IDSA COMMENT

A New Phase in India-Sri Lanka Relations

January 3, 2011

The recent increase in top level Indian delegation visits to Colombo indicates that India has entered a new and more comprehensive phase of bilateral relations with Sri Lanka. However, a highest level political visit from India is yet to materialize, while Sri Lankan counterparts have already visited Delhi twice in the recent past. What underlies these frequent diplomatic visits? The global power configuration is changing in favour of Asia, particularly China and India. The United States, and the West in general, are losing the pre-eminent position that they have had for centuries. Moreover, smaller regional countries are also emerging with strong identities. In this setting, India finds its rivals making inroads into Sri Lanka.

The most recent visit to Sri Lanka was the three day trip by Indian Defence Secretary Mr. Pradeep Kumar in late December 2010. The establishment of a bilateral defence dialogue and joint naval exercises, strengthening of coast guard services, extension of more military training and assistance for military infrastructure construction were all topics of discussion, affirming that India will work with Sri Lanka to cater for the latter’s defence. The decision to empower the Sri Lankan Naval Commander to deal directly on urgent matters with Indian naval authorities on issues in the maritime domain is a step in the right direction, as the misbehaviour of a single fisherman on either side could create a bilateral issue. There is hope that this new approach in particular will be an effective mechanism to tackle human smuggling and the illegal entry of arms and drugs. As the narrow sea stretch is hardly an obstacle to smugglers it could be worthwhile to similarly empower ground military commanders along the same lines. India’s recognition of Sri Lankan Security Forces Commander Jaffna as an honorary General in India and his Tamil Nadu equivalent vice versa in Sri Lanka would be an important confidence-building measure as well.

Some analysts believe that India’s defence assistance is an attempt to balance growing Chinese inroads in Sri Lanka. However, media reports say that the offer to deliver shoulder-fired missiles and radars during the visit was part of the defence equipment that had been already provided to Sri Lanka during the civil war. Indian assistance to the Sri Lankan armed forces during the war against the Tamil Tigers is no longer a secret. India’s stance was one of “neutral benevolence” and even a Sri Lankan on the street understands this. Supporting its neighbour was an effort to help, not harm, the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, given that the LTTE was an enemy of India, Sri Lanka and of the Tamils.

After the war, China building Hambanthota port has been a hot topic of discussion for strategic analysts and the media. Any Sri Lankan port has strategic value given the island’s location on the Indian Ocean. This has been the case throughout history. The Japanese Air Force pounded Colombo harbour in the west of the Island during the Second World War. Nothern Kankasanthurai Port was the lifeline for the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the late 1980s. The US eyed Eastern Trincomalee port during the Cold War. Hambanthota port is farther away from India than all of these but it is the closest to major international commercial shipping routes. In fact, the preliminary offer to assist in building the port was made to India. An offer was also made to the United States before China made the final bid.

Southern Hambanthota, the birth place of President Mahinda Rajapakse, was also the breeding ground for two armed insurgencies in the Island, one in the 1970s and the other in the 1980s, both triggered by poverty and adverse conditions. The modern port hopes to bring prosperity to this region. Sri Lanka today is not what it was yesterday. It is smart and able enough to handle international relations without destabilizing its only neighbour India. Sri Lanka is the most stable country next to India in a rather troubled region. However, it is worth noting that Hambanthota port has not been an issue in the bilateral relationship. The Indian External Affairs Minister Mr. S. M. Krishna’s statement during his visit to Sri Lanka in November 2010 that “The relationship between India and Sri Lanka need not to be at the cost of other countries, our ultimate objective is to see a prosperous, stable Sri Lanka,” is a testament to this.

Mr. Krishna’s visit was also significant for a number of trade and financial deals he signed and the two Indian consulates he opened. One consulate is in the former LTTE stronghold of northern Jaffna and the other in southern Hambanthota. The aid package also included funding for post war construction, electricity power projects, north-south railway development and the resumption of a ferry service between India and Sri Lanka. These projects will help heal differences between two domestic communities separated by war while enhancing people-to-people contact between Sri Lankans and Indians through the new ferry service. Moreover, Krishna’s remarks as to the need for a political solution to the Tamil ethnic question varied little from the official Sri Lankan government’s standpoint; there is merely disagreement on how to get there. India urges devolution of powers based specifically on the 13th amendment while the Sri Lankan government favours a home-grown solution. This is a matter to be handled with great care since the outcome of any ill-conceived design would impact on bilateral relations.

Today, only 15 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population resides in the North and East. The case in the East is different from that in the north; Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims harmoniously live in the East in equal proportions. A majority of Tamils live along with the Sinhalese in all other provinces. In Colombo, Tamils are the majority, not the Sinhalese. Therefore, any merger of two provinces on ethnic lines would not solve the question. There is also a need for a more enlightened Tamil leadership from those war torn provinces to consolidate peace. Power should be shared, however, and it should be to the satisfaction of all Sri Lankans. Any solution should encourage Tamil leaders to engage in the political system on a national basis while discouraging ethnic affiliations among political parties. Diaspora politics should not be imposed on the innocent Tamils of Sri Lanka who live peacefully. The situation is complex but it is a good sign that the majority of Tamil politicians agree with the political leadership on many facets of governance. Therefore, a home grown solution is ideal provided India generously supports its implementation.

When it comes to Sri Lankan relations, there is an important factor that India should realize. Sri Lanka will always ask India first for assistance. Sri Lanka will only turn to others when denied assistance by India. For example, Sri Lanka had to depend on China and Pakistan for lethal arms to fight against the LTTE. This, however, does not mean that India’s security will be compromised. Therefore, there is a need for temperance when dealing with Sri Lanka. The nature of Chinese and Pakistani relations with Sri Lanka is economic though there is an attached strategic sub-text. The classic example is Sri Lanka’s recent refusal to sign a defence pact offered by the Pakistani president, just a few weeks ago. India has to take a holistic perspective on Sri Lanka’s foreign relations.

Last but not the least, Indian Foreign Secretary Ms. Nirupama Rao’s recent visit is worth mentioning. She has been a very popular figure among Sri Lankans. She received a warm reception everywhere in the country; from Sinhalese in the south and Tamils in the North. Her remarks on Indian assistance to develop 50,000 housing projects in the war- torn areas has brought new hopes to many displaced peoples.

In a nutshell, the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship is deep and continues to grow after the war. The island is strategically harmonizing its ties with its neighbour and with the region. It is mindful of India’s interests and supports India’s emergence as a key power. Therefore, any observers’ fear regarding other countries’ involvements in Sri Lanka as endangering Indian Security is false. India has already stamped a sizable presence from top to bottom in the Island. Sri Lanka is always receptive to her big sister while smart in her own “balancing act”.

Reference

  1. Dinesh Weerawansa, Sri Lanka moving right direction, Sunday Observer, 12 December 2010, available at www.sundayobserver.lk/2010/12/12/new01.asp
  2. A Nayyer Shamsi, 28 March 2010, available at newsdawn.blogspot.com/2010/.../is-india-losing-hold-on-sri-lanka.html.
  3. Press release from High Commission of India regarding visit of the Defence Secretary, 2010-12-28/press release.