Strategic Calculus of India’s Relations with Sri Lanka

By Shibdas Bhattacharjee


With the change of time, determiners of relations at the international level have undergone radical changes. Changed power equation, state of international politics and aspirations of different nations now provide new definitions in the formation of bilateral relations. Interestingly, this process is no longer confined in Europe or America as was decades ago. The world-order evolved after the end of Cold-war politics, fall of USSR hastened the process, and on this backdrop, a new vista has opened up in defining relations among the nations worldwide.

The new trend has influenced with more prominence in case of bilateral and multi-lateral relations in the nations of Asia. Significantly, during the last couple of decades, South East Asia has emerged as the new theatre of conflicts and co-operations. This is primarily because of increasing Chinese dominance and evaporation of American influence in this region. Rise of the countries like India and Japan as important stakeholders of the region has changed the power-equation to considerable extent.

Saankhya Lab

This is natural that today’s India will certainly make more bargain as an aspiring nation while dealing with others. Strategic goals of India are prime determiners in case of her policy formation towards the neighbouring nations. India’s relations with new Sri Lankan regime should be seen under this light. In this process, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent India visit may be perceived as a positive approach to enhance bilateral relations between New Delhi and Colombo afresh. This is of no doubt that Rajapaksa’s decided to embark on his official foreign visit with India tour. But things need to be seen beyond rhetoric.

Fact is: Sri Lanka has been a tough nation to handle for India both on the strategic and diplomatic fronts. Significant point is Rajapaksa during his India tour emphatically stated that Sri Lanka needs to keep good tie-ups with both India and China. One observation may be this economic compulsion of the island nation. This is true to certain extent but obviously not the only one.

Reality is: this is futile to expect that present Sri Lanka will make tie ups with India at the expense of its relations with China. Pragmatic explanation of the statement made by Rajapaksa is: Sri Lanka wants to make hard bargain. No doubt, his statement regarding terrorism hails India’s stand. New Delhi can harvest more with such stand of the SAARC nations to corner Pakistan which ultimately erases extending Chinese shadow in the SAARC forum. This is not bad for India on the strategic front. However, this was good to see that Indian leadership changing trajectory in case of relations with neighbouring nations.

India understands that today the rhetoric like shared value, cultural exchange or tradition will not pay. If China needs to be countered in, extending its bases across the nations of South East Asia, India needs to appear as an economic power house. This is the prime demand of the contemporary age. Earlier, during Rajapaksa’s visit in November, 2019 Modi government opened its purse strings to extend a new line of credit of $400 million for Sri Lanka to boost infrastructure and development. So also, another line of credit of $100 million was promised by India for solar projects and a special line of credit of $50 million to combat terrorism. The big housing project, the flagship scheme of India’s assistance programme to Sri Lanka is another example of a bilateral humanitarian relationship that the two nations share. Spanning nearly a decade, over 50,000 houses have been built across the island nation with the help of aid from India. During the negotiation with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in Delhi, India reaffirmed the previous commitments of providing economic aid.

But the question is: can India compete with China in providing economic aid and investment to renew relations with any nation? No, India cannot. This means that India needs to find out an alternative. Here, the more important aspect is what how far India expects from countries like Sri Lanka. This clearly directs geo-strategic location of Sri Lanka and India’s legitimate strategic aspiration in the Indian Ocean region.

India’s maritime strategic interests in the large part of Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal define her relations with smaller island nations located within the range of nautical boundary of India. In this context, a defence-deal with Sri Lanka for maritime security serves India’s strategic aspiration better. This was good to see that some positive developments took place for India in this context during the past few years. Actually, India has the leverage to take assertive stand in case of dominating large part of the Indian Ocean for her geo-strategic location.

Importantly, Sri Lanka like nation does not have that sophisticated infrastructure to ensure maritime security important for its territorial integrity. India has kept large part of Indian Ocean Region a conflict-free region. India deserves credit for this.

Fact is: “Sri Lanka bears great strategic significance for India as far as India`s maritime interests are concerned in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is located in that part of the Indian Ocean that provides naval transit point to different nations. This has been elaborately discussed in the previous Chapter. India has failed to keep dominance in that region of the Indian Ocean that is important for naval transportation between different nations. Similarly, the naval transit route that runs beside Sri Lanka has been used by different nations and more importantly by China, Japan and the United States. The ports in Sri Lanka bear great strategic significance.

For the nations who kept jostling in the Indian Ocean for dominance after the World War-II and throughout the decades of Cold War were naturally attracted by the maritime facilities that Sri Lanka can provide. Sri Lanka like a small island nation with negligible naval strength compared to the big naval players could hardly restrict those powers. More importantly Sri Lanka`s economic needs certainly provided the big powers the leverage to enter into the island nation. Thus if on the one hand, Sri Lanka remained outside the India`s post Partition-driven Foreign policy but on the other hand its geo-strategic location in the Indian Ocean provided it both challenge and opportunity to come in contact of the big powers.

This is a major determining factor in the India-Sri Lanka relationship. Another aspect is demographic structure of Sri Lanka. The issue of the Sri Lankan Tamil and the Tamils of Indian origin has been a very sensitive issue in Sri Lankan politics. This continues to play the pivotal role in Sri Lankan domestic politics even today. But this issue is equally sensitive in India as well. The manner with which politics of Indian State Tamil Nadu evolved with the identity issue of a substantial section of Sri Lankan population proves why India-Sri Lanka relationship cannot be perceived keeping aside the question of Tamil issue.

In fact, this was the issue that triggered virtually a civil-war in Sri Lanka which not only impacted the India-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship but affected India`s national interests to a great extent. Along with Sri Lanka, India is also the worst sufferer of this ethnic insurgency. In fact, India had to pay heavily for this in the form of assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Sri Lankan ethnic insurgent group LTTE.

So also, sub-nationalism and the ethnic unrest regarding the Tamil politics in Sri Lanka invited external powers to intervene in Sri Lankan affairs. No doubt, these interventions have been perceived as initiatives to bring normalcy in Sri Lanka. But this is also true that some nations added fuel to the ethnic turmoil in Sri Lanka. All the powers took the leverage of this in the name of so-called peace-keeping mission. The issue got internationalized and naturally brought United Nations to restore normalcy in the trouble-torn nation.

So also, only thing that can serve India’s interests is the strong presence of India in the Indian Ocean Region. Similarly, India needs a strong policy regarding Sri Lanka. New Delhi must reply Sri Lanka in the befitting manner to any effort made by Sri Lanka that upsets India`s interests. New Delhi`s concern should be only the interests of India and in this purview issues of Sri Lankan Tamil, Singhalese and other communities living in Sri Lanka can have no place.

It is Sri Lanka’s responsibility to bring order in its own house. But the ethnic aspirations of different communities of Sri Lanka are definitely trump-cards and India should keep out this from the apron as per need of the hour to harness New Delhi’s strategic interests. New Delhi must keep close watch and ensure greater participatory role in any debate about Human Rights in Sri Lanka. But it is necessary that India must make Colombo heed that New Delhi has kept open the door of alternative strategic partnership with the other island nation.

Similarly, India-US naval strategic partnership is definitely a good option to neutralize Chinese rapid march in this region. On the backdrop of the developments in the South China Sea, India`s option of making naval strategic partnership with different nations has increased. This must be put into proper use.

Nevertheless, India must try to build not only bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka but strategic partnership. If Sri Lanka responds, it is alright. If Colombo does not, India must trigger alternative policy options. But for all these, India needs to consider relationship in the present context and stop digging graves to find the trace of historical bond. A non-stereotypical approach can be the only policy option to the changing dynamics of Sri Lankan affairs for rising India. This must be given proper shape.

Above extract from my published book “India’s Fragile Foreign Policy towards Neighbouring Nations” provides my perception about what are the criteria that should define India-Sri Lanka ties. No doubt, one may have different opinion or logic. Reality is if India has certain edge over any other nation in case of dominance in vast area of the Indian Ocean Region. This strength has the capability not only to subdue the island nations but even China. Need is to enhance India’s strategic dominance as a maritime power. This should define India-Sri Lanka ties. India needs to engage into a comprehensive pact with Sri Lanka regarding maritime strategic co-operation. This is perhaps much better option than shouldering economic burden of others. Today’s world likes to see India as a maritime super power. India’s strategic goals need to be focused one with clear agenda.

The writer is Guwahati-based strategic affairs analyst

Leave a Reply