Last week China's ambassador to Sri Lanka made his first visit to the North-East, in an interesting venture to the Tamil homeland. Qi Zhenhong went to great lengths to ingratiate himself with the Tamil people. The ambassador's efforts ranged from visiting the historic Jaffna Library where he donated laptops and books, to speaking with Tamil fishermen in Mannar, and baring his chest whilst dressed as a traditional devotee at the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple. Faced with the turmoil of the Rajapaksas in the south of the island, Beijing seems to be on the lookout for new partners in the North-East.
China's apparent renewed effort to win over the Tamils comes as the normally steadfast relations with Colombo face increasing strain. Over the decades Beijing has become Sri Lanka’s most vital and dependable ally. Under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, Beijing supplied diplomatic, financial, and military assistance to Colombo, as it carried out genocidal massacres in 2009. Numerous development projects, primarily located in the South, came in the years that followed with Chinese loans and labour. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed power in 2019 it was expected that those ties would be strengthened further.
The regime’s mishandling of the economy and chaotic militarised governance, however, have left many with the view that the Rajapaksas are on increasingly shaky ground. There have been island-wide protests as food prices have sky-rocketed and the economic crisis deepens. Alongside the ever-increasing militarisation of the state, growing frustration with Sri Lanka's unchecked security forces and entrenched culture of impunity means the regime in Colombo no longer looks like the steady partner it once was. Beijing learned this directly when a diplomatic row over Colombo’s refusal to pay for millions of dollars’ worth of fertiliser led to the Chinese government blacklisting a Sri Lankan bank.
It is in that context that Zhenhong travelled to Jaffna and Mannar. Rather than the anticipated courtesy call, his visit seemed to be a concerted attempt to win local hearts and minds, as well as create a substantial Chinese footprint in the North-East. It is a visit that will be closely noted by India, just 30km from the Northern coast as Zhenhong was informed.
New Delhi has also been flexing its muscles and looked to expand several projects in the Tamil homeland in recent weeks, as Sri Lanka’s attempted balancing act – appeasing China, India and the United States – begins to unravel. For years Sri Lanka has attempted to play off fears over China’s increasing presence on the island with New Delhi and Washington, leading to appeasement from all sides. Yet, recent missteps have demonstrated how delicately balanced such moves are, particularly when Sri Lanka is in such dire financial straits. This year Colombo handed over the East Container Terminal (ECT) deal, originally signed with India and Japan, to China. Meanwhile, it terminated Chinese plans to build power plants on the Jaffna islets and instead gave those to India. New Delhi responded by remaining tight-lipped over key financial assistance which Sri Lanka desperately needs. Shrugging off the snub, China simply moved the power plant project to the Maldives, stating that it would be Sri Lanka’s loss. Weeks later, Zhenhong went to meet the Tamils.
His trip serves as an indicator of the direction in which Sri Lanka is heading. Regardless of China’s intentions in the region - whether it is truly building local economic prosperity, posturing to New Delhi just miles from its southern shore or even expanding a neo-colonial project – it will be seeking dependable allies, now hard to come by in Colombo. Beijing instead may be sensing where international sympathy and interest is heading. Indeed, the last time in living memory that such a significant Chinese visit was made to the North-East is when then-ambassador Jiang Qinzheng met the head of the LTTE’s Political Wing, S P Tamilchelvan in Kilinochchi in 2002.
For the Tamils, this renewed Chinese venture comes with pitfalls to be wary of and many will remain cynical. There are legitimate fears that the local economy may be exploited and resources ransacked. One lawmaker even warned that protests against Chinese projects may follow. Beijing’s sale of vast amounts of military hardware to Sri Lanka, with Chinese jets dropping bombs on Tamils at Mullivaikkal, remains a bitter memory. As international pressure mounted in the aftermath of those massacres, China shielded Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council and refused to back accountability and justice measures. As the US and India discovered, no amount of economic promise will erase those issues.
Indeed, the Tamil nation has from the outset rejected the Rajapaksas’ trademark ‘peace through development’ model, with no amount of new infrastructure quashing struggles for justice, accountability and a political solution. While the Sri Lankan state has failed even to hold up the development end of the deal, the North-East is still unlikely to embrace any outside offerings which perpetuate the political and systemic causes of the Tamil homeland’s economic disadvantages. Nevertheless, for Washington and New Delhi, China's latest advancement demonstrates exactly why engagement with Eelam Tamils remains vital if they want to keep Beijing’s influence in check. The Tamils remain crucial partners in the region. And if they do not meaningfully engage with them, other partners seem to have demonstrated they are willing to. The latest Chinese venture presents a potential new avenue for Beijing with Eelam Tamils. It remains to be seen whether it will be a friend or foe.