GZERO Media logo

Sri Lanka is voting, China is smiling

Sri Lanka is voting, China is smiling

Voters in the island nation of Sri Lanka, located in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of India, head to the polls today in a legislative election that could not only reshape the country's democracy, but affect the geopolitical balance of power in Asia.

The election is a family affair. The vote is an opportunity for a party controlled by the Rajapaksa family, a powerful political dynasty that ran the country with a strong hand from 2005 to 2015, to cement their rule over the country again. In 2015, they lost the presidency to the opposition, which took steps to strengthen Sri Lanka's democracy but failed to deal effectively with terrorism and the economy.


Boosted by that government's failings, the Rajapaksas last fall made a big leap towards a restoration when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an authoritarian army man known as "the terminator," won the presidency and appointed his brother (and former president) Mahinda as prime minister to lead a minority government. In today's election, the family's SLPP party is expected to win in a landslide.

Within Sri Lanka, the likely SLPP victory has raised concerns among activists and democracy watchdogs. The Rajapaksas are credited with ending the country's devastating 30-year civil war during their first stint in power. But rights groups worry about their authoritarian inclinations, human rights abuses, and strong ethnic Sinhalese nationalism, which puts them at odds with the country's sizable Tamil and Muslim minorities.

But outside powers like India and China are keenly interested in what happens too. Why? Because Sri Lanka is a strategic gem in the Indian Ocean, a waterway crisscrossed by boats carrying half of the world's oil shipments, and up to 80 percent of the energy consumed by both China and India. As Beijing and Delhi vie for strategic supremacy in Asia, each wants to have Sri Lanka on side.

Sri Lanka's closest commercial and diplomatic partner has traditionally been India, with which it shares cultural ties, as well as a complicated history of Indian involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war. But the previous Rajapaksa governments made a big effort to engage with Beijing, massively boosting Chinese trade and investment in the country. It was under the Rajapaksas that Sri Lanka signed a massive port deal with China – the subsequent government defaulted on the loans and handed over control to a Chinese company in 2017. More recently, the current president Rajapaksa has moved to revisit a planned Indian port deal in the capital, Colombo.

The Rajapaksas, who style themselves as "Sri Lanka first" nationalists, say they are simply trying to extract maximum benefit for their country by signing deals with the highest bidders, who happen to be Chinese. But all of this has worried India, and domestic Sri Lankan politics has in recent years become increasingly dominated by the (intensifying) China-India rivalry. When Mahinda Rajapaksa narrowly lost re-election in 2015, for example, he blamed Indian spies for helping the opposition. More recently, India and China have competed to provide aid to help Sri Lanka tackle the coronavirus, while China, ahead of today's vote, has been actively cultivating ties across the Sri Lankan political spectrum.

As China and India square off over technology, economic influence, and strategic supremacy in Asia, Sri Lanka will figure more prominently in their rivalry. And today's election will likely mark a turning point in Beijing's favor.

Wales, early 19th century: During breaks from his law studies, William Robert Grove indulges in his passion for science to become an inventor. On his honeymoon in Europe, he learns about the new energy source everyone's talking about: electricity. After learning that electricity allows water to be broken down into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, his intuition leads him to an idea that ends up making him a pioneer of sustainable energy production.

Watch the story of William Robert Grove in Eni's MINDS series, where we travel through time seeking scientists.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and as we head into the weekend, a Quick Take on, well, the first bombing campaign of the new Biden administration. You kind of knew it was going to happen. Against some Iranian-backed militias in Syria, looks like a couple of dozen, perhaps more killed, and some militia-connected military facilities destroyed. I think there are a few ways to look at this, maybe three different lenses.

More Show less

Listen: The country's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, joins Ian Bremmer to talk vaccines, school re-openings, and when—and how—the pandemic could finally come end. He was last on GZERO World just weeks before the pandemic hit in the fall of 2019 and he described at the time what kept him up at night: a "pandemic-like respiratory illness." This time, he talks about how closely that nightmare scenario foreshadowed the COVID-19 pandemic. He also offers some guidance about what public health measures vaccinated Americans should continue to take in the coming months (hint: masks stay on).

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Afghanistan frustrated nineteenth-century British imperialists for 40 years, and ejected the Soviet army in 1989 after a bloody decade there. And though American and NATO forces ousted the Taliban government in 2001 over its support for al-Qaeda, there's no good reason for confidence that nearly 20 years of occupation have brought lasting results for security and development across the country.

But… could China succeed where other outsiders have failed – and without a costly and risky military presence? Is the promise of lucrative trade and investment enough to ensure a power-sharing deal among Afghanistan's warring factions?

More Show less

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Stockholm on Europe In 60 Seconds:

Is there a military coup ongoing in Armenia?

Well, it isn't a military coup as of yet, but it's not far from it either. This is the turmoil that is resulting from the war with Azerbaijan, which Armenia took a large death loss. What happened was that the head of the armed forces asked for the prime minister to resign. That was not quite a coup, but not very far from it. Now, the prime minister sacked the head of the armed forces, there's considerable uncertainty. Watch the space.

More Show less
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Biden strikes Syria. Now what?

Quick Take