Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Challenges China, India and the Indian Ocean Part III
Posted on May 23rd, 2018

By Dr. Palitha Kohana Courtesy The Island

India maintains a base in the Seychelles and has concluded an agreement to build an airstrip and a sophisticated “monitoring station” at a cost of US$45million. It has also signed a Bilateral Agreement for Navy Cooperation with Singapore that provides Indian Navy ships temporary deployment facilities and logistics support at Singapore’s Changi naval base, which is near the disputed South China Sea. Indian military strength in Indian Ocean region is formidable.

It seems unlikely that China, even if it wished, and the alleged string of pearls (strategic harbours?) is real, would be rash enough to challenge nuclear-armed India in the Indian Ocean for decades to come. India enjoys overwhelming military superiority in the Indian Ocean and is likely to consolidate this position even further in the future. Additionally, the U.S. maintains a mammoth base in Diego Garcia to the south of Sri Lanka. It is highly improbable that Chinese policy makers would consider challenging the existing power arrangements in the Indian Ocean any time soon, if ever. They have not done so since Admiral Zheng He’s flotilla entered the Indian Ocean in 1405 and dominated the region till 1433. To over extend in order to meet a possible challenge from China would only result in expending scarce resources for a scenario that is unlikely to eventuate.

Sri Lanka’s diplomatic comfort level with India has always been considerable. India has been a major source of investments and tourists. The big neighbour must feel the reassurance that the small island to the south will not pose a strategic threat, and will not collude with any other country. It should never become someone else’s large aircraft carrier! Sri Lanka’s own interests will be served well with a reliable relationship with India.

This does not mean subservience or a one-way approach dominated by hectoring and gratuitous advice. The relationship, if it is to be comfortable and sustainable, must be one between two proud sovereign nations. India has a positive role to play as the bigger and stronger neighbour to the north. India’s burgeoning economy could provide a ready outlet for Sri Lankan businesses to expand but over-zealous and rash opening up of our economic doors with no comparable reciprocity would certainly create unease. Economic relations must be developed on the basis of reciprocity and transparency.

Sri Lanka must seek its own friends and benefactors and its development path and that might mean seeking to collaborate with whomever we like, including China. Sri Lanka has maintained excellent relations, particularly economic, with Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, etc. With many of these countries Sri Lanka enjoys historical links, particularly through the shared religion and culture.

China, coincidentally, is India’s major trading partner. Japan has been a consistent source of development funds and political support for Sri Lanka.

In recent times, both the Chinese and Indian leaders have made explicit overtures to each other with repeated references to historical religious, cultural and trading links, both recognizing the opportunities presented by cooperation than by confrontation. The ground breaking visit of Prime Minister Modhi to meet president Xi Jinping in Wuhan is likely to have major implications and help restore the confidence levels of both countries in each other. Prime Minister Modhi’s “Look East. Act East” approach contains a distinct Buddhist echo of bygone connections. China’s Buddhist links with India go back a long time. This is a factor that Sri Lanka has in common with both Asian giants and could be used to strengthen our relations.  Recent efforts to recalibrate the bilateral relationship between India and China will be welcomed by all.

A prosperous and stable Sri Lanka will be an asset to India not an unhappy and resentful neighbour to the south. Sri Lanka’s prosperity including through the Belt and Road Initiative will be to India’s advantage as well. India could also benefit extensively from a proactive engagement with the BRI.

Sri Lanka, as a small neighbour of India, eager to ascend the development ladder in the shortest possible time, is caught between the discomfort of our closest and much stronger neighbour and the need to develop deeper and pragmatic economic relations with another. There is little doubt that as a longtime friend and a country that has provided much of Sri Lanka’s religious and cultural inspiration, Sri Lanka must create an environment that makes India comfortable. The relationship with India needs fostering with care. India’s unilateral effort to insert itself in to Sri Lanka’s conflict in the eighties with disastrous consequences for itself and for Sri Lanka and memories of this adventure still irks the psyche. Sri Lanka must ensure that such an eventuality will not be repeated. This should be a priority and will be Sri Lanka’s foreign policy challenge.


One Response to “Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Challenges China, India and the Indian Ocean Part III”

  1. Christie Says:

    What India and Indians want is a Sri Lanka (Ceylon) dominated by local Indians.

    India wants Ceylon to be another Andaman and Nicobar Island.

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