Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Two Asian powers and an island


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not Much

Mains level : Need for reviving Inda-Sri Lanka ties


  • The imposing Lotus Tower in Colombo, which was opened to the public recently, is considered to be the latest symbol of Sri Lanka-China ties.
  • An agreement to build this structure, which is to serve as a multi-functional telecommunication tower, was signed by the two countries in 2012.

Anti-China mood is no more

  • It may look ironical that much of the project’s execution took place under a regime which came into office at a time when there was a “strong anti-China mood”.
  • In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was backing Sirisena, had assured people that another Chinese project, the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City, would be scrapped.
  • Then, there was also uncertainty over the fate of the Hambantota port, the development of which was originally offered to India by Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005.
  • India was said to have examined Hambantota purely from the point of view of economics, overlooking the strategic angle.
  • All of this is now history, as Colombo-Beijing ties have stood the test of time.

Two different records

  • China has been able to resolve all the controversies over these projects.
  • The Port City’s execution is underway without any major hitch. When it becomes a reality, it will stand beside the Colombo port, which serves as a major transshipment hub for India.
  • A Chinese company has got Hambantota on lease for 99 years along with associated land of 15,000 acres.
  • More importantly, Sri Lanka is a member-country of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Debt trap or a tailored bluff

  • Notwithstanding an argument that economic ties with China are driving Sri Lanka into a “debt trap”, the bilateral relationship on the economic front is only becoming stronger.
  • According to the 2018 annual report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, imports from China accounted for 18.5%, just a little less than the 19% from India.

Indian failure

  • India couldn’t claim to have accomplished much in the Sirisena years, despite its “neighbourhood first” policy since May 2014.
  • Apart from a joint venture with Japan and Sri Lanka to develop the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, India cannot boast of having taken up any major infrastructure project in Sri Lanka.
  • There seems to be little progress in India’s proposals to develop the Palaly airport in the North and acquire a controlling stake in the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport.
  • And for all practical purposes, the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement, an improved version of the existing bilateral FTA, has been shelved.

Success: Very few to count

  • In recent years, only a couple of social sector projects of India— building 60,000 homes for Tamils of the civil war-torn regions and the provision of ambulance services all over the island — gathered momentum.
  • Both these are being carried out using grants of the Indian government.
  • In July, an agreement was signed to upgrade a key railway segment, connecting the north and the south, at $91 million.

The resentful phase is over

  • Despite these deep ties, it is true that India and Sri Lanka have seen some unpleasantness in bilateral relations in contemporary times.
  • The anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 dragged India into the Sri Lankan Tamil question.
  • India sustained its interest on developmental issues concerning the country Tamils, and now regarded as the most backward in Sri Lanka.
  • It will also be worth making one more attempt to encourage the voluntary repatriation of nearly 95,000 refugees who live in Tamil Nadu back to Sri Lanka.

India still holds deeper ties

  • China-funded infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka may look great, but India-Sri Lanka ties are deeper and more complex.
  • In good times and bad, India has been and will always be the first responder for Sri Lanka.
  • India’s assistance during the 2004 tsunami and PM Modi’s visit to Colombo in June (the first foreign dignitary to do so) in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks show India’s sincerity of approach.

Way ahead

  • Given its potential and willingness to do more in development cooperation, India cannot remain satisfied with such a modest track record.
  • A benign and comprehensive approach, backed by the sincerity of purpose, will not only earn India greater respect of Sri Lankans, but also send a message to other international players about the strength of its ties with Sri Lanka.
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