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Mahinda Rajpaksha named Sri Lanka PM an ill omen for India?

Diplomats scramble in the island nation to stymie Chinese designs

New Delhi.

The tear-shaped island, located off the southern tip of India, has become an arena of tussle between New Delhi and Beijing, which has built ports, power stations and highways as part of its Belt and Road Initiative of trade and transport links across Asia.

India, caught flatfooted by the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka’s premier, has opened urgent diplomatic and political contacts with the strongman who drew close to China during his previous tenure as president, officials said.

The tear-shaped island, located off the southern tip of India, has become an arena of tussle between New Delhi and Beijing, which has built ports, power stations and highways as part of its Belt and Road Initiative of trade and transport links across Asia.

Rajapaksa had opened up Sri Lanka’s main port to Chinese naval submarines when he was president, which stoked anger in India. His return to power in a surprise move by current President Maithripala Sirisena has drawn concern in New Delhi that China would tighten its grip on the island that lies along busy shipping lanes.

"It is advantage China at the moment," said Srikanth Kondappali, a specialist on India-China ties at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who closely tracks the regional rivalry between the Asian giants.

He said Beijing had invested in Rajapaksa and in his political constituency of Hambantota in the south of Sri Lanka where it has built a $1.5 billion deep water port, an airport and also planned an industrial zone.

China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, Cheng Xueyuan, was among the first diplomats to meet Rajapaksa soon after he was sworn in as prime minister and he presented a congratulatory message from Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday and named Rajapaksa to replace him, breaking up a fragile coalition governing the island.

Wickremesinghe, who was seen as pro-India, said his sacking was illegal and he has maintained that he is still prime minister and had majority support in parliament.

Sri Lanka is one of a chain of countries where the India-China rivalry is playing out, stretching from Bangladesh, Nepal to the Maldives, where a pro-China leader was voted out in a surprise election result last month that was welcomed by India, the United States and the European Union.

Indian diplomats were in contact with Rajapaksa’s camp, officials in New Delhi said, adding they were ready to do business with the new leader so long as his appointment was in line with the country’s constitution.

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