Sri Lanka, India looking to ‘Mend Fences’
Posted on November 21st, 2019

By Ashok Dixit Courtesy Ceylon Today

The hard-fought seventh Presidential election in Sri Lanka has just ended with a convincing victory for former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. His achievement in securing over 52 per cent of the votes cast in the face of reservations expressed by minorities in that island-nation must be seen as an important development for South Asia and the extended Indo-Pacific region.

We now hear that his first State visit after formally assuming office on 18 November will be to India on 29 November. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has just concluded an unannounced two-day visit to Colombo (on Monday and Tuesday) to have what he described as a ‘warm meeting’ with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to convey a message of ‘partnership for shared peace, progress, prosperity and security’ with New Delhi.

Recent observations appearing in the public domain suggest that all four of the above-mentioned factors could pose a significant diplomatic and strategic challenge for both countries given the past Rajapaksa regime’s pronounced tilt towards China.

There is currently a view that Sunday’s Presidential election result in Sri Lanka will most certainly have a bearing on the presence of both India and China in the Indian Ocean region, especially in the context of Beijing, which has been making impactful inroads.

Editorials appearing in various Indian media through the week seem to be somewhat cautious and sceptical. One such editorial in an Indian daily said: “It is possible that Rajapaksa would like to change course and build better relations with India.”

However, it further goes on to say: “New Delhi must prepare for a pro-China tilt in Colombo, some spillover of Lanka’s Tamil politics to Tamil Nadu…. India must act as a constructive partner in the face of the likelihood of continued political tussle in Sri Lanka till the November 2020 (Parliamentary) elections.”

I spoke with two former Indian diplomats – K.P. Fabian and G. Parthasarathy – recently on their assessment of the election result in Sri Lanka.

Ambassador Fabian said: “India will have to play its cards carefully given Sri Lanka’s closeness to China in the recent past.”

“(Gotabaya) Rajapaksa has won primarily because of the majoritarian Sinhala vote bank and the Buddhist clergy. Premadasa, on the other hand, has secured more votes from the 15 per cent Tamil and 10 per cent Muslim communities in Sri Lanka,” he stated further, adding “Long term, Sri Lanka will have to maintain good relations with its immediate neighbours.”
Ambassador Parthasarathy reiterated New Delhi’s long-held view that the China factor is deeply ingrained in Sri Lanka’s political psyche.

The election result could see India’s relationships changing not only with Sri Lanka, but also with Myanmar, the other neighbouring country scheduled to hold elections in 2020.

He said both countries have an “intrusive and less-than-healthy Chinese presence” and “the Chinese take an above-normal interest in the domestic politics of both these countries.”

He also felt that Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa family personally would continue to be under international scrutiny for alleged serious human rights violations committed during the civil war between Government troops and the LTTE in the 1980s and 1990s. If past precedent is anything to go by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would continue to receive support from Beijing, he maintained.

These are challenging and difficult times for South Asia and the extended Indo-Pacific region. The Indian Government has wisely gone ahead with an outreach towards Colombo and the new President, but will reiterate clear red lines that it would not like to see being crossed.

As one editorial said earlier this week, New Delhi would welcome Colombo engaging with Beijing so long as it does not “affect Indian security interests.”

 Malaysia – India

Malaysia is showing increasing interest in procuring India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. Kuala Lumpur recently put out a tender for supply of 36 new light combat aircraft and if it reaches an agreement with New Delhi, it will be the first foreign sale undertaken by the Indian Government-owned aerospace and defence company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

India’s Tejas is competing with China’s JF-17, South Korea’s T-50 Golden Eagle, Russia’s YAK-130, BAE Systems’ armed Hawk and Sweden’s Gripen.
There is a concern, however, that the proposed deal may not take off due to diplomatic and trade ties between both countries currently being strained over Kuala Lumpur’s recent negative remarks on New Delhi’s move to change the special quasi-autonomous status of the former State of Jammu and Kashmir.

China and Bangladesh

China and Bangladesh continue to seek ways to improve bilateral trade ties. Both Governments have just inked a $72 million joint venture to implement a mega water project in the emerging smart city township of Purbachal on the outskirts of Dhaka in phases by 2023.

The joint venture between the Chinese United Water Corporation and Delcot Water Limited of Bangladesh is the first Public Private Partnership (PPP) water sector project in Bangladesh.

The over 6,000-acre Purbachal is the biggest planned township coming up to Dhaka’s north-east.

China is already implementing $10 billion worth of infrastructure projects in Bangladesh. Apart from Purbachal, the other major projects coming up are a Chinese Economic and Industrial Zone, the Payra Power Plant, the 8th China Bangladesh Friendship Bridge and the International Exhibition Centre.

China and Afghanistan

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Beijing is keeping all communication lines open for holding the intra-Afghan talks in China.

He said China supports comprehensive and inclusive “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace reconciliation processes and is willing to provide a platform for dialogue and exchanges.

(Ashok Dixit is a New Delhi-based media consultant and a former senior editor with two of India’s leading multi-media news agencies ANI and IANS. He is also the son of India’s former National Security Advisor and Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit)

4 Responses to “Sri Lanka, India looking to ‘Mend Fences’”

  1. aloy Says:

    “The Indian Government has wisely gone ahead with an outreach towards Colombo and the new President, but will reiterate clear red lines that it would not like to see being crossed.”

    Is that a threat Mr. Dixit?. Was it your who father was known as the “Viceroy”.

  2. aloy Says:

    Sorry,” was it your father who was known….”

  3. Ratanapala Says:

    It is only a strong and non-aligned Sri Lanka that can provide security guarantees to India on her southern flank. To this date India’s ploy has been to weaken and manipulate Sri Lanka from within and outside. In recent years geopolitics have changed and it is in everybody’s interest to see that the less Sri Lanka move away from a dominant and domineering relationship with the US.

    We are a peaceful nation whose main interest is to keep Indian Ocean – a zone of peace. It will be best to re-negotiate Hambantota Port sell-off with the Chinese. It should be in the best interest of China too not to make Sri Lanka contested grounds for super power hegemony.

    It was to bring the US to Sri Lanka with SOFA and MCC agreements that he sold off Hambantota to the Chinese. The US has mired many a country in misery with their forays and with devastating results not only to the victim nation but also to entire regions. Throughout the last 5 years, his main agenda in Sri Lanka was to make Sri Lanka a Failed State and then to bring R2P and American incursion into Sri Lanka.

    It is time India understood clearly that a Strong Sri Lanka is a better friend than a Weak Sri Lanka grovelling at the feet of the US and China. So far it is India’s meddling ways that made Sri Lanka seek the US and Chinese assistance.

  4. Ratanapala Says:

    What happened to the Finns should not happen to Sri Lanka. They sided with the Nazis to fight the Soviets and regain lost land earlier. Then they had to get Russians to fight off the Nazis. Finally they had to fight with the Russians to get them off their land. The sum total of what happened, in the end, is that the Soviets took over a tenth of their land – the Karelian Isthmus.

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