By Pranay Kumar Shome
Sri Lanka and India ties have been largely seen from the prism of civilisational ties, kinship and shared cultural and economic relations, Sri Lanka and India’s relationship goes back to ages, but in the age of great power competition, Indo-Sri Lanka ties seem to have fallen out of favour with each other to some extent, India’s great northern neighbour China has managed to bolster its influence in the island nation state of Sri Lanka in the last decade, thanks to its gargantuan economic purse and hard power strength. The recent pulling out by Sri Lanka from the strategic East Container Terminal (ECT) agreement involving India and Japan is indeed a setback to India in the great game for Sri Lanka.
Rising influence of the dragon
There is no doubt that China according to Henry Kissinger in his book “World Order” in pursuit of realising its dream of the fifth century ‘middle kingdom’ has embarked on all out effort to increase its influence around the world, in that context Sri Lanka occupies a strategic position, it not only enjoys a strategic location but also has huge potential for development through an extremely lucrative maritime position in the Indian Ocean, regarded as India’s backyard.
China has made Sri Lanka a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in early 2015 when Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power, it acquired the strategic Hambantota port in 2017 on a 99 year lease for a value of US$1.12 billion. Further China has invested in defence, telecommunication, education and the critical intelligence sector of Sri Lanka. Lankan armed forces hold regular war games with Chinese armed forces much to the chagrin of China. The long arm of the dragon is quite evident when the incumbent president Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a new energy project recently with China near the Tamil Nadu coast of India leaving India high and dry.
It is very clear that India is on the back foot vis-à-vis in the game of strategic marksmanship in the Indo-Pacific region which has Sri Lanka as an important component.
Too soon to count India out
While the termination of the port project may come as a major setback for New Delhi it would be highly premature on the part of the mandarins of Chinese foreign policy to count out the elephant in the great game of influence. India still holds a very large influence in Sri Lanka and has the ability to turn the tables on China. India-Sri Lanka enjoy thousands of years of civilizational ties, Amartya Sen in his wonderful book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ pointed out how Buddhism has shaped the Indo-Lanka ties over the centuries.
From a strategic perspective India can still pull strings within the top policy circles of Sri Lanka to bolster its influence, some of the things that India can do to increase its influence include-
Firstly, India needs to undertake a different type of diplomacy, an strong vaccine diplomacy is a case in point, South Block should utilise India’s reputation as the pharmacy of the world to transport quality and rigorously tested vaccines like its indigenous ‘Covaxin’, ‘Covishield’ etc to bolster India’s goodwill standing in India, besides that India should export more quality PPE kits, masks unlike the abysmal quality of the Made in China medical equipment.
Secondly, India should co-opt Sri Lanka into becoming a part of the strategic Quad grouping, this step is especially important as Sri Lanka enjoys because of its strategic location a decisive advantage for any great power who wants to rule the seas, as Alfred Mahan put it “ sea power is the key to a great power status.”
Thirdly, New Delhi must remember that given the current political situation in Sri Lanka where the Rajapaksa brothers are in a very strong position it cannot impose its policies, the most important is the implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution which envisages limited political autonomy and reconciliation with the Tamils following the devastating three decade Lankan civil war.
Perhaps India should go slow on demanding the current Sri Lankan dispensation meet in letter and spirit the content of the 13th amendment. Persisting with the reconciliation approach can deal a major blow to the otherwise robust ties because the current political regime in Sri Lanka has won a massive mandate in the recently concluded general elections on the back of Sinhala majoritarianism.
The path ahead is difficult, the dragon is firmly entrenched in China, at a time when India has forced it to disengage in Ladakh, China would look to avenge its humiliation so it can do so in other areas. India should not lower its guard, it must continue on its path of promoting liberal democracy. As Karl Kraus said “Diplomacy is the game of chess in which nations are checkmated.”
-The writer is currently working as a Trainee Research Associate at Defence Research and Studies (dras.in) and is a columnist. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda