Viewing India-Sri Lanka ties through prism of power game with China is reductive, overlooks countries' civilisational connect
It is now commonplace to view India-Sri Lanka bilateral ties through the lens of New Delhi’s great power game with Beijing.
It is now commonplace to view India-Sri Lanka bilateral ties through the lens of New Delhiâ��s great power game with Beijing
India may benefit from the trust deficit that south Asian nations suffer from when it comes to China
A lot will also depend on how it manages to avoid letting the Tamil minority question from shaping the discourse
It is now commonplace to view India-Sri Lanka bilateral ties through the lens of New Delhi’s great power game with Beijing. The debate is being increasingly framed in terms of Sri Lanka being the platform for India-China strategic competition or the “battleground” for India-China rivalry. Such an eventuality is inevitable given the aggressive rise of a revanchist China that seeks to bend the political, economic and security framework of Asia in accord with its geopolitical will. It leaves little space for a sluggish India to maintain its traditional spheres of influence. In keeping with changed realities, India’s bilateral ties with its closest southern neighbour has also undergone a transformation.
However, to argue that the soul and substance of India-Lanka relationship is merely a strategic competition between New Delhi and Beijing and that China is destined to win the clash due to its greater economic prowess is to deny smaller sovereign nations their due agency and overlooking the depth of India’s civilizational connect.
It hardly bears mention that India lacks the wherewithal to match the monetary muscle of China. For investment-hungry nations, China’s cash flow and prompt execution of large-scale infrastructure projects are factors hard to resist. It is also a reality that nations in South Asia such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Maldives — traditional theatres of India’s dominance — are maturing as democracies and learning the fine art of balancing the Asian giants against each other to extract advantage. Some commentators argue that this hedging strategy owes its origin to India’s strategy of “non-alignment”.
As Brookings India fellow Constantino Xavier wrote in South Asian Voices on this balancing game: “In an ironic revival of India’s non-aligned strategy during the Cold War, these countries are learning the subtle art of balancing, hedging, and even how to play off China against its competitors. This indicates how Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are not just helpless observers and geostrategic stomping grounds, but calibrating their foreign policies to increase bargaining power and reap maximum developmental benefits.”
However, despite these factors at play, retaining its traditional “sphere of influence” in the continent is not an impossible task for India. There’s no reason why New Delhi may remain subjugated to China’s larger strategy of squeezing India’s options. Newly-elected Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent two-day visit to India — his first tour abroad since assuming office — presents an opportunity to list some of these options.
The importance of maintaining high-level visits, intensifying summitry and remaining sensitive to each other’s red lines sounds simple but the effectiveness of this strategy should not be underestimated. In this context, it was good to hear the statement from Gotabaya that he will be transparent, “frank” and “upfront” with India to avoid “misunderstandings of the past”. Such a declaration was necessary because there exists a deep trust deficit between India and Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa clan who have returned to consolidate power.
That Gotabaya was trying to reset the bilateral ties became clear when he told The Hindu in an interview that unlike in the past, when New Delhi’s relationship with Colombo was riven by mutual insecurities and fluctuation of warmth, he would like to be “consistent. I am usually very frank, so I hope to tell New Delhi honestly if I can’t do something; and if I can, then do it soon and not drag out commitments.”
India, for its part, has shown admirable nimble-footedness in sending External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to greet the president just a day after he was elected, paving the way for his arrival in India. It sent the signal to Colombo and elsewhere that India is ready to deviate from its heavy-handed attitude of the past and is willing to actively engage with the leadership as “equals”.
For smaller neighbours who had been used to boorish behaviour from India in the past, this is an important assurance. Equally, it was worth noting how Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while delivering his address to welcome the visiting Lankan president, stressed on the “smooth election process” and “strength and maturity of democracy”. Here, democracy serves not only as a value or a political system that is shared between the nations but is also a primary factor that binds the two peoples.
India must cash in on the increasing caution and skepticism that now marks decision-making among nations in the region on China’s economic assistance. While these nations need Chinese funding to meet their developmental goals, there’s a sense of alarmism that these infrastructure projects based on China’s Belt and Road Initiative lack transparency, snare participating smaller nations in a debt-trap, “have devastating social and environmental impact” and even serve to undermine sovereignty.
These considerations are pushing the south Asian nations, who had once been too eager to ride the Chinese gravy train, into renegotiating older projects and being circumspect about new ones. The infamous Hambantota port deal, that Sri Lanka was forced to lease to a Chinese firm for 99 years after failing to service the debt, remains a glaring example of China’s debt-trap: one that Gotabaya has promised to renegotiate.
In the interview to The Hindu mentioned above, Gotabaya stressed that the 99-year lease may impact Sri Lanka’s future and the government must retain “control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. After all, these are not like hotel or a terminal, but to give control of a port or an airport or our harbours is different.”
Going a step further, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, a former central bank governor and an economic adviser to former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, was quoted as saying in a report that Colombo would like to take back control of the port. “The ideal situation would be to go back to status quo. We pay back the loan in due course in the way that we had originally agreed without any disturbance at all.”
It is here that India carries a greater goodwill and trust over its more powerful competitor. If it manages to wisely invest in infrastructure projects abroad, along with ensuring timely execution of projects that are already undergoing, India may benefit from the trust deficit that south Asian nations suffer from when it comes to China.
As Suhasini Haider writes in The Hindu, completion of the projects that India has already entered into with Colombo in 2017 through MoUs must be a priority “including India’s plan to develop Trincomalee port and oil tank farms, and LNG terminals near Colombo…” A lot will also depend on “the pace of the joint India-Japan agreement to develop the East Container Terminal at Colombo harbour, and other projects like the offer to operate the Mattala Airport.”
Here, India’s ability to expand its economic engagement with Colombo and capacity to deliver projects will be crucial. Gotabaya has made it clear that he wants investments, and unless other countries fulfil Colombo’s need, it would be difficult to resist China’s offers. Modi’s announcement of $400 million as a line of credit to the Gotabaya government is a step in right direction.
In 2013, then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh boycotted the Commonwealth Summit held in Colombo in protest Sri Lanka’s alleged human rights violations in civil war. India must avoid the tendency for moral posturing and letting it interfere in bilateral ties. It is worth remembering that after the end of the brutal civil war, when a beleaguered Mahinda Rajapaksa government was desperate for international diplomatic protection and funds for economic development, it was left to China which appeared as the benefactor when India was too busy lecturing Colombo on an issue which was internal to its interests. This created ultimately the space for China’s entry into India’s strategic backyard and Beijing hasn’t since let go of the advantage.
For India, the issue is sensitive since it also includes the vexed Tamil minority question but it requires careful diplomacy, conveying of position with clarity yet subtlety and a trust in Sri Lanka’s civilian leadership that has been elected with an overwhelming mandate. Just as India wouldn’t like to be lectured on its Kashmir policy, similarly, Lankans wouldn’t appreciate a foreign power lecturing it on what to do.
The Rajapaksas have shown a willingness to turn the chapter and rejuvenate the relationship. There has been trust deficit in the past between India and Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty, but both sides have since shown admirable realism in appreciating that there is nothing to be gained from continuing animosity. Though former president Mahinda, the elder brother of Gotabaya, had accused India of interfering in its election process — not to speak of Gotabaya’s apparent refusal as the former defence minister to pay any heed to India’s concerns in allowing Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo — Modi’s pragmatic approach was evident in the way he tried to mend bridges with Mahinda even when the earlier dispensation was in power. Now that Jaishankar, a realist, is in charge of South Block, it may reasonably be expected that both sides will be eager to shed past baggage.
The biggest advantage that India has over China when it comes to bilateral ties with Sri Lanka is its deep civilizational and cultural connect. A lot will also depend on how it manages to avoid letting the Tamil minority question from shaping the discourse. This isn’t to say that India shouldn’t convey its concerns over an issue that remains deeply sensitive within its borders but it must balance effectively its strategic needs with domestic political compulsions.
Finally, Modi’s announcement of $50 million to improve Sri Lanka’s security architecture and programs to impart anti-terrorism training to Lankan cops strikes the right note. Effective partnership on terrorism — an issue on which the interests of both nations converge — is low-hanging fruit.
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