Last week was an auspicious time for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to culminate his three-country tour around the Indian Ocean with the first visit by an Indian leader to Sri Lanka in three decades. Given the island nation’s shifting political landscape following the surprising defeat of its two-term president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in early January, the milestone represented by Modi’s visit Friday and Saturday was further amplified by the trip’s geopolitical importance.
Under Rajapaksa’s leadership, Sri Lanka ended a civil war that lasted nearly three decades. But his rule was plagued by corruption, nepotism, the centralization of power and increasingly illiberal governance. The man who unexpectedly defeated him in January, Maithripala Sirisena, an erstwhile member of Rajapaksa’s Cabinet and longtime member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), has promised to rebalance Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and implement sweeping domestic reforms. But are Sirisena’s goals realistic? Will he be able to strengthen bilateral relations with India and rechart the country’s authoritarian course?
In foreign policy, Rajapaksa cultivated closer ties with China, something that Sirisena criticized on the campaign trail, specifically regarding Chinese investment and infrastructure projects and the perceptions of an overreliance on Beijing that extended to the diplomatic, military and strategic spheres. The Sirisena administration’s decision earlier this month to suspend a $1.5 billion Chinese development project—ostensibly due to corruption allegations, but also environmental concerns—sent a clear message.