India Needs To Re-Calibrate Relations

By rushing the Navy and relief material at the first signs of the rains and floods in Sri Lanka recently, India has once again demonstrated the political will to reach out to the neighbourhood in their hour of distress. Not long before the devastating rains, India rushed food relief as the island-nation was reeling under unprecedented drought. So did Pakistan and China, the US and others, but only days after the Indian aid and assistance had reached, as with the post-tsunami situation in end-2004.

Yet, for Indians, especially from the strategic community, to confuse the nation’s ability and proximity in the matter with larger issues of bilateral cooperation and Sri Lanka’s inherent, sovereign entitlement to choose friends and partners, has led to confused priorities and complex realities. When Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans did not relate to their prognosis and prescriptions, they are upset even more.

Though some of such misunderstanding has been erased, much more needs to be done to take bilateral relations onto an even keel. In this, the emerging Indian approach to Sri Lanka’s internal dynamics and politics, ethnic issue and constitutional solution(s), security concerns and the China factor all matter. So do immediate bilateral concerns like fishers’ issue and also the ETCA-centric trade ties and investment proposals.

Reactive and pro-active

Much of India’s bilateral problems on a larger and more immediate canvas flows from a compulsive calculation on what the nation needs to do to keep China out of the neighbour’s calculations. There is definitely a better understanding of the ground reality over the past decade, more so at the government-level, that developing nations, like both India and Sri Lanka, would look up for FDI of whatever kind available from whichever source they come from.

In the case of Sri Lanka, it used to be the US during the Cold War era and China, since. Ironically for the Indian thought process, these two nations got flush with funds, and needed to park them in places of their own security concerns and geo-strategic interest.

Sri Lanka happened to be on the other side of the political front in both cases — or, that became the perception of the Indian strategic community, or a section thereof. That, however, did not change the situation for Sri Lanka, which like India since the ‘reforms era’ can do with lot more FDI for a long time to come.

The present-day Indian insistence on going ahead with an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with Sri Lanka, replacing the aborted Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is misplaced. Wanting to investment in Trincomallee oil tanks farm or in the eastern coastal town’s development in the company of new-found Japanese ally too is seen as being reactive to China getting Hambantota port and now possibly the land, and also the Colombo Port City, highway construction works and other civil works.


Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent Sri Lanka visit — the second in as many years, after the long 27 years gap before March 2015 visit — India, however, signed road projects in the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Province. They cannot be dismissed as reactive per se, yet over-concentration of Indian development funding to Tamil areas has political consequence for bilateral relations, stemming from majority Sinhala mass-perception and political mischief-making.

To the extent that Prime Minister Modi announced the extension of the Indian-aided ambulance service to more areas in Sri Lanka, the initiative should have been taken up when first mooted about a decade ago. That was a pro-active measure, so was much of the current developmental works that India has offered but were not taken up as seriously, especially by the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime — especially fearing local, ‘Sinhala nationalist’ reaction, especially on the electoral front. So much so, the Colombo Government would find new ways and excuses to delay and scuttle the India-funded Sampur power-plant. Today, a tri-nation LNG pipeline project is being talked about, involving also Japan, but that again can face local reservations, as with the Trincomallee-centric plans and proposals.

It is unclear as yet why Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should give it in writing to the striking employees of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) that no agreement on Trinco oil tanks farm would be signed with India during his Delhi trip, just ahead of Modi’s scheduled Sri Lanka visit. Even the ETCA imbroglio requires Sri Lankan Government’s complete commitment and popular interest to take forward.

Working and re-working

It needs a lot of working and re-working on the part of India and Indians — often frustrating — to recalibrate Sri Lanka relations, to foresee possibilities and initiatives, be they of a political, diplomatic, economic, or geo-strategic nature. It would still be worth the while, even more in the future than in the past, as the Modi-driven ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy is here to stay, and other neighbours, too, would be watching India’s Sri Lanka relations with great interest.

That way, the belated investments by the Centre despite its early interest and initiatives on deep-sea fishing by Tamil Nadu fishers running into Sri Lankan waters is as much diplomatic and security-driven as it may be centred on domestic politics in the south Indian State. Likewise on the domestic front in Sri Lanka, India seemed ready to shift gears on the ethnic front, as PM Modi spent less time with the TNA than even with the Upcountry Tamil people and their leaderships — a welcome initiative in a way, but not without ethnic consequences for those hapless people.

In context, India cannot be seen as totally dumping the Sri Lankan Tamils — though they too may welcome the current Indian mood until their off-again-on-again western sponsors drop them again like hot bricks. Nor can India be seen as taking a new interest in Upcountry Tamils of recent Indian origin, who are as much divided as the Sri Lankan Tamils that the TNA represents.

Aspirations and expectations

In seeking to re-work the TNA ties at least until the Sri Lankan Government has re-worked the present Constitution, to address their genuine concerns and legitimate aspirations on power-devolution and political solution, India cannot afford to be seen as finding a new, domestic socio-political anchor in the Upcountry Tamils. ‘Neighbourhood intervention’, especially of the Indian kind, can have greater or worse consequences for the Upcountry Tamils now than a decade or so earlier. It would be more so when compared to the consequences it has had for the Sri Lankan Tamil population.

Yet, the Indian interest in the Upcountry Tamils should trigger a new and deserving interest in the majority Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State, to do the right thing by the much-maligned community, whose leaderships too have failed them all through. While the SLT community has all along been fighting for their rights, the Upcountry Tamils have been struggling for a livelihood, why even their acceptance from being lesser humans to equal humans.

Sri Lanka too needs to see the inevitable and even more justified Indian interest and concerns in this context, and not anything more. The new Constitution that they are now talking about should thus address the Upcountry Tamils’ more-than-legitimate expectations as much as it hopefully provides for the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils and also the Muslims. Instead, both Upcountry Tamils and their Muslim brethren have only been facing more of the BBS-kind of hard-line and self-styled ‘Sinhala nationalist’ attacks that are as much of a physical nature as they are emotionally disturbing and distracting.

Blue-water navy

On the ‘China factor’ involving Sri Lanka, and other neighbours, too, time used to be when the Indian strategic community used to claim that Beijing was far away from developing a ‘Blue-water navy’. When China’s first aircraft-carrier came along, they began urging the Government to do something about it. India promptly aligned with the US, and the America-identified allies like Vietnam, Japan and Australia.

There is now mention of Sri Lanka joining hands with India and Japan on the ‘security front’ too. If true, there needs to be clarity and clarification if Sri Lanka would be the fifth arm of the emerging quadrilateral Indian Ocean security alliance involving the original four, or would be independent of it. There is also no clarification, where required, of the existing low-profile India-Maldives ‘Dhosti’ Coast Guard bi-annual exercises, into which Sri Lanka joined in when the Rajapaksas were in power, and was also expected to evolve into something more of a defence and security alliance in its time.

It may be time for India and Indians to assess and analyse if we are over-reacting to the emergence of China as a naval power. In particular, Indian experts should be able to tell us if China would be able to sustain its naval presence and expansionism into global waters, on all sides and near-simultaneously so. If the US and the Soviet Union emerged as super-powers, it owed to the history, politics and military demands of the Second World War in particular. The China was not there at the time, and it is still not in the league.

There is a difference between India being guarded and prepared to face off China, Pakistan, or both together in any future ‘naval war’ that could (only) be imagined just now. Forming futuristic political coalitions and military alliances of the kind under way, or being envisaged, could also be provocative, and not guarantee any direct involvement by them if India’s adversary were to trigger a single-theatre war and keep it that way lest the rest could intervene. Given that India is definitely as yet the master of any global situation, other long-term friends of India might be drawn into the fracas and forced to make a choice that they would not want.

Sri Lanka could well be one such friend and neighbour of India. Sri Lanka’s neighbourhood security, and that of Maldives, too, is tied to that of India. India’s security concerns too could be argued to be theirs. But specific security situations affecting India, be it in the shared Indian Ocean waters or on the Indian land territory need not always be theirs.

Sri Lankan neutrality

If China and India, for instance, were to share investment responsibilities in Sri Lanka, whatever the quantum and strategic potential, no government in Colombo would want to take sides at times of future adversity between the two — with or without other nations queuing up on either side. In context, even Sri Lankan neutrality of the kind could be a great strategic and diplomatic victory for India, but nothing beyond it.

By inviting and encouraging all investor-nations in the world, beginning with the US and not excluding Russia, EU members and Scandinavian nations, Sri Lanka could end up complicating an India-related security/diplomatic situation more than it is capable of handling at any point in time. Such a scenario, starting with Indian and Indo-Japanese investment interests could trigger a domestic political problem in and for Sri Lanka, as is being seen in the case of China and Hambantota.

It could become more immediate and even more relevant if for instance, someone suddenly woke up to expand the P-5 Bench in the UNSC, where from India and Japan have competing interest — and yet Pakistan and China might not want either, or anyone else, including Australia, South Korea or Indonesia. It could thus expose the ‘Alliance’ weakness effortlessly, embarrassing friends of India, without achieving anything in return for anyone. (Eurasia Review)

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