Cosying up to Sri Lanka

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi struck an emotional chord in his address to Sri Lanka’s parliament when he proclaimed: “For India, the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka are paramount.

Cosying up to Sri Lanka

G Parthasarathy

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi struck an emotional chord in his address to Sri Lanka’s parliament when he proclaimed: “For India, the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka are paramount.” Referring to the “shared heritage and shared future” of the two countries, Mr Modi averred: “I bring the blessings from the land of Bodh Gaya to the land of Anuradhapura.” Referring to the realities of the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region, where India and Sri Lanka occupy centre stage, India’s Prime Minister noted: “We should expand maritime security cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, to include others in the Indian Ocean area.” 

Fortuitously, the atmosphere for India-Sri Lanka relations has changed substantially, with the election of Maithripala Sirisena as President and Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, heading a coalition of both national political parties — UNP and SLFP. This coalition enjoys the support of the charismatic and politically influential former President, Chandrika Kumaratunga. The SLFP-UNP alliance came about as public disillusionment grew against the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Rajapakse and his family, whose strong-arm tactics, excessive dependence on China and violations of human rights also earned the wrath of the western world. 

While India was ready to take a liberal and understanding view of Chinese assistance for developing the port facilities in Hambantota, the constituency of the Rajapakse family, visits by Chinese warships to Colombo and the award of the Colombo Port City Project — involving allocation of 576 acres on “freehold” — to a Chinese company set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. Moreover, a triumphant and remorseless Rajapakse repeatedly went back on his assurances to meet the legitimate aspirations and grievances of the Tamil population in the northern and eastern provinces of the island. The induction of Sarath Fonseka, the successful military commander during the ethnic conflict into the coalition, is evidently aimed at eroding the claims of Mr Rajapakse of being the sole architect of the victory over LTTE. It would, however, be a mistake to underestimate the ability of Mr Rajapakse to exploit issues like western pressures on trials of Sri Lankan nationals, for alleged war crimes.

New Delhi and Colombo, however, appear keen to cooperatively address issues of common concern, including the welfare and wellbeing of the displaced Tamils. Sri Lanka is proposing to initiate a process of constitutional amendments to meet Tamil aspirations in the north, reaffirming the country as a unitary state, while devolving meaningful powers to provincial governments. Prime Minister Modi’s reiteration of India’s irrevocable commitment to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka was thus timely. India has provided massive relief assistance to the Jaffna Tamils, including building 50,000 homes, establishing the Vocational Training Centre and Agriculture Research Institute, while expanding scholarship programmes. Rail and road infrastructure have been reestablished, linking Jaffna to Colombo, while port and airport facilities are being refurbished. While much has been done for the relatively well-off Jaffna Tamils, it is time that New Delhi focused more attention on the “Indian Tamils” living in the coffee, tea and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka’s central highlands.

India is today Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner. Indian investments in Sri Lanka exceed $1 billion in areas ranging from telecommunications and tourism to railways, power and food processing. While there are some understandable fears in Sri Lanka, especially in the IT sector, inhibiting the conclusion of a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, it is only appropriate that ways are being examined to expand the scope and width of the existing economic partnership. Sri Lanka has consistently maintained the highest growth rate amongst our SAARC partners. But given the volatility in the global situation and slowing of growth in western economies, India has stepped forward with a $1.5 billion “currency swap” agreement between its Reserve Bank and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, to stabilise the Sri Lankan rupee.

The growing Chinese interest in port facilities in Sri Lanka and the offer by Pakistan to supply Sri Lanka Chinese designed JF 17 fighter aircraft at favourable terms, suggests the emergence of the joint China-Pakistan axis to establish a cooperative defence network, across the Indian Ocean. Cash-strapped Pakistan that has never had grandiose maritime ambitions is in the process of acquiring four frigates and eight submarines from China. One can only conclude that existing military, missile and nuclear weapons cooperation between Pakistan and China is set to attain new maritime dimensions across the western Indian Ocean.  In any case, China has all the facilities it needs in Gwadar, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Just after the visit of former Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Pakistan in 2003, President Musharraf had warned that in the event of a conflict, India would find the Chinese navy operating out of Gwadar. 

Sri Lanka appears determined to go ahead with the Colombo Port City Project with China, though it is likely to have the terms amended to address concerns of its other partners. There are concerns in India that the original project parameters would have to be modified to ensure that the Chinese-built “port city” does not become a centre for surveillance and snooping in the Colombo Port, whose earnings as a point of transit for goods destined for India are substantial. In a larger perspective, India will have to balance Chinese power in the Indian Ocean with strategic partnerships and intensive dialogue with Japan, ASEAN partners like Indonesia and Singapore, together with the US. We cannot ignore the importance of expanding the utilisation of the Trincomalee Port in the Bay of Bengal in this effort. Prime Minister Modi had indicated New Delhi’s readiness to “make Trincomalee a petroleum hub”. India would do well to undertake such projects in collaboration with Japan and even perhaps ASEAN members like Singapore.

Given the manner in which Pakistan is stalling the entire process of economic integration and connectivity in SAARC, India should now activate its cooperation across its eastern borders through BIMSTEC, where Sri Lanka is a member. Pakistan has secured its participation as a sectorial dialogue partner of ASEAN, though it shares no land or maritime borders with any ASEAN member. India would do well to promote similar Sri Lankan partnership with ASEAN, given its location and proximity to ASEAN members.

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