EDITOR: HARSH SINGH
Soon after his election victory in early January last year, Sri Lankan President elect – Maithripala Sirisena released all Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody as a goodwill gesture, who were imprisoned in the first place because they were fishing in the waters of the Palk Bay-the body of water that separates Sri Lanka from the southern tip of India and the sovereignty of which is yet to be established. Many saw this as a gesture on his part before his first foreign visit to India as the head of state, one which was to be closely watched by certain quarters for there was a lot he was to discuss and deliberate upon and the outcomes of which could have potential ramifications for the Indian Ocean region countries and maybe beyond.The visit was responded by a state visit of prime minister Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka a month later, the first ever by an India head of government since the assassination of former PM Rajiv Gandhi by LTTE militants in 1987, marking a new high in bilateral ties.
Indo-Sri Lanka ties are old and illustrious, dating back to 4th century BC, with the introduction of Buddhism into Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka’s son – Mahinda. With Buddhism, ethnic and cultural ties being strong links, both nations were expected to be natural allies in the post-colonial era. It was anticipated that the legacy of colonialism would have tied them up in a bond of empathy fuelling collaboration for mutual prosperity. History had to run a different course, though. Today, from maritime security to trade routes, from ports to regional and internal security and from geopolitics to cultural ties, there’s simply a lot for the two States to work upon for any irritant to hinder collaboration as such, unless domestic economic and political compulsions align with the aspirations of a rising superpower, grasping at every opportunity to strengthen its long-term regional and strategic goals. The ever-rising and seemingly successful presence of China into a region which India has historically considered as its own backyard of influence has long discomforted India and is one of the reasons why the election victory of Sirisena was being hailed as a good omen in the Indian establishment after years long rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, a demagogue and a long time China votary.
Sri Lanka makes for a perfect case study of China using loans and financial grants actively as tools of coercion, for exerting it’s influence and sealing its presence. The previous Sri Lanka Freedom Party regime indiscriminately allowed Chinese funding for strategic infrastructure projects and while China’s massive loans to Sri Lanka were often portrayed as a response to international economic pressures over concerns of human rights abuses for the nation with a tumultuous history of a civil war, these acted as de-facto handouts for Chinese companies, also ensuring that in near future Colombo is relegated to the whims of the Chinese establishment (ambitious geopolitical initiative like the String of Pearls for example), for Sri Lanka will be saddled with massive debts with higher than usual interest rates. Already the biggest lender, China has loaned to Sri Lanka more than $8 billion for various projects, pockets too deep for India to match and a fact clearly understood by the Indian establishment. Recent developments like that of China seeking for its loan amounts to be converted into Sri Lankan infrastructural equities only reaffirm that what’s been speculated for long.
Contemporarily, concerns for security, regional stability, and restructuring of bilateral ties far outweigh any other concerns for India as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, and India has been deploying soft power along with emphatic diplomatic outreaches to further its interests and concerns, especially given the regime change in New Delhi, with a government with a clear majority taking charge of affairs and pursuing a foreign policy of its own without having to accommodate inputs of regional and domestic hawks.
With Sri Lanka, the Modi government has been linear and direct about its expectations and undertakings. On one hand, on the Tamil issue, the prime minister’s meeting with Tamil National Alliance leaders during his visit to the island nation in June; promising he would push for devolution and the implementation of the 13th Amendment for them besides visiting Jaffna and Talaimannar (the first ever visit by an Indian PM) as an affirmation of India’s special concern for the Tamil minorities and exhibiting its confidence on a full reconciliation process. On the other, NSA chief Ajit Doval had issued warnings to the Sri Lankan naval chief and former defence secretary over the docking of China’s submarines in Colombo harbor and India has been unambiguously and persistently voicing its concerns over instability in the larger Indian ocean region. The two countries however, have also made progress on the front of stalled negotiations over the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement), alongside increasing maritime defense cooperation and signing agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) on civil nuclear energy, cultural issues, education, and agriculture.
Today, Sri Lanka seems more informed of India’s sensibilities and expectations pertaining to developments, both bilateral and in the region at large. Dialogues at global forums and steps like further devolution of autonomy to Tamil-majority regions in the north and east Sri Lankan regions suggest a much more egalitarian approach towards foreign relations and internal reconciliation, although Sirisena has been reluctant to burn any bridges with Beijing.
Sri Lanka is the largest and the most populous state in the Indian ocean region including the Maldives and Mauritius. Tangible Initiatives of Solid collaboration, be it the construction of a single track line between Colombo, Jaffna and Killinochchi by the Indian Railway Construction International Ltd or the Government of India’s initiative of developing a Buddhist Circuit linking pilgrimage sites, based on shared history, with upgraded infrastructural facilities, speak volumes of the potential to transcend all the conditionalities which characterize the conventional give-and-take in diplomacy. Consequential of India’s growing economic might and diplomatic heft and amid growing realisation in both the establishments of the futility of ambivalence, it’s hoped that ties between the two nations may evolve to be more meaningful and inclusive, and indeed become the defining partnership for the region at large.