Significance of India’s accelerated outreach to Sri Lanka

By- Niranjan Marjani

After a prolonged period of tensions, the relations between India and Sri Lanka are on the mend. Sri Lanka’s growing proximity to China since the present political dispensation came to power in 2015 has been a cause of concern for India. However, both the sides are taking steps towards normalization of their relations since past couple of months. This period has seen acceleration in outreach between India and Sri Lanka. This outreach has been characterized by high profile visits, military exercises and both the countries prioritising relations with each other. 

India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla paid a four-day visit to Sri Lanka at the start of October. During his visit he held talks with the top Sri Lankan leadership which included Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. He also reviewed bilateral cooperation during a meeting with the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage. 

Following Shringla’s visit India’s Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane visited Sri Lanka from 12 to 16 October and interacted with the military as well as the civilian leadership of Sri Lanka. General Naravane’s visit coincided with the India-Sri Lanka military exercise (named Mitra Shakti) which was held from 4 to 15 October at Combat Training School, Ampara, Sri Lanka. 

Later, six ships of Indian Navy’s First Training Squadron arrived in Sri Lanka on October 24 for a four-day visit to participate in a training programme with their Sri Lankan counterparts. This is a milestone in India-Sri Lanka relations as it is the first time that such a large number of Indian Navy ships are visiting Sri Lanka. 

For its part, Sri Lanka released Integrated Country Strategy in July through its Ambassador to India Milinda Moragoda. This strategy focuses on prioritising relations with India and lists out steps to be taken the Sri Lankan Embassy and the Consulates in India to strengthen the bilateral relations. On October 10, Moragoda also met India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and discussed wide ranging issue pertaining to the strategic interests of both the countries. 

Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China which resulted in Chinese presence in close proximity to India had strained India-Sri Lanka relations. The urgency shown by India and Sri Lanka to reset bilateral relations is an outcome of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. For India, this reset would allow it to engage with Sri Lanka as a country in the Indo-Pacific Region and further strengthen relations by way of de-hyphenation of engagements with the Tamils and the Buddhists of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka as a template for India’s counter to the Belt and Road Initiative? 

Although being presented as an economic undertaking, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project has become an instrument of debt trap diplomacy. The loans advanced by China for infrastructure projects are unsustainable for small countries. The inability of these countries to repay the loans often results in China taking over the key infrastructure installations which could double-up as strategic outpost. In case of Sri Lanka, its inability to repay Chinese debts resulted in leasing the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years.

In the past few months, when Sri Lanka has been facing economic crisis, in particular falling foreign exchange reserves, rising food costs and devaluation of cash, it turned to India for help in tiding over this situation. Sri Lanka sought a $500 million credit line from India to enable payment for its crude oil purchases. 

As regards to the food crisis, following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to go for 100% organic farming, Sri Lanka had signed a deal with a Chinese company Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group for the supply of 96,000 tonnes of organic fertilizer and 3,000 tonnes of powdered form of organic fertilizer. But the fertilizer imported from China was found to be contaminated. Here also India stepped in and supplied nano liquid fertilizer to Sri Lanka. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role in bridging the gap between India and Sri Lanka. As Sri Lanka battled the third wave of the pandemic in the past two months, India has been supplying liquid medical oxygen to the island nation. India’s economic outreach to Sri Lanka is intertwined with humanitarian assistance during the crisis. India has presented itself as an alternative to China to which Sri Lanka should look forward as a means of diversifying its engagements.  

Sri Lanka as India’s neighbour in the Indo-Pacific Region

The on-going reset in India-Sri Lanka relations should propel India to engage with Sri Lanka as a country in the Indo-Pacific Region. China’s economic ventures in Sri Lanka have resulted in the former gaining a foothold in India’s proximity. In turn, India should approach Sri Lanka as a geopolitical entity in the Indo-Pacific. 

China’s rising profile in South Asia has led to Sri Lanka becoming a competing ground for India and China. Chinese submarines made port calls to Sri Lanka twice in 2014 to which India raised concerns but maintained that it is monitoring Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean. In 2017, Sri Lanka rejected a request from China to dock its submarine at Colombo Port to pacify India’s worries. 

Port development in Sri Lanka has also witnessed competition between India and China. In September 2021, India secured a deal to build a strategically important deep-sea container terminal in Sri Lanka. Indian company Adani Group will partner with a local conglomerate John Keells and the Sri Lankan Port Authority (SLPA) for this deal which is worth more than $700 million. This deal is important for India since in February this year Sri Lanka had scrapped an agreement with India and Japan for development of East Container Terminal at Colombo Port.

India must build upon this accelerated outreach to Sri Lanka in the strategic domain. Strong relations with Sri Lanka should further consolidate the trilateral cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. India’s growing engagements with Sri Lanka and Maldives could lead to a cohesive response to China’s strategic encirclement of India by way of string of pearls. This could strengthen India’s manoeuvring in the Indo-Pacific Region.     

The de-hyphenation factor

For a major part of past seven decades, India’s policy towards Sri Lanka was dominated by the issue of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. This very factor has been the cause of Sri Lanka being wary of India’s posturing. India’s stand on the Tamil issue of Sri Lanka was also linked to the domestic politics in the state of Tamil Nadu. For India to view Sri Lanka as a neighbouring country in the Indo-Pacific Region, a shift in the approach was necessary which is visible in India’s recent outreach. India’s present approach marks a de-hyphenation in relations with Sri Lanka which implies that India would appeal to the Buddhist identity of Sri Lanka as much as it cares for the Tamils. 

India has been pressing Sri Lanka on implementation of 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution which was passed in 1987. This amendment allows for the devolution of power to the provincial councils. Foreign Secretary Shringla, during his recent visit to Sri Lanka, once again emphasised on India’s commitment to protect the rights of the Tamils through full implementation of the 13th Amendment. 

India’s commitment towards the Tamils of Sri Lanka is evident from the fact that after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, India has been involved in the reconstruction work in the Tamil-majority Northern Provinces. Since 2011 India has been involved in infrastructure development such as housing projects, building railway lines, renovation of schools and construction of hospitals. 

While concerns about the Tamils do exist, India is moving towards de-hyphening of its engagements between the minority Tamils and the majority Buddhists. India has taken steps towards strengthening the cultural links with Sri Lanka by evoking Buddhism. In a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa held in September 2020, India announced a grant of $15 million to Sri Lanka for the promotion of the Buddhist ties between both the countries.

On October 20, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Kushinagar International Airport in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The construction of airport would improve connectivity to Kushinagar, which is one of the most important pilgrim sites of Buddhism. It was here that Gautam Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana. The first international flight to land at this airport was from Sri Lanka. On board this flight was a delegation led by Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister Namal Rajapaksa. Around 100 senior Buddhist monks, 4 State Ministers and other senior officials accompanied him.  

The cultural outreach to Sri Lanka indicates that the current Indian political dispensation is ready to de-hyphenate its engagements with the Tamils on one hand and the Buddhists on the other which are in majority in Sri Lanka. Culture is one of the areas through which India can diversify its ties with Sri Lanka. Close engagements with the Sri Lankan government are important for India in order to gain strategic advantage in the region. New Delhi is leveraging the historical soft power connections between the two countries to consolidate its position vis-à-vis China in South Asia. 

Niranjan Marjani is a Political Analyst specializing in international relations and geopolitics. His areas of work are India’s foreign policy, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific Region, Europe and Spain. He is also the Consulting Editor of The Kootneeti Español, a New Delhi-based Spanish-language magazine on international relations. He tweets at @NiranjanMarjani

 

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