Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Towards a Colombo reset


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : India - Sri Lanka ties


The election of the new president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa strengthened the narrative about Colombo’s “tilt” towards China and against India. The headline misrepresents the complex power play involving Beijing, Delhi and Colombo.

Power play

  • The Great Game in the Subcontinent is not limited to just India and China. 
  • There are considerable interests and influence of many other powers in the region, including the US, European Union, Japan and Russia. 
  • The exclusive focus on major power rivalry masks the agency of South Asian political elites and their capacity to manoeuvre among the major powers.


  • Although the Rajapaksas had blamed India for their defeat in the 2015 elections, they have sought to make up with Delhi in recent years. 
  • India has been engaging all the major political formations in Sri Lanka. 
  • The stage is ready for a reset in the bilateral relations between the two strong governments in Delhi and Colombo.


  • India is aware that China’s economic and strategic salience in the Subcontinent will continue to grow and is not tied to the regime leadership in its neighbourhood.
  • The outgoing coalition led by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe proves the irrelevance of labelling governments in Colombo as “pro-China” or “pro-India”.
  • It came to power criticising the Chinese projects in Sri Lanka as financially unsustainable. 
  • Two years into power, the coalition extended full backing to the Chinese projects. 
  • So-called “pro-India” regime offered China a 99-year lease on the Hambantota project. 
  • The government stalled key projects of interest to Delhi.

What India can do about China

  • India can’t expect its neighbours to shut down economic and commercial engagement with China.
  • There are questions about the terms of China’s assistance on projects, including those under the Belt and Road Initiative. 
  • India can only ask Sri Lanka not to take steps with Beijing that threaten India’s security. 
  • Both need a clear understanding of mutual red lines relating to national security and a political comfort level to discuss cases that fall within the orange zone. 
  • That should help prevent the recurrence of the controversy over Chinese submarines in Colombo port as in 2014.

Renewed friendship

  • Rajapaksas are reported as saying that China is a “trade partner” while India is a “close relative”. 
  • Other terms used to describe the new policy include “neutrality” and “non-alignment” between major powers.
  • The world rediscovers the geopolitical value of Sri Lanka at the heart of the Indo-Pacific.
  • It has huge opportunities to leverage its location for national benefit. 

Way ahead

  • Sri Lanka should avoid provoking India. 
  • India should be mindful of Colombo’s security concerns and find ways to develop long-term strategic cooperation with Sri Lanka.
  • India needs to invest some political capital in resolving problems such as the long-standing dispute over fisheries. 
  • India, either alone or in partnership with like-minded countries like Japan, should offer sustainable terms for infrastructure development. 
  • India also needs to contribute more to the development of Colombo’s defence and counter-terror capabilities.

Tamil question

  • India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s civil war has been far more consequential than the China facto. 
  • Successive coalition governments in India struggled to balance the pulls and pressures from Chennai and Colombo. 
  • If the new government in Sri Lanka can advance reconciliation with the Tamil minority, it will be easier to strengthen ties. 
  • The Western powers have expressed deep concerns about the war crimes in the military campaign against the LTTE and the need to bring those responsible to book.

Way ahead

  • India should look beyond old formulae to try and encourage reconciliation within Lanka and across the Palk Strait with Tamil Nadu. 
  • With a strong government in Sri Lanka, it is time for India to think boldly about its relationship with Sri Lanka.
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