India's foreign policy for the next 5 years: From counter-insurgency ties to big investments, New Delhi must keep Sri Lanka warm to keep China at bay

Editor's note: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tour of the Maldives is his first international visit after having taken oath for the second time. His 2014 swearing-in ceremony featured leaders from SAARC nations as special invitees, while in 2019, it was the BIMSTEC leaders and those from Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius who were in attendance, underlining the importance the prime minister places on international relations. This is the seventh in a series of articles that looks at key foreign policy targets for the Modi government as it looks to the next five years.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brief stopover in Sri Lanka would have otherwise gone unnoticed if not for the strong symbolism it exuded. Modi was the first foreign leader to visit the island nation after the deadly Easter Sunday bombings. Moreover, his unscheduled visit to St Anthony’s Church, one of the sites of the bombings, signalled India’s support for Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism. That Modi chose Sri Lanka – and Maldives – for his first international tour after re-election underlined India’s renewed push for greater involvement in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

 Indias foreign policy for the next 5 years: From counter-insurgency ties to big investments, New Delhi must keep Sri Lanka warm to keep China at bay

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits St Anthony’s Church, in Colombo, Sunday, 9 June, 2019. PTI

Bilateral ties under Modi 1.0

Nevertheless, five years back, bilateral relations between the two neighbours had been staring at long-term stagnation. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s alliance with the Chinese (read Hambantota etc.) and the resultant of him being pro-China did not go down well with the Indian foreign policy establishment.

In fact, Rajapaksa had an explanation for the breakdown in relations after Modi’s victory. “Unfortunately, the working relationship that existed between my government and the outgoing government did not roll over to the new government formed in 2014. Lack of communication between both parties seems to have led to this situation,” Rajapaksa claimed during an event in February 2019.

This may explain why Modi waited until March 2015 to embark on his first tour to Sri Lanka. By then, Sri Lanka had elected Maithripala Sirisena as president. Sirisena, in turn, appointed “pro-India” Ranil Wickremasinghe as prime minister. Interestingly, Sirisena chose India for his first State visit in February 2015. When Modi paid a return trip a month later, he became the first prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi to visit the island nation.

India’s relations with Sri Lanka under the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe dispensation seemingly improved. Keen to offset China’s ‘debt trap’, Sri Lanka turned to India for investments, which grabbed the opportunity to counter Beijing’s influence in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood. The first hint of a rejuvenated partnership under the new dispensation was seen during Sirisena’s 2015 visit when both nations signed a civilian nuclear deal. Since then, India has only bolstered its economic profile in Sri Lanka by committing to invest billions in infrastructure projects across the island.

India apparently also underplayed the “Tamil minority card”, out of fear of pushing the Sinhala-majority nation-state further into the arms of Beijing. Thus, except for once in 2015, when Modi urged “full implementation of the 13th Amendment and going beyond it”, India largely soft-peddled on the Lankan Tamil issue.

Concurrent to its economic interests in the island nation, India also utilised its 2,500-year-long civilisational ties to its fullest. Buddhism, as a result, became the common link between the two countries. For instance, India employed an out-of-the-box idea of hosting Lankan military officers in Bodh Gaya in 2018.

But India’s relations with Sri Lanka are not without their peculiarities. The bilateral relationship has always faced a “misconception problem”, owing to their incomparable geographical sizes and India’s close links with the Tamil ethnic minority. Perhaps, the fear of India turning Sri Lanka into a “client state” may have caused friction between Sirisena and Wickremasinghe. Notably, a 2018 report claimed that Sirisena expressed concerns over India’s involvement in upgrading the Colombo container terminal. However, the government later denied any such arguments between the two leaders. That Colombo mistook New Delhi’s intelligence inputs ahead of the Easter Sunday bombings as a bid to pit the country against Pakistan was a proof of the “misconception problem”.

India-Sri Lanka relations under Modi 2.0

Sri Lanka sits at the centre of a geopolitical tug of war between India, China and the United States. The reasons are not easy to miss. Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean Region, just a few miles away from the regional giant – India. With at least four natural harbours – Trincomalee, Hambantota, Galle and Colombo – the island nation could potentially serve as a maritime logistics hub. Notably, two-thirds of the oil and container traffic passes six to ten nautical miles south of Sri Lanka every year.

The seemingly positive relationship that India built with the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe dispensation has in effect laid the foundation for India’s sustained engagement for the next five years. It is now up to India to scale up the relationship and take it to the next level. For that to happen, India must employee four-pronged approach towards Sri Lanka: economic diplomacy, SAGAR doctrine, cultural diplomacy and counter-terrorism.

Economic Diplomacy: Sri Lanka provides the perfect platform for India to perfect the art of economic diplomacy. India remains the single biggest trading partner of the island nation. “India is among the top four investors in Sri Lanka with cumulative investments of over US$ 1 billion since 2003,” says a 2016 Ministry of External Affairs report. With an FTA already in place, India must push for the early passage of the Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA). Not only would it help India to gain a strong foothold in the Sri Lankan market, but also help Sri Lanka become a hub for FDI. Thus, the ETCA could serve as a win-win for both nations, helping India score diplomatic brownie points over China’s “debt-trap diplomacy”.

SAGAR doctrine: Historically, the Indian Ocean Region has been an irrefutable part of India’s “manifest destiny”. With the threat of Chinese domination looming large over the region, India must fully utilise the doctrine, which aims to keep the IOR ‘peaceful and secure'.

India’s continuous investments into building Sri Lanka’s infrastructure, including the strategically important Colombo and Trincomalee ports, fits well into the doctrine. Completing the projects – although India is undertaking many of them in partnerships – on time would decide whether India remains a serious player on the island. This must become a priority as the usual retort is that India’s projects usually end in bureaucratic limbo while China is consistent in its delivery.

Maritime security coordination, the key to the SAGAR doctrine, must be strengthened with Sri Lanka in order to protect India's maritime interests. Interestingly, both countries are already part of the 2011 India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral, which aims to maintain maritime security in IOR.

Cultural diplomacy: India must build upon the well-established cultural – in particular its ancient Buddhist heritage – ties it shares with Sri Lanka. Cultural diplomacy would benefit India economically too, since lakhs of Buddhist devotees visit the “Buddhist pilgrimage circuit” in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The projection of soft power would likely help enhance India’s image in the eyes of the Sinhala majority.

Counter-terrorism: In the aftermath of the 21 April bombings in Colombo and the spectre of Islamic State looming large over South Asia – India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh, counter-terrorism would once again become a key element in India-Sri Lanka ties. Currently, there seems to be no bilateral mechanism at the moment for regional security. Instead, reviving the NSA-level trilateral talks between Maldives, India and Sri Lanka will help New Delhi bring renewed focus into the IOR. With Wickremasinghe requesting India’s help in counter-terrorism training, the time is ripe for New Delhi to deepen its involvement with the Colombo’s security apparatus.

Need for India to assert itself in IOR

Strategic autonomy is the buzzword often associated with the Modi era foreign policy. It denotes “the ability of a state to pursue its national interests and adopt its preferred foreign policy without being constrained in any manner by other states”. By definition, it very much seems the repackaged version of non-alignment. However, strategic autonomy also helps India to remain multi-aligned.

India’s strategic autonomy in Sri Lanka will seriously be tested by the United States and – to a lesser extent – Japan.

While the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, as Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar noted recently, dovetails India’s IOR policy, both powers would never want to play second-fiddle to each other. In fact, India has always been averse to extra-regional powers entering its backyard. However, if the report in the Nikkei Asian Review is to be believed, the US had to enter Sri Lanka after India failed to contain China in its own backyard.

Nevertheless, the US – also Japan – and India are likely to gang up against a resurgent China. However, it is time for India to reassert itself as the pre-eminent power in the region and not operate as an also-ran in the region. Sri Lanka will continue to be the focus of the larger IOR in the next five years. The task seems to cut out for Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.


Part I: India's foreign policy targets with respect to Pakistan

Part II: India's foreign policy targets with respect to Pakistan's obstructionist role in Central Asia

Part III: Chumming up to US sure is beneficial for New Delhi but it can't ignore robustness of ties with Russia

Part IV: Expanding bilateral ties with Bangladesh vital for New Delhi's 'Act East' targets

Part V: India's foreign policy for next 5 years: New Delhi should convey to US in no uncertain terms how importance of better ties hinges on favourable trade policies

Part VI: India's foreign policy for the next 5 years: Imran Khan's offer for talks needs profound backing from China, Russia for serious consideration

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2019 16:47:07 IST