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Energy as a geopolitical battleground in Sri Lanka
Gz. MeeNilankco Theiventhran
To cite this article: Gz. MeeNilankco Theiventhran (2022): Energy as a geopolitical battleground in
Sri Lanka, Asian Geographer, DOI: 10.1080/10225706.2022.2098507
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10225706.2022.2098507
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa
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Energy as a geopolitical battleground in Sri Lanka
Gz. MeeNilankco Theiventhran
Department of Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, Western Norway
University of Applied Sciences, Bergen, Norway
Sri Lanka has committed to achieving carbon neutrality status by
2050, but it is foreseeing more coal power plants, which has
created spaces of contention locally and geopolitically. What is
the role of geopolitics and local politics in shaping Sri Lanka’s
decision to embark on coal at the very point in time when it has
pledged a commitment to renewables? This paper explores this
puzzle with particular attention to the encounters between global
and local actors and the role of the state in the socio-political
construction of the geopolitical battleground of energy. It traces
the role and inﬂuence of international actors and agendas on
domestic actors and dynamics within the state and society, and
the opportunities or obstacles for geopolitical actors exerting
extensive inﬂuence. The paper oﬀers fresh insights into
understanding the geopolitics of energy transition in a
developing country context.
Received 19 August 2021
Accepted 17 June 2022
Energy; geopolitics; energy
transitions; Sri Lanka
International climate commitments and local political realities have made energy tran-
sitions a contentious issue. In Sri Lanka, energy has become a battleground for geopoli-
tical control through development aid, loans, and other bilateral and multilateral
assistance. Despite having a high potential for solar and wind energy and an ambitious
carbon neutral commitment, the energy transition policy in Sri Lanka still encompasses
coal as a critical component. The puzzle this paper addresses is why Sri Lanka is going
along with coal, knowing well that it will reverse its climate commitments, create
environmental degradation and increase electricity prices. What is the role of geopolitics
and local politics in Sri Lanka’s coal pathways as part of the energy transition?
Energy transitions depend heavily on technology transfer, innovation, and local and
foreign private investments (Hafner and Tagliapietra 2020; Goldthau, Eicke, and
Weko 2020; International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) 2019; Murphy and
Smith 2013; Potocnik 2007). The inability of developing countries to make the shift
towards renewables without external support allows extraneous actors to play a role in
their energy transitions (Hafner and Wochner 2020; Yermakov 2021; Ansari and Holz
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Gz. MeeNilankco Theiventhran firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Computer Science, Electrical Engineering
and Mathematical Sciences, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen, Norway
2020). These external actors –mainly states –embrace the opportunity to increase their
inﬂuence through supporting energy transitions. This calls for critical scholarly attention
to the new geopolitics of energy transitions.
Energy is a key challenge faced by developing countries, and many emphasize the
uptake of renewable energy to achieve their climate commitments. At the same time,
energy security and aﬀordability are often the overriding priorities, taking precedence
over trying to fulﬁll their international climate commitments (Sovacool 2014,2017;
Healy and Barry 2017). This conundrum makes energy transition a challenging task
for policymakers (Munro 2019; Bridge and Gailing 2020; Golubchikov and O’Sullivan
2020). Given this backdrop, energy has become a critical geopolitical arena for contesta-
tion. Energy has also become a geostrategic tool, where external actors who provide and
control energy directly or indirectly have inﬂuence and advantage.
The transition to a global energy system dominated by renewable energy will create
geopolitical winners and losers, and as Paltsev (2016) argues, the future geopolitics of
renewable energy could resemble the post-Cold War situation, where uncertainty pre-
vails as to widely diﬀerent possible outcomes. Transitioning to renewables could take
multiple pathways and trajectories, any of which would also need to consider energy
security, sustainability, and ﬁnancial possibilities, especially in the global South.
Peters (2003) was among the ﬁrst scholars to argue that the development of renewable
energy would lead to more equitable energy distribution and lower geopolitical tensions.
Vakulchuk, Overland, and Scholten (2020) likewise argue that renewable energy expan-
sion would lessen the role of geopolitics in international relations since renewable energy
will increase the local availability of energy and thereby make energy less prone to pol-
itical tensions. Hoggert (2014) similarly notes that small-scale photovoltaics technologies
are likely to promote a secure low carbon transition with reduced geopolitical risks.
However, renewable energy, while strengthening energy security, could simultaneously
lead to the emergence of new interdependencies between countries.
Several scholars argue that the transition to a predominantly renewable energy system
poses numerous new geopolitical risks (Westphal 2011; Scholten and Bosman 2016;
Overland 2019; Vakulchuk, Overland, and Scholten 2020). Westphal and Droege
(2015) point out that metamorphosing the global energy mix will introduce greater diver-
sity but at the risk of less security. Paltsev (2016) argues that supply and demand for
energy will remain decisive factors in the future global balance of power. These
diverse positions on the eﬀects of geopolitics and energy transitions call for new contex-
tual knowledge of key cases.
This paper responds to this by exploring the dynamics and politics of energy tran-
sitions in a changing geopolitical order. The paper presents a theory-informed single
case study of Sri Lanka, focusing on how energy has become a geopolitical battleground
and how encounters among external and internal actors heavily inﬂuence a country’s
energy future and energy transition. Sri Lanka has committed to achieving carbon neu-
trality by 2050, but it is at the same time commissioning more coal power plants, causing
contention both locally and geopolitically. The paper examines this puzzle with particular
attention to the encounters between global and local actors and the role of the state in the
socio-political construction of the geopolitical battleground of energy.
2G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
Understanding the geopolitics of energy transitions
The contemporary world order is in transition as the centrality of global institutions is
weakened, nation-states reassert their powers, and new actors lead the way with new
global and regional initiatives and coalitions (Dian and Menegazzi 2018; Weiss and Wilk-
Energy transitions oﬀer one of the best available opportunities to study the new modes
of geopolitical power play that have arisen in this changing international context. This
results not only from the continued centrality of energy but also the extensive and inno-
vative experiments and transformations seen in the energy sector, with the emergence of
renewables as clear viable alternatives for oil, coal and natural gas. Energy transitions
consequently serve as a useful lens to scrutinize the increasing tendency for collaboration
in the many sectors that also permit political and economic trade-oﬀs. Geopolitics is now
increasingly understood in terms of its expression not only on the national and inter-
national levels but at all spatial scales (Blondeel et al. 2021; Bridge and Gailing 2020).
Contemporary environmental politics articulate this trend particularly powerfully, as
exempliﬁed by the complex interactions that take place between decentralized networks
made up of multiple actors across all scales.
The global challenges encountered will condition the future of geopolitical actions.
Energy transitions form a global challenge that inﬂuences the modality of the emerging
world order and leads to alternative conceptualisations of geopolitical actions (Acharya
2014; Barnett and Duvall 2010). In the light of these global challenges, there is a need for a
new understanding of the emerging political communities which will be composed of
new actors, agents, and dynamics. Novel challenges also generate new hegemons and
counter-hegemons, and the interplay between them paves the way for a fresh under-
standing of the new geopolitics in the light of global challenges, speciﬁcally from a regio-
nalized world perspective. The question is how the actors, agents and dynamics in
developing countries would secure and maintain the important mainstays of democratic
politics, such as legitimacy, inclusivity, accountability, and equity, with new global chal-
lenges, such as energy transitions (Van der Merwe and Dodd 2019; Fischer and Newig
Geopolitics of energy transitions is an emerging research ﬁeld. Most of the research
relating to the geopolitics of energy is either about the geopolitics of oil and gas
(Akiner 2004; Amineh 2007; Umbach 2010) or the geopolitics of renewable energy
(Scholten and Bosman 2016; Overland 2019). Energy transitions have been addressed
in studies on economic aspects of energy diﬀusion (Meade and Islam 2015; Duan,
Zhu, and Fan 2014), energy technologies (International Energy Agency (IEA) 2014;
Schaeﬀer et al. 2015; Fortes et al. 2015), and policy implications (Schwanitz et al. 2015).
In recent years, a growing body of literature has emerged on the geopolitics of energy
transition. Scholten (2018) discuss the winners and losers in the new global energy situ-
ation, the shift in regional and bilateral energy interactions between established and
developing countries, governance responses, and infrastructure improvements. Accord-
ing to Goldthau, Keim, and Westphal (2018), the energy revolution ultimately entails a
systemic shift; the low-carbon transformation is expected to make the energy system
more sustainable and considerably more diverse on a global scale. However, new diﬃcul-
ties created by energy transition strategies could, according to Hache (2018), turn out to
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 3
be as complex as today’s energy geopolitics. Local and decentralized relationships may
add a new geopolitical layer to traditional actors, while technical, economic, sociological,
behavioral, geographical, and legal elements may further complicate the evolving conun-
drum. After analysing the literature on the geopolitics of energy system transformation,
Blondeel et al. (2021) conclude that more profound knowledge of the link between poli-
tics and energy systems is required to forecast sustainable energy transition paths. This
paper addresses this need through new contextual knowledge on the interlinkages
between energy transitions and geopolitics from a global South perspective.
Bazilian et al. (2019) outline four scenarios for the energy transition and its impacts on
global geopolitics: cooperation and global consensus on climate change that facilitates
international policymaking; technological advancement charting a new path to tran-
sition; country-ﬁrst policies that prioritize energy security, known as dirty nationalism;
and business as usual where fossil fuels remain dominant. Lombardi and Grünig
(2016) look at low-carbon energy security and energy geopolitics, focusing on four
themes: challenging the energy security paradigm; climate change and energy security
goals; energy security in a geopolitical context; and the impact of large-scale renewable
energy projects on energy security and shifting geopolitical alliances. Hafner and
Wochner (2020) describe how the global energy transition will unfold among several
major global geoeconomic/geopolitical blocks and how it will inﬂuence and be inﬂuenced
by global governance. They identify four factors contributing to the energy transition:
global energy demand, top-down climate legislation, bottom-up technology, and
energy industry technical innovation. There is thus a growing literature on energy tran-
sitions and geopolitics, but it is largely limited to the global North. This paper adds to this
literature through a global South perspective and an empirical case study of Sri Lanka.
Geopolitics of energy transition in the global south
The geopolitical and geoeconomic concerns surrounding energy and climate policy are
growing more complicated, according to Eyl-Mazzega and Mathieu (2019), resulting
in rekindling old energy rivalries and creating new ones. According to Makarov,
Chen, and Paltsev (2017), the post-Paris energy environment presents a challenge for
industrialized and developing countries in terms of energy transition and climate
Overland (2019) examines four emerging misunderstandings about renewable energy
geopolitics: competition for essential resources; new resource curses; electrical disruption
as a geopolitical weapon; and cybersecurity as a geopolitical concern. He argues that
higher use of renewable energy would lead to greater decentralization, which may
make the system more resilient. International energy competition, he believes, will
shift from control of physical resources, their locations, and transportation routes to
control of technology and intellectual property rights.
From the global South perspective, theories of International Political Economy (IPE)
help understand the energy transitions. Renewable technologies have reached commer-
cial maturity, according to their cost curves. The costs of solar photovoltaic (PV) units
have dropped by roughly 90% in the last decade (IRENA 2019), and onshore wind
turbine unit costs have followed suit. This is primarily due to scale eﬀects and a world-
wide renewable energy capacity investment boom. Low-carbon technologies are now
4G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
cost-eﬀective energy sources, and are attracting the highest amount of investment of any
energy source in many locations (IEA 2019).
This trend is expected to continue given that the underlying investment decisions
reﬂect government policies that favor renewables and the strong market pull from
large economies. There are, however, considerable disparities in global disparities
between the allocation and distribution of global capital as developing nations got just
12% of the total investment (Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF 2018). This
uneven investment pattern in renewables is consistent with overall energy investment.
According to the IEA, middle-to-low-income nations contributed 14% of global invest-
ment, accounting for 41% of the world’s population. In contrast, high-income nations got
more than 40% of investment volumes, accounting for less than 15% of the global popu-
lation (IEA 2019).
In order to ensure sustainable development in low-income nations, adequate invest-
ment in low-carbon energy sources is required, putting them on a climate-friendly
growth path. In reality, developing countries have the most signiﬁcant ﬁnancial
demands for mitigating technology (Tempest and Lazarus 2014). Many nations in the
global South are grappling with a “technology gap”(Castellacci 2011), which is a
source of persistent underdevelopment and poverty (Fofack 2008). As a result, some
observers argue that promoting access to low-carbon technology would likely result in
a“development dividend”in the least developed countries (Forsyth 2007). Glachant
and Dechezleprêtre (2016) found that many developing nations remain cut oﬀfrom
international technology transfers. This is because worldwide private developers consider
politically unstable countries too risky for investments, and there is a weak commercial
rationale for private enterprise to engage in very impoverished countries or areas (Kirch-
herr and Urban 2018).
The cost of transitioning away from high-carbon systems and the options for alterna-
tives determine whether countries can avoid infrastructural and technical carbon lock-in
(Seto et al. 2016). As a result, existing technologies and infrastructure will resist change in
nations that are currently not attractive for cleantech investments and do not engage in
low-carbon tech value chains. When private enterprises refuse to invest, international
institutions (Ockwell and Byrne 2015; Rimmer 2019) and public-private partnerships
can help spread low-carbon technologies (Chon, Roﬀe, and Abdel-Latif 2018).
External actors, as well as domestic variables, play a role in carbon lock-in. For
example, China’s overseas investments in fossil fuels are far more than those in renew-
ables (Li, Gallagher, and Mauzerall 2018). So Chinese investments as external actors con-
tribute to carbon lock-in in their investing countries. Li, Gallagher, and Mauzerall (2020)
point out that Chinese energy investments focus on developing nations, with the great
majority going to coal (24.5 GW), gas (20.5 GW), and hydropower (18.1 GW), while
wind (7.2 GW) and solar (3.1 GW) account for a very modest percentage. Investment
challenges have undermined Chinese renewable uptake externally as fossil fuels have
robust ﬁnancial backing locally (Larsen and Oehler 2022). External investments help
create a domestic environment conducive to carbon lock-in.
Such investments produce path-dependent positive returns in fossil infrastructure,
potentially delaying the adoption of low-carbon technology and the deployment of
renewables despite their economic viability (Unruh 2000; Unruh and Carrillo-Hermo-
silla 2006). This might substantially obstruct low-carbon future development pathways
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 5
in the countries receiving such investments. It is feasible to break free from such a
shackle, but it comes with signiﬁcant transaction costs because it necessitates modifying
long-established infrastructure, norms, and (economic and political) institutions (Seto
et al. 2016).
The energy transition will impact regional energy trade and integration. As part of the
energy revolution, regional energy commerce is likely to grow as money may be gener-
ated from the cross-border balancing of renewables supply changes (Criekemans 2018).
As a result, cross-border electrical systems become more integrated. According to obser-
vers, this gives a competitive advantage to countries that control and operate regional
networks and to the most eﬃcient producers. Controlling regional grid infrastructures,
including power lines, storage, and software, will become increasingly important for
national security for projecting inﬂuence and authority (Criekemans 2018). Regional
integration may also occur around power centers in networked grids (Goldthau et al.
The crucial issue here in the context of the global energy transition and the global
South is that technology, commerce, and ﬁnance are seen as a means to an end rather
than industries in and of themselves. According to the number of patents in the low-
carbon technology arena, the OECD countries and China have technological leadership.
Because of their reputation as technological laggards, nations in the global South may
become politically dependent on the goodwill of prominent green technology patent
leaders. Similarly, trading cannot be said to take place on a global scale. In the context
of the global energy transition, the concentration of renewable technology patents can
be interpreted as a sign of the continued existence of the established OECD dominance
in the global economic system, supplemented by the emergence of a small number of new
core countries, most notably China. Chinese patents account for one-third of all low-
carbon technology patents (IRENA 2019). The transition pathways have been modeled
and facilitated to allow externalities rather than internal solutions where local solutions
are discouraged. The energy transitions have been designed where the global South are
dependent on external assistance rather than exploring internal capabilities and develop-
ing local capacity. For example, the global deployment of solar panels does not funda-
mentally alter the logic of perpetuating dependent relationships; hence, intellectual
property rights continue to be necessary to proﬁt from innovation. More to the point,
low-carbon solutions cannot be projected to diﬀuse globally due to free-market forces,
suﬃcient demand pull, and dropping unit costs, according to the IPE perspective.
Instead, they may be made available in the strategic interests of both the countries that
these innovations originate from and the organized incumbents in the destination
countries. The case study will examine this through analytical attention to the intercon-
nected dynamics of involvement, investment and innovation in energy transition, what I
will refer to as a “triple I framework”.
The Triple I framework
In the context of developing countries, energy transitions have been primarily framed
through the slogan: “aﬀordable energy for all”(United Nations Department of Economic
and Social Aﬀairs 2016). These countries depend on external actors for technology, aid,
ﬁnances and know-how.
6G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
Whilst many of these countries have long been dependent on energy from outside, the
goal of increasing energy supply for development combined with the climate agenda
gives new impetus for external actors to use energy as a geopolitical tool and make
energy one of the central themes in the geopolitical arena. Energy has long been used
as a tool to gain advantage and to strengthen bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
The geopolitical actors use multiple avenues –state-to-state aid, multinationals, inter-
national ﬁnancial institutions, private entities, technical advice, policy assistance –to
ensure their dominance. In energy transitions, contestations among the actors occur
in three diﬀerent areas of engagement: Innovation, Investment, and Involvement.
These are situated within complex and changing socio-politico-economic contexts
(Figure 1). In developing countries, to achieve sustainable energy transition, there
should be enabling policies, and the policies should be implemented. Innovative techno-
logical solutions could produce cost-eﬀective, sustainable outcomes. These outcomes
reduce the ﬁnancial burden and environmental problems of the developing countries,
thereby encouraging transitions toward renewables and research and development
must be suﬃciently ﬁnanced. Enabling policy and ﬁnancing innovation could produce
cost-eﬀective, sustainable solutions. The inability of the developing countries to
advance energy transitions in the spheres of policy, investments and technology has
allowed external actors to use them as tools of engagement.
Diﬀerent actors involved in the multi-scalar geopolitics of energy transitions use these
engagement tools singularly and in combination. Spatially and temporally, each actor will
have their own set of limitations and advantages. Some will have more power, inﬂuence
and control over certain thematic spheres than others and may seek to maximize this
while trying to gain inﬂuence over other areas. The interplay between the actors and
the available tools for engagement will pave the way for the emergence of new coalitions
Policymaking and implementation obviously play a central role in making transition
practical and possible. Policymaking can be top-down and technocratic or bottom-up
Figure 1. The Triple I framework: Tools of engagement (developed by the author).
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 7
and participatory, with important implications for the design, implementation and the
role of diﬀerent domestic and international actors (Stokke and Törnquist 2013; Törn-
quist, Webster, and Stokke 2012). A critical challenge for energy policymaking in the
global South has often been a lack of political will to shift towards renewable energy
sources. Enhanced public participation may be crucial for strengthening policymaking
for green transitions but may also impede such policymaking if an energy transition is
experienced as harmful to the interests of a group. Domestic policymaking on energy
transitions, especially in the global South, also provides a space for political, economic
and technological involvement by international actors, thus turning policymaking into
a domain for complex and potentially contentious interactions between multiple actors.
While policy processes frame energy transitions, innovations and investments are
drivers of change and focal points of international involvement. Advances in technology,
improved eﬃciency, and reduced cost have made renewables an increasingly competitive
aspect of energy transitions. There is, however, widespread concern that the energy sector
has yet to make emerging new technologies accessible to developing countries (IEA
2020). Energy companies continue to market their products to commercial customers
ﬁnancially capable of adopting new technologies for economic gain. Those less well-oﬀ
await their turn, as they have done for decades (United Nations Conference on Trade
and Development 2018). It is also known that these power players export second-rate sol-
utions to weaker countries (Clapp 1998; Cole, Greenwood, and Sanchez 2016). Moreover,
innovation is not neutral; it may be directed towards large-scale and “high-tech”sol-
utions or low-technology and locally manufactured ones.
Like innovation, investment is fundamental for developing countries to achieve
energy transitions whilst ensuring energy for all. The state’s resources for energy tran-
sition will decide its design and direction. Investment has tended to focus on large enter-
prises rather than small-scale or participatory solutions (Mazzucato and Semieniuk 2018;
IRENA 2020). High levels of unmet demand are signiﬁcant constraints for renewable
energy uptake in the global South (Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF 2018). Con-
trary to the liberal economic theory that demand attracts investment, the private
sector often does not actively engage since it ﬁnds it diﬃcult due to political and econ-
omic conditions that are not favorable to renewables (Burke and Stephens 2018). As for
external state actors, along with investments, they may also bring political inﬂuence
(Chen and Li 2021). States already incapacitated by budgetary constraints may
welcome these investments from external actors, even though they carry signiﬁcant pol-
In recent years, the value chains for energy technologies have globalized. Production is
now governed by multiple value chains (Meckling and Hughes 2017), making the emer-
ging technologies available in the global South. In reality, globalizing value chains does
not beneﬁt all countries. Many developing countries remain excluded from international
technology ﬂows (Glachant and Dechezleprêtre 2016). Political and economic risks make
private sector companies, especially energy companies, shy away from engaging in
energy-related investments. This is despite eﬀorts by, for example, the World Bank to
encourage or leverage increased private sector investment in clean energy for all
(Energy Sector Management Assistance Program 2019).
Nevertheless, businesses often do not see any viable market in many countries in the
developing world. Proﬁt centric business models apply to emerging clean energy
8G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
technologies such as solar and wind. The absence of a proﬁtable renewable energy market
makes a clean and green energy transition diﬃcult, with countries struggling to escape
carbon lock-in. For societies in transition, innovation and investment are challenging
in many ways as they often lack the necessary know-how and ﬁnancial capital –and
policy by itself is to little avail without both innovations and investments. Thus, countries
look for viable options for green and clean alternatives while giving in to the condition-
alities and interests of local and international players (Bazilian et al. 2019; Vakulchuk,
Overland, and Scholten 2020). Economic power, longstanding bilateral relationship,
and regional superiority are critical geopolitical conditions that actors may use strategi-
cally to gain leverage and pursue their interests in the energy sector in recipient countries.
The paper employs a qualitative single case study. The case study approach is used as the
research strategy to collect, interpret, and analyse relevant data and report ﬁndings. Yin
(2009: 14) deﬁnes it as “an empirical enquiry that investigates a contemporary phenom-
enon in depth and within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between
phenomenon and context are not evident”. Case study research contributes to under-
standing interrelationships in real-world situations that are too complex for survey or
experimental methods (Yin 2017; Hodkinson and Hodkinson 2001). It can help describe
and illustrate speciﬁc real-world processes and aid theory development (Hodkinson and
Hodkinson 2001). The paper will not make empirical generalizations beyond the case
study, but the case study can reveal causal mechanisms that are of analytical relevance
beyond the single case study. Therefore, the qualitative single case study approach pro-
vides a suitable means of investigating the geopolitics of energy transition in Sri Lanka
and identifying mechanisms of broader relevance.
The data collection comprised both primary and secondary data. Primary data was
collected through in-depth, semi-structured interviews and secondary data through
policy documents, statements, reports, newspapers and website information. The sec-
ondary data gave insights into key actors, processes, discourses, and energy transition
dynamics in Sri Lanka. This paved the way for ﬁeldwork planning and guided the inter-
views. The qualitative case study was designed to understand the power game dynamics
and how this inﬂuences the energy transition in Sri Lanka. As it explores causal mech-
anisms, qualitative interviews with key informants are well-positioned to shed light on
these dynamics. The ﬁeldwork was carried out from November 2019 to January 2020.
Interviews typically lasted 45 min or more, depending on each participant’s availability
and interest. Interviews were conducted in English, Tamil and Sinhala languages as
the author also speak Tamil and Sinhala. Identiﬁcation of research participants was
carried out based on information gathered from secondary documents and the snowball
sampling method. The interview guide centerd around speciﬁc themes derived from the
document sources, where in-depth questions were used when the respondent had the
ability and expertise to provide more understanding.
During the ﬁeldwork, interviews were conducted in two phases. The ﬁrst phase of
qualitative interviews was done in the capital Colombo, which comprises government
oﬃcials, energy experts, academics and environmental activists. The second phase of
qualitative interviews was done locally in the former war zones, with local government
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 9
oﬃcials and the public. Altogether interviews were conducted with 45 respondents. After
completing the ﬁeldwork, interviews were transcribed, the notes and transcripts were
translated to English and coded according to themes, and systematic thematic analysis
was conducted. During the analysis, it was found that more information was needed
to fully understand the speciﬁc nuances and intricacies, and it was decided to conduct
further qualitative interviews. Digital interviews were conducted in the middle of the
Covid-19 pandemic between June and September 2020, through Zoom and Skype. Out
of 32 invitations, only 14 agreed to an interview online. Several persons declined to par-
ticipate, citing security reasons. These interviews were also transcribed and coded. Both
documents and interviews were thematically analysed to identify factual information and
reﬂections from the informants relevant to the research question.
Sri Lanka: contestations for energy dominance
Sri Lanka is a post-war state rebuilding itself after the ending in 2009 of a three-decade-
long civil war. It is a tropical country, rich with natural resources and excellent potential
to develop renewable energy sources. Sri Lanka aspires to move towards renewable and
sustainable energy amid rising energy demand, limited public ﬁnance, and destabiliza-
tion of existing hydropower production as a result of climate change (Limi 2007;
Asian Development Bank (ADB) 2017). Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is also on the lookout
for cheap energy. The above reasons, along with Sri Lanka’s commitment to the Paris
climate declaration and its Nationally Determined Contributions add pressure to
move towards clean energy alternatives. It has pledged at the 22nd UNFCCC Conference
of Parties in Marrakech, Morocco, as part of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, to use only
renewable energy resources by 2050 (ADB 2017). However, in reality, Sri Lanka is heavily
dependent on fossil fuels, mainly coal. Before independence, Sri Lanka was a hydroelec-
tricity producer but at a very small scale. Over the past two decades, an increase in
demand and limits on remaining hydro potential have pushed Sri Lanka to look for
The aim of the state in providing as much energy as cheaply as possible has consist-
ently overridden the stated goal of renewables and reduced climate emissions. To under-
stand Sri Lanka’s opposing trajectories in energy policy and implementation, identifying
the key actors in the energy sector will be beneﬁcial. The key actors can be clustered into
two categories, internal and external actors.
The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) is a state-owned electricity company which controls
all signiﬁcant functions of electricity generation, transmission, distribution and retailing
in Sri Lanka. The CEB plays a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s energy transition. The CEB
develops a Long-Term Generation Expansion Plan (LTGEP) once every two or three
years, outlining the least costly generation options that need to be added to the system
annually for the next 20 years to meet the forecasted demand. It includes information
on the existing generation system, generation planning methodology, system demand
forecast, and investment and implementation plans for the proposed projects. Further-
more, it recommends the adoption of the least cost plant sequence derived for the
10 G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
base case. CEB also prepares a 25-year comprehensive electricity sector master plan
which is updated every ten years: this provides the basis for the LTGEP. Both the
master plan and LTGEP are only concerned about the policy perspective prescribed by
the ruling government and fail to map out the investment opportunities and innovation
possibilities. This has, throughout the years, undermined sustainable energy transitions.
The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the national regulator, is
another important domestic actor. It is an independent regulatory body that monitors
the electricity industry’s economic, technical, and safety regulations in Sri Lanka. It is
mandated through an Act of Parliament and PUCSL must approve the LTGEP prepared
by the CEB. Over the past decade, there have been constant contentions between CEB
and PUCSL over the LTGEP. In 2018, the LTGEP 2018–2037 draft submitted by the
CEB was not approved by the PUCSL, citing that the plan is not in line with the national
policy that more renewables should be added, not more coal (PUCSL 2018). The PUCSL,
in turn, proposed an alternative plan, which was not accepted by the CEB. This dispute
continued for over a year and was settled only after the intervention of the President;
eventually, CEB had the ﬁnal say. The dispute resolution by the President in favor of
CEB undermined the role of the PUCSL and the renewable energy policy.
Commenting on the matter, one of the experts on the Sri Lankan energy sector said:
This dispute outlined the issues relating to CEB plan 2018–2037 through the evaluations of the
PUCSL and the submissions made during the public hearings. The blatant errors and misre-
presentation in the CEB plan were made to force the adoption of other coal power plants.
CEB’s refusal to accept the errors and the revised plan shows their undue inﬂuence and pol-
itical power. The fact that the government decided to force the PUCSL to issue an approval for
the ﬂawed plan submitted by the CEB makes a mockery of the entire process and the role of the
PUCSL as the regulator of the Electricity Sector (10.12.2019, Colombo).
The internal strife between the electricity provider, the regulator and the President, who
was also the minister of environment at the time and publicly championed renewable
energy, indicates that the President also favored coal power plants. It was argued in
the LTGEPs that this was the best way forward to address the impending energy crisis.
Building a coal plant takes time, and renewable energy solutions are quicker. The
decision is thus illogical and against Sri Lanka’s renewable energy policy.
Coal has remained in Sri Lanka’s future energy plans since the ﬁrst coal power plant
was constructed in 2006. Even though Sri Lanka’s goal is to achieve 100% electricity gen-
eration through renewable energy by 2050, the comparison between the last three LTGEP
shows how Sri Lanka has become coal-dependent. Sri Lanka revises its LTGEP every two
years to include up-to-date load forecasts, plant cost, construction times and the techno-
logical data available. Table 1 shows the projected supply of electricity based on coal and
natural gas. It demonstrates that coal and liqueﬁed natural gas (LNG) plants remain
central to the three LTGEPs that have been presented since the pledge to go carbon
Table 1. Sri Lanka’s long-term generation plans (CEB 2014,2017,2019).
LTGEP 2026 2034 2037 2039
2015–2034 1400 MW Coal 3200 MW Coal
2018–2037 900MW coal 600 MW LNG 2700MW Coal
2020–2039 900MW Coal 1500MW LNG 1500MW LNG 2100 MW Coal 3000MW LNG
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 11
neutral. Strikingly, the most recent LTGEP (2020-2039) proposes the construction of new
coal plants in 2039.
The above comparison shows that Sri Lanka’s energy future is heavily dependent on
coal and gas. Sri Lanka does not have coal or LNG resources and needs to import both,
but it has good conditions for solar and wind uptake. Local and external actors inﬂuence
Sri Lanka’s persistent emphasis on fossil fuels. The CEB’s insistence on coal in the
LTGEPs is based on its master plan supported by Japan. Not included in the 2015–
2035 LTGEP, LNG was only introduced into the energy mix after an Indian coal
power plant was canceled through a court ruling in 2016. After the court ruling, in a bilat-
eral meeting between India and Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s President assured that India would
be given the opportunity to build an LNG plant instead (Balachandran 2016). In an inter-
view with Reuters news agency, Sri Lanka’s petroleum minister said: “We do not want to
hurt India. So the President has oﬀered an LNG plant instead of the coal plant”(Reuters
2016). This is one among many indications that external actors greatly inﬂuence the
energy transition pathways of Sri Lanka, and that energy is becoming a geopolitical tool.
Sri Lanka planned to build a coal power plant in 1995 with the assistance of Japan (World
Bank 2019). However, it did not materialize due to public protests and the unwillingness
of the successive governments (ADB 2017). There were no external actors in the energy
sector until 2006.
Financially, Sri Lanka has traditionally been borrowing from the International Mon-
etary Fund (IMF), World Bank and ADB (Kelegama 2000). Japan and the West were the
main aid donor partners, with India being the key trade partner. In 2005, Sri Lanka
elected a new President and a government that decided to invite China to assist Sri Lanka.
The year 2006 became a turning point for the Sri Lankan energy sector with three key
events taking place that involved geopolitics actors and changed Sri Lanka’senergytrajec-
tory. Sri Lanka was looking for aid to build power plants to meet rising energy demand.
Japan oﬀered to build a coal power plant in 1997, but successive governments did not
pursue the idea, citing public protest and environmental concerns (Amarawickrama and
Hunt 2005). With the new government seeking China’shelp,Chinaoﬀered to build the
coal power plant, and construction began in 2006. Meanwhile, India had for long been
looking for a strategic foothold in the Eastern part of Sri Lanka, especially the port in Trin-
comalee. This was reinforced by the growing presence of China in Sri Lanka and the Indian
Ocean. At the same time that China started constructing its power plant, India won a bid to
build and own a coal power plant in Sampoor, close to the Trincomalee Harbor. Japan, as
the lead aid donor for Sri Lanka, oﬀered technical and ﬁnancial assistance to make a com-
prehensive electricity sector masterplan in 2006 (Ratnayake 2004). In this master plan, coal
became a signiﬁcant part of Sri Lanka’s energy generation. Sri Lanka thus became an arena
for geopolitical contestation between three major international actors in the year 2006. On
the one hand, these events pushed Sri Lanka intouncharted coal territory due to cheap coal
power being supported by external actors. On the other hand, energy supply became a sig-
niﬁcant sphere for the actors to increase inﬂuence and pursue hegemonic ambitions.
The China-funded power plant became operational in 2011. With a capacity of
900MW, it is the largest power station in Sri Lanka. The Indian-funded coal power
12 G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
plant stalled due to public protests, and in 2016 the Sri Lankan court ruled against it,
citing environmental concerns (Dhir and Sushil 2019). Even though China’s coal plant
also faced resistance, it was able to become operational, but India’s coal plant was
shelved. This indicates a shift in Sri Lanka’s international relations towards China
after a long period of close but at times contentious relations with India. The Sri
Lankan government headed by President Rajapaksa was clearly seen as moving closer
to China than India.
Around this time, public outcry against the environmental consequences of externally
funded projects was increasing but the political impact of environmental activism varied
between diﬀerent projects and external funders. China proposed building a port city in
the name of Colombo International Financial City by reclaiming 269 hectares of land
from the sea, which threatened severe environmental impacts (Ruwanpura, Rowe, and
Chan 2020). In contrast to India’s coal power plant, activists could not stop this or
other Chinese projects. This showed key factors at play: on the one hand, many Sri
Lankans do not like India’s regional hegemony, so it was easy to mobilize public
support against the Indian coal power plant; on the other hand, China was seen as a
friend and unlikely to cause damage, making the public less hostile. Furthermore,
China’s projects are taking place with active support from the government, whereas
Indian projects are primarily to appease a powerful neighbor and lack the full backing
of the Sri Lankan government.
The expectation among environmentalists and activists was that the court ruling
against the Indian power plant would be the ﬁnal nail in the coﬃn of coal power in
Sri Lanka, but this was not the case. During the interviews, almost all the environmen-
talists, activists and members of the public said that they felt that the court ruling
would change the tide towards renewables and coal would be phased out. In contrast,
policymakers and bureaucrats felt the ruling would deepen Sri Lanka’s energy crisis.
They see coal in a favorable light and prioritize energy security over environmental con-
cerns. Coal power plants have been included in the energy plans throughout, even though
the stated policy has been to move towards renewables (CEB 2017,2019). In 2020 amid
the Covid-19 pandemic, the President of Sri Lanka ordered two new coal power plants
(Wijedasa 2020). Domestic political-economic concerns thus superseded environmental
and policy concerns and converged with the interests of external actors.
The three key external actors in the Sri Lankan energy spectrum have inﬂuenced,
assisted, and dominated the Sri Lankan energy landscape and are expected to do so
for years to come. As outlined in the Triple I framework, external actors have played a
role in formulating policy, investing in energy infrastructure and providing technical
know-how, within a context where socio-politico-economic considerations act as oppor-
tunities and barriers. The following section will demonstrate how the three external
actors made energy transitions a geopolitical battleground in Sri Lanka and how they
shaped its energy pathways. The actors engage in diﬀerent spheres: Japan inﬂuences pol-
icymaking and implementation; China does so through investments; and India through
Global and regional allegiances and collaborations also come into play in the Sri
Lankan energy context, especially in the form of two dominant but competing geopoli-
tical initiatives. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the “new normal”in the South Asian
setting and has challenged India, the US and Japan’s sphere of inﬂuence in the region.
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 13
This has created new allegiances against China, such as India’s Bay of Bengal Initiative,
which is seen as a counter to China and supported by the US and Japan. Energy tran-
sitions are an area where both initiatives push for cooperation, cohabitation, and
control in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka and Japan have cooperated closely since the end of the Second World War. Strong
Buddhist roots and longstanding development cooperation are cornerstones of this (Rat-
nayake 2004). Japan was the largest aid donor to Sri Lanka until 2007 and remains the
second largest (Weerakoon and Jayasuriya 2019). It was also the ﬁrst country to oﬀer aid
to build a coal power plant in 1997, although it did not materialize (Ratnayake 2004). In
2006, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) assisted the CEB with aid and tech-
nical support to plan and develop a comprehensive electricity sector master plan for energy
generation, transmission and distribution for the whole country (ADB 2015). Coal became a
central part of both the original master plan and the revised version supported by JICA ten
years later in 2016 (World Bank 2019). The revised master plan includes expansion of non-
conventional renewable energy sources, private sector participation, pumped storage power
plants, optimal operation of coal thermal power plants, and utilization of LNG. JICA has
been cooperating with CEB for a long time through technical cooperation as well as the pro-
vision of loans. Through the master plan, Japan inﬂuences Sri Lanka’senergypolicy.It
involves ﬁnancing through policy directives and creates space for its private sector to
engage in Sri Lanka’s energy sector.
One of the interviewees, who has a long experience of collaborating with CEB, was
very critical of this relationship between Japan and the CEB:
Japan’s longstanding cooperation and collaboration with the senior and middle-level oﬃcials
of the CEB has had a lasting impact. Traditionally CEB engineers have always preferred high-
optimised hydro and mini-hydropower generation. When coal was ﬁrst ﬂoated as an idea,
there was much resistance within the CEB. Sri Lanka has pioneered solar PVs from the
1970s. Further, a lot of people and experts felt that among available fossil fuel options coal
is the worst. JICA over the years has built up its reputation as a coal champion, and visits
to Japan’s coal plants convinced a lot of CEB engineers that coal is a good option. Lately,
Japan has ﬂoated the concept of “clean coal”, which was bought by CEB without any critical
outlook (06.01.2020, Colombo).
The CEB is the crucial driver of coal power plants in Sri Lanka, and Japan has been in the
pipeline for several years to build a coal power plant in Sri Lanka. Japan argues that it has
“clean coal technology”(Guan 2017; Yoshida 1997), and this claim is used by the CEB to
justify coal plants. Japanese support for international coal plants has long been part of its
export strategy (Trencher et al. 2019). The Japanese government provides funding to
developing countries for new coal-ﬁred power plants, and large Japanese multinationals
provide their coal technology to build plants (Wallace 2019). Japan’s primary tool has
been its involvement in policy framing, which successfully intertwines policy and invest-
ment, thereby pairing with innovation in the name of clean coal technology to assert
inﬂuence. The promotion of Japan’s clean coal technology justiﬁed the building of
coal plants based on cost-eﬀectiveness, and environmental sustainability has the buy-
in of the policymakers and politicians.
14 G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
China and the Belt and Road Initiative
Sri Lanka and China also have a longstanding state-to-state relationship, cemented
through the rubber-rice pact in 1952 that exchanged rubber for rice and was operational
for three decades as a successful south-south cooperation project (Kelegama 2014). There
is also a long history of political relations. The 1952 pact was signed when China was
under sanctions; Sri Lanka supported China for its admission to the UN in 1971 and
to the World Trade Organization in 2001 (Kelegama 2014; Fernando 2010). It is note-
worthy that Sri Lanka-China relations have never been hostile, which is not the case
with several other major states.
Over the last two decades, China has increased its presence and inﬂuence in Sri Lanka
through several development projects. China oﬀered to build the coal plant in 2006 that
became operational in 2011. Sri Lanka was one of the ﬁrst countries to be included in
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and China’s projects in Sri Lanka are part of
the BRI. This inclusion is partly geostrategic. A former Sri Lankan foreign ministry
oﬃcial commented on China’s emergence in Sri Lankan aﬀairs as follows:
Since the new government came into power in 2005, Sri Lanka was looking for ﬁnancial assist-
ance. President Rajapaksa was looking for “no strings attached”options. China was ready to
oﬀer help without political conditionalities. It became the starting point of longstanding robust
trade and political relations. China’s non-interference in internal aﬀairs policy is another
foreign policy aspect, which pushed Sri Lanka towards China, Where the West and India
were considered making uncomfortable noises on local political issues. China’s economic
power, cordial relations along with its political stance gave them a freeride in Sri Lanka
There have been two ﬂagship projects in Sri Lanka under the BRI. One is the Hambantota
shipping route. The second is the Colombo International Financial City (CIFC). It is situated
close to Sri Lanka’s main port of Colombo, which is in a strategic location and a key trans-
hipment port in the Indian Ocean. Both BRI projects underlined Sri Lanka’sgeographical
importance and China’s geopolitical interests. The port in Hambantota is now operational,
and the CIFC is to be completed by 2040. Both projects raise energy demands and also have
the facilities to produce energy. It is noteworthy that connectivity is the main goal behind the
BRI sea route; therefore, typically, ports are the initial investment, followed by special econ-
omic zones, and then energy projects to facilitate the energy needs of the BRI projects. In the
BRI sea route, Sri Lanka plays a key role along with Pakistan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia,
and Kenya. Among these countries, all except Malaysia have low electricity production, and
China has invested in all these countries’energy sectors.
In 2017 China oﬀered to build an LNG terminal at the Hambantota harbor. It was
announced in August 2020 that Sri Lanka launched a ﬂoating storage LNG trading facil-
ity at the Hambantota Port, with the primary aim of trading LNG in the region utilizing
its strategic location. This was seen as a ﬁrst step towards making Sri Lanka an LNG hub
for South Asia, as Hambantota Port is strategically located near the world’s busiest ship-
ping lanes. China’sﬁnancial capabilities and innovative technological solutions have
prompted Sri Lanka to work with China toward building an LNG facility. The LNG term-
inal is strategic in many ways. It will sell electricity to Sri Lanka, provide electricity to
Chinese investments in Sri Lanka, make the port in Hambantota independent, and
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 15
fuel the ships visiting the port. Overall, it gives China a stronghold in Sri Lanka. Through
its ﬁnancial might, China has consolidated its political capital, and its development pro-
jects have also given them considerable social capital. China has used all the tools of
engagement discussed above. The harmonization of the tools has given more leverage
than any other actor competing for inﬂuence.
India and the Bay of Bengal Initiative
China’s growing presence and inﬂuence in its vicinity is seen as a challenge to India, which as
a neighbor and regional superpower has a complicated relationship with Sri Lanka. India’s
intervention in Sri Lankan aﬀairs through Indian peacekeeping forces in 1987 left a bad
taste for cordial India-Sri Lanka relations (Pfaﬀenberger 1988; Bullion 1994; Ouellet 2011).
Being a regional and emerging power, India has much inﬂuence in Sri Lankan aﬀairs, and
energy is one of them. Since the 1970s, both countries have explored the possibility of trans-
national grid connectivity (UN 2018; Huda and McDonald 2016). In 2002 with the support
of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a pre-feasibility study
was conducted and was updated in 2006. Both countries approved the study, and a steering
committee was appointed in 2006 (World Bank 2008; Rodrigo and Fernando 2018). The
scrapped coal power plant was part of the grid connectivity plan (UN 2018).
Nevertheless, Sri Lanka promised India permission to build an LNG facility instead of a
coal plant. This shift to LNG was due to three key reasons. First, the Sri Lankan government
felt that LNG would be less controversial than coal. Second, initial seismic studies showed the
possibility of natural gas reserves in Sri Lanka, and an Indian conglomerate conﬁrmed this in
2015 (Sirilal 2015). Third, India was insistent on building an energy facility in Sri Lanka.
India has for long been pushing for grid connectivity (UN 2018; Pillai and Prasai 2019;
Huda and McDonald 2016). The initial plan was to set up a link for 1,000MW between
India and Sri Lanka, of which 30 km would be under the sea. The transmission link was
to run from Madurai in Tamil Nadu to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka’s north-central pro-
vince. A foreign policy analyst said:
India is considering an overhead line instead of an undersea power transmission link since
underwater transmission is costly. India is exploring the option of an overhead electricity
link with Sri Lanka as part of India’s strategy to create a new energy ecosystem for the neigh-
bourhood to counter China. India is foreseeing the integration of energy systems and electricity
gridlines by connecting with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (26.06.2020, Online).
An Indian energy expert who also works on regional energy ecosystems commenting on
India’s plan stated:
India has been supplying power to Bangladesh and Nepal and has also been championing a
global electricity grid that may initially aim to link countries, such as Myanmar, Thailand,
Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, with the sub-continent. India’s energy diplomacy initiatives
range from cross-border electricity trade to supplying petroleum products and setting up
liqueﬁed natural gas terminals. Energy is one of the critical areas which will shape India’s
“neighbourhood ﬁrst”policy (23.08.2020, Online).
The 2018 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report suggests that cross-
border energy trade between India and Sri Lanka will decrease the cost of generating elec-
tricity, but imports from India would displace over 69% of Sri Lanka’s natural gas
16 G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
generation, and Sri Lanka would export 14% of its generation to India. The noteworthy
point is that India beneﬁts most from this connectivity and Sri Lanka would become
more dependent on India.
Fischhendler, Herman, and Maoz (2017) show with a comprehensive historical study
that energy supply and sanctions have for long been used to gain leverage and control. In
South Asia, through controlling electricity supply to its neighbors, India enjoys a virtual
monopoly. The foremost case is India’s grid connectivity with Nepal. Nepal has rich
inland water resources and vast hydropower potential, but during 2008–2017 Nepal’s
net import increased from 638 GWh to 2175 GWh while exports were reduced
(Gaudel 2018). India’s regional energy geopolitics is based on its experience with
Nepal. India is now trying to push through its grid connectivity plan through the Bay
of Bengal Multisectoral Technical Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and create a
broader coalition to counter China’s BRI. In contrast to China and a number of other
countries, India is not a signiﬁcant donor to Sri Lanka. Its policies are primarily
guided by domestic factors, geostrategic concerns of the region, and economic consider-
ations. India’s energy ambitions go beyond coal, and it is not only about selling or con-
structing coal power plants. It is about regional hegemony, and energy is an instrument
for this ambition. Through grid connectivity, India seeks to outmanoeuvre China in the
Sri Lankan energy sector. China and India use the same engagement tools but in varying
degrees and combinations. It shows that even though there are three engagement tools,
the diﬀerent permutations and combinations allow a variable sphere of inﬂuence.
BIMSTEC is a regional multilateral organization with seven member states. Its members
lie in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional
unity. India spearheads this, and it is seen as a counter initiative to China’sBRI.In2018a
Memorandum of Understanding for the grid interconnection signed by the member states
sought to create a broad framework for the parties to cooperate towards the implemen-
tation of grid interconnections for the electricity trade to promote rational and optimal
power transmission in the BIMSTEC region (Pattanaik 2018; Powell 2017).
The US and Japan see BIMSTEC as a legitimate counterforce to China’s BRI in the
region. In 2020, USAID, through its South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy Integration
program, published a study to enhance energy cooperation in the BIMSTEC region. Like-
wise, Japan is considering BIMSTEC as a reliable partner in the region. Japan, through
the ADB, is willing to invest in BIMSTEC regional power grid (Panda and Karthik 2020).
Meanwhile, India and Japan have entered into a partnership to build an LNG terminal
on the West coast of Sri Lanka (Daily 2018). Both countries are also bidding for coal
power plants in Sri Lanka. India’s interest in energy in Sri Lanka was summarized as
follows by an academic who is a geopolitical expert:
India is very keen to build an energy facility on the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka. Trincomalee
harbour is strategically important for Indian naval security. India wants to have its presence
since there is much resistance for Indian presence in Sri Lanka due to its history; energy facility
is another way to have its presence felt. It is non-controversial. The facility can be either coal or
LNG; it does not matter as far as India has a foothold (29.12.2019, Colombo).
Over the past two decades, India and Japan have been persistent about building coal
power plants in Sri Lanka. Now both are building LNG facilities in Sri Lanka, which
again shows that both India and Japan are vying for inﬂuence, and energy is an
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 17
eﬀective and changeable platform. LNG presents them with a good opportunity where all
three spheres of inﬂuence are in place, making the project much safer and most likely will
not suﬀer the same fate as the Sampoor coal power plant. It also opens pathways into Sri
Lanka’s possible LNG exploration in future.
Sri Lanka’s aggravated economic crisis has given more access and power to external
actors since mid-2021; India has been the biggest beneﬁciary through newfound regional
cooperation. In March 2022, India took over the proposed renewable energy projects
initially awarded to Chinese companies in January 2021 through an ADB loan. Indian
companies were also awarded a 500 MW wind farm project, leasing of oil tanks and
oil distribution in Sri Lanka. These are signiﬁcant gains, and energy has been used to
reposition India as a strong neighbor. Likewise, the US has renewed its interests in Sri
Lanka to counter China. It brings the BIMSTEC and US together in the Sri Lankan
energy sphere. USAID began its new program in energy in Sri Lanka –the ﬁrst of its
kind –in 2021 and has awarded 19 million USD to energy-related projects. A US
energy ﬁrm was able to secure an LNG deal overnight and has a long-term power pur-
chase agreement with the government of Sri Lanka that undermines energy security and
sovereignty. These latest developments point to the importance of energy as a tool of
engagement and outline how energy has become a geopolitical battleground.
The Sri Lankan case has shown that energy has become an increasingly important space for
geopolitical actors, where major states both converge in strategic alliances and compete and
rival each other. The international actors have pursued diﬀerent strategies for involvement,
investment, and innovation, where innovation has been the weaker link within the triple I
framework for all the actors. This has also been a contributing factor behind the slow
diﬀusion of renewables and the growing dependence on coal. Table 2 summarizes the
actions taken by the key external actors within the realm of the triple I framework.
Energy transitions provide a space for the actors to make their presence felt using the tools
of engagement. The Sri Lankan government has engaged with diﬀerent international actors
in the energy sector knowing well that there is contestation among them to assert control. In
2008, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe noted that Sri Lanka is part of
the new phenomenon called “multi-layered regionalism”emerging in Asia (Wickremesinghe
2018). The competition for energy infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka is related to political
inﬂuence, increased naval competition and economic advancement.
For a long time, Sri Lanka aspired to become a trade and maritime hub of the Indian
Ocean region but failed due to civil war and ﬁnancial constraints. Over the past decade,
infrastructure in the form of harbors and terminals has been built through external
support but creating new forms of dependence. The tools of engagement discussed in
this article oﬀer prospects for reduced oil dependence through energy transitions but
may create new forms of path depenencies through technology and ﬁnance.
In recent years, global and regional order and governance have changed with the emer-
gence of “new”powers. Actors who were at the margins of the geopolitical order are now
18 G. M. THEIVENTHRAN
at the core of geopolitics, giving rise to new power centers. Disputes are taking place
between new allegiances and within new contested spaces.
The case of Sri Lanka indicates that the geopolitics of energy is at the forefront in reshaping
relations. Traditional powers are diminishing, and new powers are taking lead roles. Taking
lead roles exempliﬁed by Sri Lanka’s prior longstanding relationship with Japan and new
conﬁgurations created by the emergence of China and India’s renewed interest in cross-
border energy trade. It was expected that the emergence of renewable energy would under-
play the geopolitics of energy and create aﬀordability and availabilityfordevelopingcountries,
which will eventually help them achieve their climate targets. Energy has politicized the
relations and has become a key foreign policy tool through diﬀerent spheres of inﬂuence,
as shown by the Triple I framework and the case study. As the case study demonstrates,
there is a competition between the actors, but there is also an unholy alliance around coal.
The actors push in the same direction but do that in diﬀerent ways with special interests
in mind. The energy transition is one of many new arenas for geopolitical contestation.
In the Sri Lankan case, energy transitions are used by geopolitical actors for three key
purposes: 1) territorial control, where energy infrastructures have become routes to geo-
political manifestations; 2) hegemony, as part of the grand strategies and initiatives; and
3) inﬂuence, to gain a certain amount of control and counter other actors inﬂuence.
Developing countries have committed to high renewable energy targets, and yet they
tend to miss them considerably. Energy has become a geopolitical battleground since
countries fail to build up indigenous capacities and know their energy sources and are
in need of a long-term sustainable and coherent energy transition policy. If not, they
will continue to be dependent on external actors that, in turn, could create monopolies,
debt, political tensions, security threats and policy challenges.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Table 2. Summary of external engagement within the Triple I framework.
Actors Involvement Investment Innovation
Japan Facilitated electricity sector master
plan for Sri Lanka Power sector
policy reform initiative with ADB
Financial assistance through JICA
for energy sector Funding for
Technical support for CEB and
“clean coal”concept Feasibility
study on the use of LNG
China Historical relationship provides space
for policy inﬂuence Political
relationship and “loan diplomacy”
Social capital (China’s goodwill)
Funded the ﬁrst coal power plant
and still maintains LNG facility
in Hambantota Harbor
Colombo Port city necessitates
electricity needs Sri Lanka
being part of BRI involves
energy project funding
Chinese solar photovoltaics in the
market China at the forefront in
promoting LNG technology
Chinese energy eﬃciency
products in the market
India Regional superpower status gives
policy inﬂuence Cross border
connectivity in the Sri Lankan
energy policy agenda
Outmanoeuvred China in winning
bids to build solar parks
Controls Sri Lanka petroleum
supplies Investing in LNG
facility along with Japan Private
investments in renewable
energy projects Indian
company provides coal
Private sector involvement brings
new technologies and know
how. Produces knowledge
transfer through joint ventures
USA Emerging actor in the Sri Lankan
energy landscape Technical
Assistance on renewable energy
US company awarded LNG deal
Financing renewable energy
Innovation assistance to local
electric car industry
ASIAN GEOGRAPHER 19
This work was supported by the Funding has been provided by Western Norway University of
Gz. MeeNilankco Theiventhran http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0055-4615
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