China is expanding its footprint in Sri Lanka, particularly in an area which it had hitherto neglected as it views the Island nation as a geostrategic hub for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Indian Ocean.

Policy Research Group, Poreg in an article, said that in order to expand its footprint in Sri Lanka, the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, visited the Tamil majority Northern Province just before Christmas

The Chinese embassy described the three-day tour of the area from December 15 as a familiarisation visit. “It was a study tour to the North that had been planned for long but could not be realised due to COVID-19 and other reasons”.

But the diplomatic observers, however, see the trip as part of China’s strategy to expand its footprint in Sri Lanka, particularly in an area which it had hitherto neglected, reported Poreg.
Qi Zhenhong visited the landmark Jaffna Public Library and donated food packets to ‘extend solidarity’ to local communities in the fight against the ongoing Covid pandemic. The iconic library was destroyed in 1981 during insurgency and has been rebuilt with Indian assistance.

The Ambassador also visited the Guilan Sea Cucumber Hatchery and farm in east Ariyalai, Jaffna, as well as the New Silkroad Foodstuff Factory in Thoddaveli, Mannar, as part of his ‘study tour.’ He also went to the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, a temple near Jaffna and the Adam’s Bridge, reported Poreg.

This was the first visit by the Chinese Ambassador to the Northern Province, a region dominated by the Tamil community, an ethnic group that has traditionally been close to India.
The research group also reported that there is also a growing view that the visit was a thinly veiled challenge to Indian influence in Northern Sri Lanka given its geographical proximity to India and cultural and linguistic affinity with Tamil Nadu.

However, the Sri Lankan Tamils are reportedly opposed to Chinese investments in the North, as well as a joint venture between China and Sri Lanka to grow sea cucumbers in Jaffna for export to China. Anti-Covid vaccine Sinopharm is on offer from Beijing but it has few takers in the Lankan Tamil belt. They doubt its efficacy, says a local report.

“People of Sri Lanka’s north and east do not want China to have a footprint. We will oppose them. We don’t want them here. All these years, they (the Chinese) didn’t see us, nor did they think of the interest of the Tamil people. They have discriminated against us, even on official name boards… So, why the sudden interest in us now? Said Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, Batticaloa MP.
Further, Tamils also support India because of the significant role it played in the rehabilitation of the war-ravaged Northern Province in 2009. The restoration of the Jaffna-Colombo railway link, the construction of 50,000 houses, and the upgrading of Kankesanthurai harbour are shining examples of the relief and rehabilitation programme India has undertaken. India continues to provide small business rehabilitation assistance in Jaffna, reported Poreg.

Clearly, China is now strategizing a dual approach to win over both the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamilians. Ambassador Qi’s visit and offer of assistance could be a strategic move to expand the Chinese footprint, targeting the fisheries community as the initial step, added Poreg. (ANI)