Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 06, 2021
India and Sri Lanka have injected pragmatism into bilateral relations, which began disappearing after China’s entry through the Hambantota port deal a decade ago.
India, Sri Lanka re-inject strategic realism into bilateral ties?

By reciprocating Sri Lanka’s past declaration of following an ‘India First’ foreign policy, New Delhi has now said that the southern neighbour is the nation’s ‘Priority One’ defence partner. This should clarify the governmental-level approach to the strategic community and and the local media in the two countries.

The Indian High Commission in Colombo employed the ‘Priority One’ terminology while announcing the participation of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lankan counterpart, Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). A section of the Tamil media in the island-nation sought to precipitate the issue by claiming that the IAF aircraft doing acclimatisation sorties over the nation’s near skies was New Delhi’s way of ‘telling Colombo to behave.’ They did not have the guts to apologise.

IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, was on hand for the inaugural ceremony. He also met Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary, Gen Kamal Gunaratne. As could be anticipated, a Sinhala-Buddhist ‘nationalist’ group questioned the need for involving foreigners in a Sri Lankan celebration. They had forgotten that in the early years of the LTTE war, Israeli pilots had reportedly participated in SLAF operations and British mercenaries trained army commandos.

A section of the Tamil media in the island-nation sought to precipitate the issue by claiming that the IAF aircraft doing acclimatisation sorties over the nation’s near skies was New Delhi’s way of ‘telling Colombo to behave.’

In context, the High Commission statement also recalled how visiting National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Kumar Doval had reiterated the Indian assurance of fullest cooperation in the field of defence and security during his Sri Lanka visit. Doval was in Colombo to co-chair the meeting of the tri-nation maritime cooperation discussions, also involving common neighbour Maldives. They decided to upgrade the three-nation ‘Maritime Security Agreement’ into ‘Maritime and Security Agreement,’ encompassing all aspects of trilateral security.

Significantly, Colombo was chosen for locating the secretariat for the new arrangement. This meant that implied Indian concerns about a greater Chinese role in Sri Lanka was being addressed effectively on the security front. This was one aspect that did not get adequately highlighted by either the Indian strategic community or their media counterparts.

From ECT to WCT

New Delhi’s ‘Priority One’ statement comes at a time when critics of China in India and elsewhere were over wrought with the Rajapaksa dispensation in Colombo withdrawing earlier consent for a tri-nation MoC (memorandum of cooperation), also involving Japan, for developing the Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT). Sri Lanka has since announced that the Cabinet of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has cleared a proposal from the Adani Group — the Indian partner identified by New Delhi — and a Japanese firm — to be proposed by Tokyo — for trilateral development of the Western Container Terminal (WCT) in the same port-front.

Adding a new twist to the tale, India has now clarified that Sri Lanka’s claim of Indian approval for Western Container Terminal was ‘factually incorrect.’

However, adding a new twist to the tale, India has now clarified that Sri Lanka’s claim of Indian approval for WCT was ‘factually incorrect.’ Colombo had claimed Indian High Commission attestation to the 35-year pact between the Adani Group and the nation’s Special Economic Zone company. “Our High Commission in Colombo has already conveyed to the government of Sri Lanka that their media release insofar as the reference to the approval of the High Commission was concerned, is factually incorrect,” Anurag Srivastava, Spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said in New Delhi. He clarified that the WCT arrangement was the “government of Sri Lanka has engaged directly with investors on this project.”

Indications are that India, along with Japan, will press Sri Lanka for living up to its ECT commitment, which was an international agreement. Yet, the perceived confusion attending New Delhi distancing itself from the chosen ECT nominee purportedly doing the WCT business behind the government’s back, with the very same party, is not unlikely to cast a shadow, if not as much as the earlier cancellation.

As may be recalled, the Rajapaksas’ regime had repeatedly claimed that the cancellation of the ECT deal owed (also) to the Indian partner’s request/position. Translated, it could refer to the Adanis, along with a Japanese entity, ipso facto being denied a majority stake in the ECT deal, and had to share 49-per cent share between them. Against this, in the WCT deal, the overseas partners would get 85-per cent stake as was with China in the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT), which is already in operation — and confer freedom of decision-making on the overseas entities.

Indications are that India, along with Japan, will press Sri Lanka for living up to its Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) commitment, which was an international agreement.

Security concerns

Notwithstanding the ECT front, Colombo has held back approval for a Chinese firm to set up renewable energy projects in three islands off the Jaffna Peninsula in the North, closer to the Indian coast. Now, it has seemingly accepted a US$ 12-million Indian grant (against an ADB loan), when offered, but only after the Beijing decision became known.

Through this decision, Colombo seemingly wanted to send home the message that it really appreciated Indian security concerns flowing from China and/or Pakistan, from Sri Lankan soil. This has been the Rajapaksa position, too, on ‘non-regional powers’ playing their strategic games in the shared Indian Ocean waters. Hence, also the continuing Sri Lankan decision, along with that of Maldives, to stick to India the on security sphere.

Notwithstanding the ECT front, Colombo has held back approval for a Chinese firm to set up renewable energy projects in three islands off the Jaffna Peninsula in the North, closer to the Indian coast.

There were apprehensions that Sri Lanka may go the China way, especially after India signed into the US-promoted Quad and the Maldives recently signed its first overseas defence pact with the US in September last year. The US defence deal entails military-level cooperation and training, possibly also on Maldivian soil. In comparison, the Indian pact, signed during the recent Male visit of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, is limited to a US$ 50 million grant for building a dockyard for use by the Maldivian Coast Guard.

Friend and relative

However, all of this has not dissuaded Sri Lanka from declaring China as its ‘closest friend.’ Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena made the statement in a telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart. It was not an occasion for him to reiterate the oft-repeated statement of Mahinda Rajapaksa, as war-time President, that “India is a relative, and all others (including China?) are friends.”

As only one of the two P-5 members in the UN Security Council (UNSC) supporting Sri Lanka, the other being Russia, China especially is said to be overworking its diplomatic machinery to garner support for Colombo, against the Core Group resolution on the ‘war crimes probe,’ coming up for vote later this month. China’s Permanent Representative at Geneva defended Sri Lanka and its human rights record.

The current Indian position has added an element of suspense to the final Indian vote, later this month.

In contrast, the Indian statement at the UNHRC has at best been neutral. It did not side with the West-led Core Group to condemn Sri Lanka (read: Rajapaksas) on human rights violations and war crimes. Nor has it sided with the Rajapaksas, and backed them blindfolded. It abstained from a discussion on the Sri Lanka resolution draft, along with Japan.

The current Indian position has added an element of suspense to the final Indian vote, later this month. Sri Lankan leaders, both governmental and of Tamils, have been seeking a clear Indian vote in their favour, eschewing ‘abstain’ as a choice. In a loaded statement, meant to recall India’s past engagement with the LTTE in particular, Foreign Secretary, ex-Navy chief, Admiral Jayanath Colombage told The Hindu, “India cannot abandon us.”

China extended unqualified support to and defence of the human rights record of Sri Lanka, again read as ‘Rajapaksas,’ at the UNHRC. Instead, India has carefully calibrated its entire statement on the inevitability of a political solution, centred on and flowing from the 13th Amendment, facilitated by the slain Rajiv Gandhi dispensation as far back as 1987. Coming from the incumbent Narendra Modi dispensation, such a stand should also send out a clear message that ruling parties at the Centre do not take their domestic political rivalries, overseas.

No Sri Lankan political party or leader has thus far questioned the government on the contradiction, which is otherwise huge, embarrassing and can make the nation economically worse off than at present.

For all this, however, Sri Lanka — even while approaching China for a further US$ 2.2 billion credit to try and tide over the deep economic crisis facing the nation — has outright rejected the “closest friend’s” Sinopharm vaccine to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it preferred the India-gifted vaccine, and has also ordered Covishield — the AstraZeneca vaccine — for large-scale purchase from elsewhere. Colombo has also cleared Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine that had undergone third trial, for emergency use.

China, for its part, lost no time in denying Minister Gunawardena’s claim that it had a 199-year lien on Hambantota port, and not just 99 years as believed. No Sri Lankan political party or leader has thus far questioned the government on the contradiction, which is otherwise huge, embarrassing and can make the nation economically worse off than at present.

To conclude, India and Sri Lanka have injected pragmatism into bilateral relations, which began disappearing after China’s entry through the Hambantota port deal a decade ago. Now, there is greater understanding of India’s strategic concerns and what Sri Lanka seems to perceive as ‘commercial transaction’. This could mean that after a brief hiccup, if it came to that, the two nations would be able to take forward bilateral relations, independent of the Indian decision on the UNHRC vote, and Sri Lanka’s greater reliance on China for the purpose.

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