Wei Fenghe’s visit follows trip by foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi and comes amid rising military tensions between Beijing and New Delhi. But experts say Beijing’s real aim may be shoring up support for controversial Chinese projects, including Port City Colombo

The Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s visit to Sri Lanka on Tuesday is as much about boosting political and economic cooperation as it is about military links, experts say. Wei will become the second senior Chinese official to have visited the country since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic when he arrives for the three-day visit, which follows a trip by China’s foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi in October 2020.

Wei is expected to hold talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and other senior officials. Wei is also to visit Dhaka.

But while the visit is likely to raise hackles in India, which has been locked in a military confrontation with China along their disputed Himalayan border for the past year, experts say the timing suggests military issues might not be the main thing on Beijing’s agenda.

Wei’s visit is likely to coincide with a ruling by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court on Port City Colombo, a controversial Chinese-funded US$1.4 billion development project to be built on reclaimed land that opponents – who have lodged 19 petitions against it – say violates the country’s sovereignty, constitution and labour laws.

The project is the latest in a string of Chinese investments in the country that some believe are aimed at gaining influence among South Asian nations and luring them away from India’s orbit.


Ranjan Mathai, a former Indian foreign secretary, said there was nothing to suggest Wei was coming to clinch a significant military deal.

“The visit is aimed at strengthening bilateral ties at a time when Sri Lanka is saying it does not want to get drawn into military confrontation between great powers,” he said.

Rather, said Mathai, who was India’s top diplomat from 2011 to 2013, the visit was aimed at ensuring Sri Lanka stayed “neutral” in regards to tensions over China’s increasingly assertive actions in the Indo-Pacific.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a four-nation group comprising the United States, India, Japan and Australia that is aimed at countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, has been increasing the pressure on Beijing in recent months by seeking a common front with other coastal states in the region.

The Japanese ambassador in New Delhi, Satoshi Suzuki, said in February that India and Japan were cooperating with other countries, including Sri Lanka, to strengthen the Quad under the Indo-Pacific framework. However, the Quad’s overtures to Sri Lanka have not always been entirely welcome, with the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colomboge expressing concerns about the grouping in October last year.

“We are observing the rise of the Quad as an exclusive military alliance. That is the problem,” he said at a seminar, though he added: “If the Quad is aiming at economic revival, there are no issues.”

Mathai said Sri Lanka and other nations in South Asia shared China’s concerns about the Quad. He said the recent passage of an American warship through India’s exclusive economic zone without Delhi’s consent could be highlighted during Wei’s visit as a way of illustrating US double standards.

“It also ensures India’s Quad-based strategies will find critics in India’s neighbourhood,” Mathai added.


China’s efforts to expand its influence in South Asia in recent years have followed a two-pronged approach.

In addition to deepening defence cooperation, it has poured billions of dollars into infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative.

Both approaches have led to concerns in New Delhi that Beijing is trying to make inroads into India’s traditional sphere of influence. The rising India-China rivalry has been compounded by a year-long face-off between their militaries along their disputed border in Ladakh, and the clash has in turn increased New Delhi’s sensitivities to defence deals between China and India’s neighbours.

Wei visited both Nepal and Pakistan in December last year.

“Hosting the Chinese defence minister when India and China are locked in a military stand-off sends the wrong signal,” said Rajiv Bhatia, distinguished fellow at the Mumbai based think-tank Gateway House.

Bhatia, a former Indian diplomat, said relations between India and Sri Lanka had been strained since March, when Delhi abstained from voting on a UN Human Rights Commission resolution that sought a mandate to collect evidence of human rights violations during the Sri Lankan civil war. The UN believes up to 100,000 people died in the 26-year conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels. Both sides are accused of atrocities in the fighting, which ended in 2009, but the UN resolution accused the Sri Lankan government of “obstructing accountability”.

During the war, China had backed the Sri Lankan government against the Tigers, supplying it with weapons.

However, defence cooperation largely dried up after the war. The presence of a Chinese submarine and a warship at Colombo harbour in 2014 led to strong protests from New Delhi. In 2019 Beijing supplied Sri Lanka with a refitted frigate but its plan to set up an aircraft repair factory was subsequently dropped following India’s objection.

George Cooke, a former Sri Lankan diplomat, said India needn’t be concerned over Wei’s visit.

Sri Lanka had assured India it would not allow any country to have a military base on its soil and it would not encourage activities that could jeopardise Delhi’s security interest, said Cooke, who pointed out the two countries had strong military links of their own.


But China’s influence in Sri Lanka has grown since Beijing lent its support to Colombo on the UNHRC resolution, in sharp contrast to India’s abstention. Sri Lanka recently negotiated a US$500 million loan from China Development Bank and a US$180 million loan from the Beijing-headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The two countries have also agreed a US$1.5 billion currency swap.

Some experts said China’s relations with Sri Lanka were predominantly based on economic cooperation and the development of infrastructure. Defence cooperation would deepen only if the Indian Ocean were to become more militarised, they said. In a telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, the Sri Lankan president said his country wanted to learn from the Chinese Communist Party’s experience of governance.

The two leaders also discussed the need for the speedy implementation of Colombo Port City and Hambantota Port, another China-backed project, to help Sri Lanka’s economic recovery from the pandemic. As with Colombo Port City, critics claim the Hambantota Port project is an example of how China is using “debt-trap diplomacy” to gain leverage in the region.

In 2017 Sri Lanka was forced to lease the port to China for 99 years after it realised it would struggle to repay its Chinese investors. The deal erased US$1 billion in debt, but Sri Lanka is now even more indebted to the country.

Colombo recently ruled out extending the Hambantota lease beyond 99 years but it has also clarified that it will not renegotiate the lease agreement either.

There is speculation in diplomatic circles that Colombo’s assurance was linked to the US$500 million loan from the China Development Bank. It is also being suggested that despite concerns over the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota projects, the Rajapaksa government will push for their early implementation as it will not risk alienating China.

Said Colombo-based political commentator Malinda Seneviratne: “China is a global economic power. It makes sense to have China as a friend.”