When Sri Lanka ’s newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a statement about equidistant foreign policy and remaining neutral in any conflict between major powers, the world paid attention. Neutrality would be an ideal position for the island nation, especially given the geopolitical interest towards Sri Lanka. However, the viability of this stance has been questioned given that Beijing has enjoyed a special relationship with Colombo since the previous Rajapaksa government under his brother Mahinda from 2005 to 2010. Rajapksa’s foreign policy vision is worth decoding given the global narrative that Sri Lanka is in a debt trap created by China . For starters, an equidistant foreign policy would mean it would work with all other countries, without hurting any. The idea, which was first articulated in his election manifesto, was later reiterated during his swearing-in ceremony and his visit to India last November. Terminator versus pad man: for Sri Lankan voters, a tough choice Acknowledging New Delhi’s sensitivities to Colombo’s foreign policy decisions in his first international interview with Indian media, and making his first official visit to India – not to China – reiterated Rajapaksa’s commitment to this policy. He has also made clear his intention to maintain a distance from the struggle for influence between the United States and China that is brewing in Sri Lanka’s backyard – the Indian Ocean region. The question, however, is to what extent that is practical. Sri Lanka’s strategic geographical position and the rising importance of the Indian Ocean in international geopolitics has made it an important country to major global powers. With the rising importance of the Indo-Pacific strategy, the Quad countries – India, the US, Australia and Japan – are seen as using different strategies to woo Sri Lanka and drag it towards their respective spheres of influence. Additionally, China, the European Union and Russia see Sri Lanka as an important strategic partner to realise their Indian Ocean interests. Following Rajapaksa’s remarks on foreign policy, envoys from Russia, China, the US each met the president on January 14, while he met a Japanese delegation one day previously. In her meeting, US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs Alice Wells reassured Rajapaksa of Washington’s “commitment and interest in furthering and deepening [its] partnership” with the island nation. As Beijing stepped up its presence on the island since 2005, and in 2017 when Hambantota Port was leased for 99 years to state-controlled China Merchants Port, the international community raised concerns that the port would become a Chinese military base. Even though these claims are unsubstantiated – Hambantota Port is being operated with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority – the strategic importance of China’s investments cannot be understated. Australia produced fake horoscopes to deter Sri Lankan asylum seekers Even though no significant international discussions were raised, there was fierce opposition within Sri Lanka last August when changes were proposed to the Status of Forces Agreement that Colombo signed with the US in 1995. Among the proposed changes was the free movement and passage of American military personnel and vehicles in Sri Lanka. Amid the proclamation of his neutral foreign policy agenda, a significant step taken by Rajapaksa was to gazette the Chinese-built Colombo International Financial City (CIFC) under Sri Lankan authority. China sees the port city project as an integral part of the Belt and Road Initiative, its flagship connectivity plan. The project had been viewed as an example of Chinese neo-colonisation since it was first underway. By dismissing misinformation that the CIFC was under Beijing’s control, Rajapksa has opened it up for other foreign investments – but this stance, together with the president’s statement that he would review the Hambantota Port agreement, was interpreted as a sign that the relationship between his administration and Beijing was heading towards a rocky stage. However, the relationship between China and Sri Lanka – especially under a Rajapaksa government – is too strong to be shaken. Beijing’s support during the Sri Lankan Civil War is commendable and has not been forgotten. When Sri Lanka was under pressure from the US and its allies for alleged human rights violations, it was China’s support that helped Sri Lanka internationally. Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China expected to be ‘low key’ under new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa At a time when Sri Lanka was unofficially alienated by its former development partners such as the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and Japan, China provided aid to the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. China’s assistance both in fighting the war and later in development during a crucial period helped Mahinda’s government prove their ability to deliver progress and security. Gotabaya’s role as defence and urban development secretary in that government earned him a reputation as a doer. Given these factors, it is unlikely Gotabaya would jeopardise the strong relationship built with China since Mahinda’s government. There remains a real possibility that Sri Lanka will become a pawn in a struggle between major powers – therefore, an equidistant foreign policy is certainly ideal. Adhering to this will reap opportunities for Sri Lanka and will help the country move away from the mainstream narrative of Chinese debt traps. But it is not an easy route. There has to be reciprocity from other countries, and internal as well as external circumstances will decide if the island will move closer to a single foreign power or not. By and large, Sri Lanka will also have greater interest towards development partnerships. So far, it has been China that has always come forward with fewer conditions to provide financial assistance for Colombo. While a neutral foreign policy is not without its challenges, Colombo’s ties with Beijing are likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Chulanee Attanayake is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, an autonomous research institute of National University of Singapore. She is also the author of “China in Sri Lanka”. Archana Atmakuri is a Research Analyst at the same institute. She works on India’s foreign policy, China’s international relations and issues in the South China Sea.