India-Sri Lanka must change tack

The challenge between the two countries is to restore sense of urgency in bilateral ties.

Ajay Vaishnav/ Zee Research Group

With Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in India on a three-day visit, the challenge between the two countries is to restore sense of urgency in bilateral ties. The first positive sign has already come with New Delhi’s decision to accord summit-level status to Sri Lankan president’s visit to inaugurate a Buddhist university in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh at the invitation of the state government. The development augurs well for India-Sri Lanka ties which have cooled down a bit in the post-LTTE era.

The primary factor behind it has been Colombo evincing no interest in India’s repeated advice to devolve greater autonomy and power to ethnic Tamils in the island nation’s federal polity.

Gautam Sen at New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) commented: “India-Sri Lanka relations appear to be reaching a phase of stagnation. While bilateral relations at the political level are still cordial, Colombo does not seem to be interested in or solicitous of Indian advice and suggestions with regard to its constitutional experiments concerning devolution of administrative and financial powers to the provinces.”

To drive home its point, India even voted in favour of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) resolution against Sri Lanka. The hardened stance of Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu hasn’t helped the two nations’ cause either. In recent months, the two main parties in the state – the AIADMK and DMK – are vying with each other to harness pro-Tamil sentiments in the state. Whether it is Jayalalitha’s opposition to the visit of a junior football team from Sri Lanka to latest opposition to Rajapaksa’s visit, Dravidian parties have left no stone unturned to espouse Sri Lankan Tamils’ cause.

Rather than helping the cause of Tamils across the Palk Strait, such attitude has in turn produced negative consequences. India’s vote against Lanka only soured bilateral ties and didn’t produce any intended impact on Tamil’s cause. “The UNHRC Resolution has not had any perceptible impact on the Sri Lankan Government”, remarked Sen at IDSA. On the other hand, “President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in fact, now feels more at ease and justified in cultivating China with a posture of even-handedness while dealing with New Delhi and Beijing”, he added.

India cannot ignore ‘the China factor’ and that a drift in India-Sri Lankan relations will serve Beijing’s interest in Colombo is increasingly being realised. N Sathiya Moorthy, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation commented, “The ‘China factor’ could become a reality if the anticipated drift in India-Sri Lanka relations reached a point of no-return, and the US emerges as the big bully in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood in the Sri Lankan eyes with India seen as politically weak and militarily incapable of stalling the process.”

China, however, has already firmly entrenched itself all over the island nation and Colombo is actively soliciting Chinese aid and investment. As Daniel Wagner and Daniel Jackman commented in the, “China is now Sri Lanka’s number one aid donor (more than USD 1 billion per year), main trading partner, and majority supplier of more than half the country’s construction and development loans.”

Moreover, growing Sino-Lankan cooperation has serious strategic implications for India. “The construction of the Hambantota Development Zone has been a particular source of concern. China is financing 85% of the zone, which will house an international container port, oil refinery and international airport, as well being used as a refuelling center for both countries’ navies”, stress Daniel Wagner and Daniel Jackman at

Hambantota’s proximity to Kundakulam nuclear site and Indian satellite launch centers in Kerala will boost China’s intelligence-gathering capabilities even though both Sri Lanka and China maintain the zone as a purely commercial venture. Not only this, Colombo will be getting a wide variety of arms and ammunition under a $37.6 million deal signed with Beijing.

To counter growing Chinese influence, New Delhi must infuse new energy into its ties with Sri Lanka. It must leverage its strengths and adopt a strategy that engages rather than alienates Sri Lankan government. The approach should be similar to Myanmar.

As highlighted by Sen at IDSA, “pressurising the Sri Lankan government on devolution should be avoided beyond a point.” Simultaneously, New Delhi must maintain the flow of aid to the southern neighbour for rehabilitation of Tamils. A diversified approach that combines interaction between the two nations through different platforms including enhanced trade ties must be encouraged.