This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition
Beijing’s special envoy took the unusual step of meeting with Rajapaksa last week – official visits are usually limited to government figures.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one was particularly eloquent. Adding a fresh twist to what would otherwise be a plain vanilla diplomatic visit by the Chinese special envoy to Sri Lanka last week, former China-friendly president Mahinda Rajapaksa tweeted a picture of himself posing with the Chinese special envoy.
An endorsement of sorts of an old friend in trouble, the picture signalled Beijing’s willingness to keep its options open in the strategically important Indian Ocean nation.
It was also a departure from Beijing’s usual outreach as Chinese envoys are known to restrict their interaction to government figures. The current leaders often complain that China had no channels of communication with them when they were in the opposition.
“This is the first time the Chinese have contacted Rajapaksa since he lost the election in January,” his spokesman Rohan Welivita told the South China Morning Post. “It was a courtesy call.”
Government officials refused to respond when asked if they were aware of the meeting.
Beijing dispatched Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin to Colombo as special envoy to mend relations between the two countries, strained since Rajapaksa’s shock defeat in January. The new government has put several Chinese-funded infrastructure projects on hold, most notably a giant reclamation project called Colombo Port City that was inaugurated by President Xi Jinping in September.
At a press conference on Friday before leaving Colombo, Liu said he had a “highly successful” trip, meeting the president, the prime minister and the foreign minister. There was no mention of Rajapaksa. Liu’s unannounced meeting with the former leader was in keeping with his low-key trip.
Though Liu told reporters that the Sri Lankan government had assured him they will break the stalemate over Colombo Port City and other projects, he also let known his impatience.
“I joked with the Sri Lankan leaders that they have taken eight months for government transition, now they must not take eight months to restart the projects,” he said.
Executives connected to the stalled Chinese projects have expressed similar impatience to the Post over Sri Lanka’s pro-tracted electoral process that has seen two elections in eight months, even though there are signs the government is sincerely trying to put some of the projects back on track.
For Rajapaksa, too, the meeting delivers a boost at a difficult time. His attempt to resurrect his career by trying to return as prime minister in August’s parliamentary elections did not go anywhere.
The government has also brought several corruption and criminal charges, including money laundering and the use of death squads, against him and his family.
But down as he is, Rajapaksa still enjoys the support of a section of his United Peoples Freedom Alliance, which is split between his and President Maithripala Sirisena’s camps. The Sirisena camp has joined Ranil Wickremesinghe’s single-largest United National Party to form the national government.
“Without Rajapaksa, there is no opposition,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, on the curious situation of the county’s two main parties being in the same government.
“If he gathers support and steam and the government lacks coherence, the opposition can get back on.”
And as China looks to get back on in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa is a hedge it can hardly afford to ignore.