How Smaller States are Choosing Sides in the Indian Ocean
Posted on July 23rd, 2019

Courtesy defenseone

A patrol boat of the Sri Lankan navy patrols in the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2011.

From Sri Lanka to Kenya, governments try to balance major-power influence — except in arms purchases.

As India and China have intensified their geopolitical interestin the Indian Ocean, the region’s smaller states have aimed to balance their political relations with these major powers. But in at least one realm of engagement, countries have resisted balancing their relations. Since 2015, the island countries of Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka have procured military equipment only from India, while the coastal countries of Bangladesh, Djibouti, Kenya, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Tanzania have bought solely from China. 

This timeframe is significant because it was in January 2015 that the U.S and India issued and unprecedented Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. This was shortly after followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own announcement of India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region,” or SAGAR, program  a multifaceted effort to engage politically, diplomatically, economically and on security matters with Indian Ocean island states. 

The strategic significance of the area’s island states — notably Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Maldives and the Seychelles — arises primarily from their proximity to key international sea lanes. China, India, Japan, and the United States each have some cooperative but otherwise mostly competing interests and projects in these states, largely for capacity building. Yet these states do have agency and their own agendas, influenced by domestic factors, in their relations with the major powers.

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Under Prime Minister Modi, India has engaged more substantively with each of these states on defense and security. At the same time, China, under the banner of the Maritime Silk Road and the wider Belt and Road Initiative, has substantially increased its involvement in Sri Lanka, Maldives, and the Seychelles; Mauritius is also set to join the initiative. And as China increases its naval activities in the region, Japan, Britain, and the United States are also increasing their relationships with the smaller states. All this adds potential points of contention between those major powers, with commensurate prospects of spilling into the regional states. 

Sri Lanka’s dealings illustrate how the smaller states are working to balance influence and investment by regional powers. China is the major investor in the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City project. Beijing also designed the December 2017 debt-for-equity swap — China calls it a public-private partnership investment — in which Sri Lanka handed over a controlling stake in the southern port of Hambantota and 15,000 acres of surrounding land to China on a 99-year-long lease in return for $1.1 billion in debt relief. But Sri Lanka has also accepted infrastructural investment from other sources. In January 2018, India provided more than $45 million to build a commercial port in the northern harbour at Kankesanthurai, and now is offering some $2 billion to develop the port, oil terminals, and refinery at Trincomalee in northeastern Sri Lanka. As well, on 28 May, India, Japan and Sri Lanka agreed to develop the second foreign-operated container terminal at Colombo port as a joint venture.

And yet neither Sri Lanka nor its small neighbors have so finely balanced their arms imports, according to the Military Balance+ database produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, or IISS. This sole-sourcing represents a change for Sri Lanka, which bought Chinese arms during its civil war that ended in 2009, and for Seychelles, which bought from China two light transport aircraft in 2011 and a patrol boat in 2014.

The range and quantity of these purchases also varies. India’s regional customers have procured solely maritime-security-focused equipment, including donated boats. Mauritius bought 12 coastal patrol craft and patrol boats; Seychelles, one maritime patrol aircraft; and Sri Lanka, three offshore patrol ships and ocean-going patrol craft. But Chinese arms sales to the region include a wider selection of air and land as well as maritime security equipment. Pakistan is the biggest customer, having bought 610 main battle tanks and 100 Viraj Solanki Viraj Solanki is Research Analyst for South Asia at the IISS, where his research interests include India’s policy towards its neighbours, including the littoral and island states of South Asia and the Indian Ocean. JF-17 fighter ground-attack aircraft. Other sales include Bangladesh’s purchase of 47 main battle tanks and armoured recovery vehicles; Kenya’s 30 light forces vehicles; and Tanzania’s 24 light tanks.

Each of these defense contracts depends on India and China’s capacity to deliver equipment to the smaller states, as well as the willingness and financial capacity of each of the smaller states to procure from the two powers. China has a more extensive defense industrial base, suggesting a greater capacity to efficiently meet its delivery obligations. Meanwhile, the Indian government is working to strengthen its own industrial base via the Make in India” policy, yet many equipment projects have experienced delays and cost overruns.

This state of either-or defense procurement may be about to come to an end. By year’s end, Sri Lanka is expected to accept a donated Chinese frigate, and that may encourage its neighbors to become more ecumenical in their own purchases. That may augur a new phase of bolder strategic initiative from Indian Ocean countries in their own abilities to balance major-power influences — and a new arena of competition for those powers themselves.

Antoine Levesques is Research Fellow for South Asia at the IISS, where he specialises in the facts and assessments of South Asian policies towards China, regional nuclear issues, as well as Pakistan’s political and security perspectives. 

Viraj Solanki is Research Analyst for South Asia at the IISS, where his research interests include India’s policy towards its neighbours, including the littoral and island states of South Asia and the Indian Ocean. 

5 Responses to “How Smaller States are Choosing Sides in the Indian Ocean”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    The balancing act cannot go on forever. No country except Sri Lanka accepts the Middle Path approach. They want support for their geopolitical needs that essentially are against the rival camp. Playing both sides will split Sri Lanka island into a pro-China nation and a pro-India nation.

    Some argue that Sirimavo boldly followed a Middle Path approach. Bold enough but it encouraged the split of the island. Another key “non-aligned” nation – India – supported the division of the island. In 1976 while Sri Lanka entertained non-aligned leaders in Colombo, India-backed Tamil politicians in the north declared their plan to split the island.

  2. Ananda-USA Says:

    It is highly dangerous to depend solely on ONE country or Camp for military and/or economic development assistance.

    The DANGER BECOMES EVIDENT only when we encounter a problem for which those arms or economic assiostance was sought.

    If we depend on ONE camp. that camp will BLACKMAIL Sri Lanka for invasive rights just when we need their help.

    We have seen this again and again since independence. Even during Colonial times, it was dangerous to seek help from a second Colonial Power to Oust the first Colonial Power! King Senarath had some pithy things to say about his disappointment in asking for assistance from the Dutch to oust the Portuguese!

    No we must stay “non-aligned” and balance the major powers to maingtain our territorial integrity and sovereignty, even if it entails some danger of external interference within our country.

    We must never give sovereign, or near-sovereign, rights over our land, as in the case of the Hambantota Port Lease to the Chinese, and the currently proposed SOFA agreement with the Americans, or the Kankasanthurai, Trincomalee and Colombo Port Eastern Terminal deals with India.

    Better to DO WITHOUT the so-called RAPID-DEVELOPMENT enabled by these deals, than to LOSE our CONTROL and OWNERSHIP of our Motherland on which our future as a independent people squarely rests!

    We MUST ALWAYS THINK about our LONG-TERM NATIONAL INTERESTS and SAFETY, not ONLY our SHORT-TERM PERSONAL INTERESTS! The Yamapalanaya, for example, is ONLY FOCUSED on the SHORT-TERM … if they are focused on even that!

  3. Dilrook Says:


    That is a good strategy if we are a mid-tier powerful country like India, Saudi Arabia, etc. Both superpowers depend on them.

    Not the case with Sri Lanka. We are too weak to manage rival superpowers in the country at the same time. Ultimately they will peacefully share the island amongst them.

  4. Randeniyage Says:

    Read Lee Kuan Yew’s book about Non-alignment, specially when he talks about meeting Sirimawo at the summit is Singapore. He expressed similar sentiments as Dilrook.
    Singapore is on a SOFA all the time. Yet they have strong PATRIOTIC government to keep their sovereignty intact. They cane Americans, they hang them.
    We cannot do it, because we have Buddhist pretending PAL HORU.

  5. Dilrook Says:


    I was influenced by that book. Very practical.

    We cannot do it because we have messed up everything with politically appointed diplomats. We never had a Sri Lanka centric foreign policy after DSS.

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