tamil separatist militant organizations plus the Tamil United Liberation Front (de facto avatar of the FP).

Indo?U.S. rivalry outlived the collapse of the Soviet Union which played India’s guardian angel when India militarily engaged with Pakistan in the 1970s, allegedly to inhibit Chinese involvement on behalf of Pakistan. But the U.S. saw in India a Soviet proxy hindering its hegemony in South Asia. India resented U.S. bid for influence in Sri Lanka where it sought primacy. It sided with secessionist Tamil militants from the late 1970s until the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, by which Colombo handed Delhi’s wish ?not the 13th Amendment etc. but a set of pledges not to act in ways hostile to Indian security interests ?and Tamil militants became disposable. The rivalry resurfaced in 2002, well after India opted to lie low after the humiliation of its ‘Peace Keeping Force’ by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990.

India resented the U.S. bid to buy influence in Sri Lanka in 2001 by urging the UNP-led government (under the SLFP President Kumaratunga) and the LTTE to negotiate for peace. Norway the honest broker and Premier Wickremasinghe were required by India to report to Delhi after each meeting of the two sides. India, partly to spite the LTTE, did its best to torpedo the talks. As the talks began to stumble in 2003, President Kumaratunga dismissed the Wickremasinghe government, and elections led to Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming Premier and then President in 2005, thanks to an LTTE-imposed boycott under questionable circumstances. War resumed soon after. With the peace talks derailed, India and the U.S. (now bitter with the LTTE for being uncooperative) found common cause in defeating the LTTE when war resumed in 2006. Objectives were different though. The U.S. wanted to disarm the LTTE so as to secure two clients, the LTTE and the government. India sought to annihilate the LTTE, an interest shared with the Rajapaksa government.

The Sri Lankan government was helped by the U.S. until the end of 2007 to locate the floating armouries of the LTTE in international waters, which it destroyed, crippling arms supplies to the LTTE. In this context, the claim that the West stopped supplying arms to Sri Lanka in 2007 based on human rights concerns deserves to be seen in terms of U.S. interests in Sri Lanka. The decision seems more political than humanitarian. Either the U.S. wished the conflict to prolong or wanted Sri Lanka to abjectly plead with it for military support so that the U.S. could dictate to a post-war Sri Lanka. China stepped in to meet the Sri Lankan government’s shortfall in strategic weapons. India strongly objected to the purchase of arms from China not on moral grounds but for being left out.1

China Conspiracy Theories

India’s delusion that Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean threatened its security has pushed India to join hands with the U.S. against China, whose interest in the Indian Ocean had little to do with India but with potential U.S. naval disruption of trade routes across the Ocean. Although Indian policy makers were aware that Chinese development of strategically located harbours (dubbed the String of Pearls, said to be to strangle India) was no serious threat to India with a strong and well equipped navy to defend itself. But they cynically allowed Sino-phobia to grow among the public through misinformation agencies including mainstream media with growing loyalty to the U.S.

China, having invested in strategically located harbours to face a U.S. naval blockade, sought to make its investment profitable. The B&R project (beginning 2013) gave the lie to the String of Pearls thesis by stringing the ‘pearls’ to the Maritime Silk Road. Development of the Hambantota Harbour was not China’s idea. It was initiated by the UNP-led government in 2002. The Canadian company that found the project feasible made no progress. Then a Danish engineering firm produced the second feasibility report in 2006 affirming feasibility. Sri Lanka approached the U.S. and India, both of whom refused to undertake the project. It was then that China Eximbank offered in 2007 a $307 million, 15-year commercial loan with a four-year grace period and choice between 6.3% fixed interest and a floating rate. Sri Lanka opted for the former.

The international harbour was a good idea (not a white elephant as its current performance would show) in the context of expanding marine trade. Hambantota is an ideal location for trans-shipping and offers a shorter marine route than Colombo. It also means that Sri Lanka will not be hurt in the event that India goes ahead with its Sethu Samudram project, as it offers a shorter route to South East Asia than through Palk Strait bypassing Colombo to harbour facilities in Tamilnadu.

The cause for the transfer of 80% of the interests of the harbour on a 99 year lease to a Chinese business in 2018 was no debt trap2 but the folly of the UNP-led government of 2015-19. The deal was no debt-equity swap or debt cancellation in exchange for Chinese control of the port. The large dollar inflow from the lease was used to boost the country’s foreign reserves and service some short-term foreign debts. That is, the government used the deal to address balance of payment issues relating largely to a soaring debt servicing cost amid sluggish export and FDI inflow.3

No foreign saviour would, however, offer a rescue package to a ‘friendly’ UNP-led government which was all too willing to snub China by selling the port to a rival. Mahinda Rajapaksa (then Leader of Opposition) denounced the deal as avoidable through commercial development of the harbour. Clearly the harbour project was no debt trap and India and Australia among others practice lawfully terminable 99-year leases of land to foreign countries.

As for the debt crisis, in 2015 Sri Lanka owed more to Japan, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank than to China. Only 5% of the $4.5 billion in debt service that Sri Lanka would pay in 2017, related to Hambantota and Central Bank governors under both Rajapaksa and Sirisena have affirmed that Hambantota, and Chinese finance in general, was not the source of the country’s financial distress.

The Colombo Port City was not a Chinese project thrust on Sri Lanka either. Nor was it planned as part of China’s B&R project. The idea of an international commercial centre was there before President Mahinda Rajapaksa proposed such a centre on reclaimed land. The project was scheduled to start in 2011 while B&R was set in motion two years later in 2013. The author’s own view is that the Port City is a bad idea in view of the implications of such an international commercial centre on an industrially deprived society like Sri Lanka, and serious concerns were also expressed by environmentalists. However, in 2015 the UNP-led alliance during its election campaign pledged to cancel the project well after commencement for altogether different reasons tinged with U.S.-inspired anti-China venom. The Chinese company quietly reminded the new government of contractual obligations and the government beat a hasty retreat, again with no offer of rescue from ‘Chinese control’.

From Indo-U.S. Rivalry to Unholy Alliance

India has needed patrons to underwrite its bid to dominate over South Asia. The Soviet Union as an ally gave moral support. As much as it would not fight India’s wars it had no desire to use India to fight its battles. The current patron takes advantage of old grouses to use India to encircle China. India saw through the partner during its recent skirmishes with China at Galwan Valley and wisely asserted its independence when Quad partners put pressure on it recently to denounce Russia.

The U.S. and India, both seeking to dominate Sri Lankan foreign policy, differ in their style of work. The U.S. seems to know when it should step back, like when its Millennium project and the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) were rejected amid public resentment, and wait for an opportune moment as now, with the government in dire straits and with its proxies in key positions in government to stealthily snatch 40% of a major electric power plant and impose an LNG purchase deal amid chaos within the government. The U.S. would desire a ‘regime change’ to make its hegemonic bid. But it has learned from the mistake of supporting the ouster of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, and will be more subtle in its moves. It now holds back on its anti-China campaign and has left the task to proxies among the English-educated middle class including the pseudo-left, key sections of the mainstream media and the Internet to push its anti-China agenda as whisper campaigns on China’s debt trap and land grab in Hambantota and Port City and occasionally human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

India has been rather clumsy in dealing with Sri Lanka since 1978. Its training of Tamil militants wrecked the Tamil liberation struggle by creating groups of warring client organizations and ultimately a dictatorial LTTE monopoly. It smuggled in clauses into the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord to serve Indian interests on pretext of dealing with the national question, provoking suspicion of motives. The arrogant conduct of Indian High Commissioners during the IPKF days and even after made more enemies for India than friends among all nationalities. There were sagacious diplomats like Gopal Gandhi and Nirupama Roy, but during less challenging times. Currently poaching by Indian bottom trawling fishing vessels is a source of anger among the fishers and lower layers of the society. The Indian government is indifferent, Tamilnadu justifies poaching, and TNA is speechless.

Tamil nationalists with Tamil media backing seek hard to prettify the Image of India as the saviour of Tamils by erasing unpleasant memories of the IPKF. But India’s double game on UNHCR resolutions on Sri Lanka is making their job hard. Failure to deliver on pledges to persuade successive Sri Lankan governments to implement the 13th Amendment has not helped any, while Indian meddling evokes in the Sinhalese mind images of a foreign invader.

Indian spokespersons look for a scapegoat (which happens to be China mostly) for every failed bid for a project. For example, when a mass protest stopped the development of the East Terminal of the Colombo Port to an Indian company of ill repute in partnership with a Japanese firm, the finger pointed at China.

Indian rivalry with China is often childish. When a Chinese firm was contracted to build a coal power plant on the west coast, India wanted to build one on the east coast at Sampur (prime agricultural land adjoining a fishing area). Mass protest forced the government to retreat, to the embarrassment of India’s Tamil proxies. A few years after it renewed its bid to build an LNG power plant at the same site. Recently it used the financial crisis and pro-U.S. elements within government to build a solar power plant at that location.

India has successfully blocked two Chinese projects in the North of the country:

1. The UNP-led government asked China to build a few thousand houses for war affected homeless in the North. TNA leaders who initially approved of the Chinese-built houses in the hill country made an about face, on Indian persuasion, and the government obliged.

2. More recently, China won a bid under open tender procedure to develop renewable energy in three islands off the Jaffna peninsula. India instigated the TNA to protest that a Chinese power plant in islands lying close to India will make the region susceptible to war. Then India offered to build plants at its own expense if Sri Lanka would cancel the Chinese project. The government refused, but India successfully persuaded the government to defer the project. It has now made building of renewable energy plants by Indian firms in Sampur and the islands off Jaffna conditions for its line of credit for Sri Lanka amid its financial crisis.

A senior leader of the TNA even swore that “India’s enemy is our enemy and we will not let the Chinese set foot in the North or East”. Days after he repeated his empty boast at the State Department of the U.S. in December 2021, the Chinese ambassador paid a three-day goodwill visit to the North, worshipped at the most important Hindu temple of Jaffna in traditional Hindu style, met victims of Indian poaching and pledged assistance to advance their livelihood. The genteel ways of Chinese diplomats contrasts with the bull-in-the-China-shop style of many Indian spokespersons. Unlike India, the China made no fuss about their renewable energy project being snatched by India. But I do not rule out their use of subtle diplomacy to win it back.

India has also been vocal in its rejection of the BRI project as part of it passes through Pakistan-held Kashmir while it holds another part of Kashmir against a UN resolution demanding a plebiscite. What Indian leaders seem to lack is pragmatism. Vanity and imagined U.S. support deny India opportunity for development using B&R and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), signed by 15 countries including India’s Quad partners Australia and Japan.

Concluding Remarks

China is not a socialist country although it has salvaged some social welfare from its socialist days. It is a fast growing capitalist country with an important role in the Global South to defy U.S. imperialism. India should look at China free of nationalist prejudice and understand its conduct in the global context of U.S. The border question should be resolved amicably with some give and take in matters of strategic importance. In the interim, the two countries should cooperate to avoid unwanted conflict. The paranoid view that China is planning to control Sri Lanka to attack India will hurt India more than China. What China wants in Sri Lanka is a reliable friend and it is not bothered by India’s deals in Sri Lanka one way or other.

China can be more sensitive to Indian concerns. Dialogue with India in matters of mutual concern can eliminate much unpleasantness and ease India out of US imperialist embrace and help to build a grand anti-U.S.-imperialist in Asia stretching from the Far East to the Middle East.


1. In 2007, India’s national security adviser warned: “It is high time that Sri Lanka understood that India is the big power in the region and ought to refrain from going to Pakistan or China for weapons.” (

2.  “The Chinese ‘Debt Trap’ is a Myth” by Deborah Brautigam and Meg Rithmire


3. “The Hambantota Port Deal: Myths and Realities” Untangling the truth about Chinese debt and Sri Lanka means cutting through some misleading media narratives, by Umesh Moramudali

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