By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa landed in China on Tuesday seeking tighter economic ties in a stormy financial world, and against the backdrop of an aggressive Western push for a probe into war crimes allegations.
Rajapaksa was due to attend the Universiade sporting event in Shenzhen and will later meet President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing, in the latest of his several visits to one of Sri Lanka's closest allies.
The Sri Lankan leader on Monday said economic cooperation was the focus of a trip made on an invitation from Hu in June, with the aim of expanding ties and learning from China's economic growth example.
China is Sri Lanka's largest bilateral donor and in June committed $1.5 billion to Sri Lanka's $6 billion post-war rebuilding plan, having already financed a power plant and new port in Rajapaksa's southern Hambantota electorate.
"They want to make sure the same magnitude of money flows in, in times of insecurity," said a Colombo-based diplomat on condition of anonymity, referring to the global debt turmoil that has hit world markets.
That, however, is not likely to be at the top of his list.
"The fact is he is awfully disturbed by the pressures he is getting from the Western hemisphere on the war crimes issue," said Kusal Perera, a political analyst at The Center for Social Democracy.
Sri Lanka is now in its third year of peace after destroying the Tamil Tiger separatists, listed by more than 30 nations as a terrorist organization.
But ethno-political reconciliation is still distant and the island nation is facing an aggressive campaign to probe civilian deaths at the end of the quarter-century conflict in May 2009, when China, Russia and neighboring India stood by Rajapaksa's prosecution of the war to the finish.
WANTED: BEIJING BACKING
Now Rajapaksa, whose victory brought him immense popularity at home, is up against a coordinated push from the West, rights advocates and a well-financed global network of former Tiger supporters for an external probe.
"The heat is on and they feel it very much and I think he is trying to see whether he could get China to mobilize support at the September U.N. Human Rights Council session," Perera said.
A senior Sri Lankan diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the war crimes issue would be on the agenda, but there was unlikely to be any clear statement about that at the end of the trip.
Washington has told Colombo it wants the findings of Sri Lanka's internal probe, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, to be submitted to U.N. Human Rights Council session after they are given to the government on November 15.
That could put a host of material critical of Sri Lanka's handling of the war before the rights council at its March session, and give momentum to calls for an external probe.
Sri Lanka views that as a violation of its sovereignty based, and hypocritical of the United States, which is blamed for thousands of civilian deaths in its campaign against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
A U.N.-sponsored report found "credible evidence" that Sri Lankan forces and the Tigers committed war crimes including killing possibly thousands of civilians.
Sri Lanka has acknowledged some civilian deaths but says the U.N. report's allegations are vastly inflated or untrue and first emanated from Tamil Tiger propaganda operations.
Chinese support appears likely. Both China and Russia usually oppose foreign intervention in domestic conflicts, and both held off U.S.-British attempts at the U.N. Security Council to get a ceasefire at the end of the war.
China faces ethnic unrest in its western areas where Tibetans and Uighurs have resisted Beijing's control, and Russia has battled Chechen separatists, and both conflicts are akin to Sri Lanka's war with the ethnic minority Tamil Tigers.
"For China, it's a two-for-one. They like to annoy India, and (separatism) is a core issue for them," said a former Western diplomat involved with Sri Lanka.
India is wary of China's influence with the Rajapaksa administration, as it considers Sri Lanka in its sphere of influence and is concerned the Hambantota port is part of a Beijing strategy to encircle it.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)