Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 02, 2019
Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa’s visit to India lay premise for resetting bilateral ties

If nothing else, the maiden overseas visit of Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, to New Delhi, and his talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, may help the two nations to re-visit bilateral ties, which have remained mostly in the realm of ‘words-no-action’ zone through the past decade. Add the preceding three decades of war and violence in Sri Lanka, the two sides have a lot to cover as they begin work on this score earnestly.

‘Symbolism’ became order of the day when India’s suspicions began revolving around Sri Lanka’s non-regional allies. It was the US during the ‘Cold War’ and China in more recent times. India having switched sides in the geo-political context, from Moscow to Washington, has also developed extra-regional aspirations – though not ambitions of the American, Chinese or the erstwhile Soviet Union kind.

Post-Cold War, India took the Euro-American detente process to the new adversary’s door-steps to Vietnam. It used to be restricted to Pakistan primarily and China subsequently, but restricted to the Indian borders. Extra-regional powers (read: Moscow) that wanted to help India ward off security threats possibly came to the neighbourhood – like the Soviet Union at the time of the ‘Bangladesh War’.

Aspirations & Expectations

Despite President Gota R, as Defence Secretary post-war, declaring Sri Lankan aspirations to own ‘blue water navy’, their expectations have been limited to neighbourhood security – thus far. Through the Cold War years, the two ended up choosing geo-strategic rivals for their friends or allies in and for their own shared neighbourhood. That is where issues and problems continue to crop up.

Whatever discussions between the two sides from now on would end up going back to the past, where these forgotten, yet unforgettable, issues and episodes would come back to the drawing board. With two strong personalities with massive mandates heading the two nations, this may be the best time for them to guide their nations to re-setting the clock, not stopping with re-visiting the past.

Post-Rajapaksas’ return, some legislative members in the Sri Lankan Government have been talking about the two sides ‘wanting’ to declare the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’. This could be a starting-point for future negotiations on the China-centric security discussions.

However, Sri Lanka especially could be alive to the reality that the ‘US is the elephant in the room’, as erstwhile Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had reiterated on more occasions than one, while in power. India needs to see if it could draw out Sri Lanka, first as a regional ally of unmistakable mutual trust, and into the ‘American sphere of influence’ in security matters.

Debt-trap and more

What is applicable to Sri Lanka may be useful in India dealing with other neighbours with equal fiscal and economic commitments to China, in terms of a possible ‘debt-trap’. If India is unable to woo Sri Lanka, for instance, from China’s embrace, it needs to look at the idea of the ‘zone of peace’ concept with the seriousness it deserves.

Given the increasing Indian importance in geo-political matters, which it lost post-Cold War, New Delhi could become the focus of such diplomatic initiatives, leaving geo-strategic concerns to extra-regional players. This could mean that the two nations first, and the rest of the region alongside or later on, should build in mutual trust first and mechanisms, later on, to explore all such possibilities, on the ground – and test them in the process.

A joint defence cooperation agreement between India and Sri Lanka may be in order – though it may have to wait. Enhancing the trilateral ‘Dhosti’ biennial coast guard exercises involving Maldives, to develop it into a bigger, public declaration may have to be considered at some point. Shared internal security concerns among the three nations can provide an initial platform. The National Security Advisors (NSA) of the three nations had taken up such issues and concerns a decade or so ago, but the process is now in the limbo.

There is an increasing realisation in all neighbourhood stake-holders that they need one another more than extra-regional players, who could only muddy the shared waters and spoil the shared lands, where weeds alone could mushroom. Though it may be a testing phase for mutual trust, India and Sri Lanka at least should begin by consulting/informing each other about their extra-regional affairs, be they economic, political or geo-strategic nature – if not pertaining to military acquisitions.

In the last department, however, through the war period (though not as much in the post-war ‘peace’ era, Sri Lanka has been keeping India updated on this count, with the full realisation that New Delhi was in no position to supply the required weapons. In the last phases of the war, when the West and Israel looked the other way round, whoever was heading Sri Lanka, he had to turn (only) to Pakistan and China, for weapons.

Here, ‘He’ includes ‘She’, as President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK), otherwise a Rajapaksa-hater for much more than a decade, did precisely that. So did Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was Prime Minister for a time (2001-04) under CBK, though their mutual relations remained as estranged as it became under President Maithripala Sirisnena more recently. That is to say, the Rajapaksas were as ‘Sri Lanka centric’ as any other leader in that country in their times.

Troika-level consultations

During his New Delhi visit last year, Sri Lanka’s current Prime Minister and former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, recommended the war-time ‘troika model’ for bilateral consultations at the highest levels, to clear doubts and to fast-track decisions. The way bilateral panned out during that period does not provide for much hope on all three core issues involving the two nations – namely, ethnic issue, economic cooperation agreement and China.

Taking up bilateral issues at the highest levels at every turn may help take quick decisions on immediate issues on hand. It is good for war-time, yes. But, it also takes away much of the opportunities for re-visiting one’s position and/or decision, based on the other’s expressed concerns. More importantly, it takes away institutional mechanisms and institutional memories.

As needs to be remembered, the Gota-Modi meeting was the first for both leaders, they not being in office – elected or otherwise – at the same time, to have got to know each other, at some level, if not at the apex-level. Yet, Sri Lanka has most of the Rajapaksas and their chief administrative and/political aides back in office. India has (only) a few in that category still in office – but they are there.

Taste of the pudding

In the final analysis, the taste of the pudding is in the eating. India will wait for positive actions to emerge from the imagery that President Gota has built, both in New Delhi and back home in Colombo. Sri Lanka too would have similar expectations. They have begun well with the Gota-Modi confabulations identifying ‘terrorism’ as a common plank where there is an urgent and greater need for them both to work on, roping in as many South Asian neighbours as is possible and required.

Such an initiative would have to keep off Pakistan, as still remains the single largest source of anti-India terror. Colombo’s decision to boycott the forgotten Islamabad SAARC Summit in 2016, along with most other neighbourhood nations, could well be a starting-point. That could well be one decision that the Gota presidency does not have to review lest it should trigger suspicions in sections of the Indian strategic community and the government alike.

On ‘China factor’ that has become ubiquitous, in India-Sri Lanka relations, New Delhi could be expected to wait and watch on President Gota Rajapaksa’s public declaration on ‘re-negotiating’ the Hambantota ‘debt-equity swap-deal’ involving the predecessor Government. It is not just about what the Gota presidency is able to achieve on this score, but more so on what they actually do on the ground to this end.

The other ‘core issue’ in bilateral ties is the ethnic issue, war-crimes probe and accountability issues in Sri Lanka. India would be watching for positive signs to emerge from Colombo on a political solution, but may not be unaware of – or, blind to – the games that the Tamil leadership also plays. Sri Lanka will be looking at New Delhi’s position at the UNHRC in September, over the alleged ‘abduction’ of a Swiss Embassy staff after Gota came to power, though the pending Resolution 30/1 may come up for review only a year later.

From a purely Sri Lankan State perspective the China factor and the ethnic issue may be linked after a point – as the Rajapaksas more than the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo would have to look upon the likes of China and Russia to find friends for Colombo in the non-western world. At the UNSC, China and Russia are veto-powers, not India. However, Colombo was/is very much alive to India being able to influence UNHRC and UNSC processes without being a P-5 member. On that may depend how Sri Lanka perceives India as a ‘global friend’, where they still need one, whatever the justification.

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