MonitorsPublished on Nov 03, 2020
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII-44

Sri Lanka: Should India take ‘India First’ security policy on face-value?

N Sathiya Moorthy

In the first Sri Lankan official reference to the nation’s ‘India First’ security policy after the 28 October Colombo visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Adm Jayanth Colombage (retd) quoted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as telling the visitor that “as long as I am in power, I will never allow to harm India’s strategic interests”.

In the same vein, Colombage told a webinar, organised by the Asia Confluence, a Shillong-based think-tank, that India too needed to imbibe the message that Sri Lanka will not undermine the nation’s strategic security. “Our President and our government have been reiterating this again and again and again,” he quipped.

During his first overseas visit to India after becoming President last November, President Gotabaya reportedly told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his overnment would follow an ‘India First’ foreign and security policy. Colombage said as much after taking over as the Foreign Secretary in August this year.

“We will not, we cannot be, we should not be a strategic security concern to India. Period,” Colombage said at the webinar. “We have to understand the importance of India in the region and we have to understand that Sri Lanka is very much in the maritime and air security umbrellas of India. We need to benefit from that,” he said, reiterating his nation’s position as he had delineated earlier, and almost to the last word.

Together, all of it seems to indicate Sri Lanka’s possibly growing impatience at having to prove itself on what it wants New Delhi to believe is Colombo’s unilateral commitment to the nation’s ‘India First’ security policy. The fact that President Rajapaksa took it up with a top official of a third nation, even if it is the US, could also imply that Colombo wants no third-nation, non-regional power to interfere in the affairs of Indian Ocean security. Neither Sri Lanka, nor the US, has publicised anything about exchanges in this regard at the high-level talks.

Concerns over Quad

In the webinar, Colombage, who is also a scholar and author on security affairs, expressed Sri Lanka’s concern over the four-nation Quad, involving Australia, Japan, India and the US. “We are watching what is happening in the Quad. Do we really need a quad? Will Quad not give rise – not to a cold war – but at least a cool war in the Indian Ocean? These are some of our concerns,” he said.

Colombage quoted India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar that  the Quad is a very natural evolution outcome of a more multipolar world. “Well, if (there is) a more inclusive multipolar world, Sri Lanka as a small country will be very, very happy,” he added. These are (exclusive)  preserve of “major powers” in Indian Ocean, and/but Sri Lanka (a littoral nation) did not have any say in such things, he quipped, wryly – or, what seemed so in context.

For the Indian strategic community in the neighbourhood, such observations could imply that Sri Lanka, a key littoral nation in the Indian Ocean littoral, was neither consulted nor kept informed of the forming of the Quad. As Secretary Colombage, a former chief of Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), stated, the nation was at the intersection of two strategic policies in the Indian Ocean. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, Sri Lanka is at the crossroad of both”, namely, China’s BRI and America’s Indo-Pacific.

In this context, Colombage said that his nation was “very conscious of the militarisation of maritime …. It is a fact that from 2009 till now, 550 warships from 28 countries have visited Sri Lanka. That is a huge number. That is an indication of how militarised this region has become”.

The year 2009 was when the ethnic war in Sri Lanka ended, and the LTTE, with its powerful ‘Sea Tigers’ naval wing was completely neutralised, both on land and equally so in the seas. Incidentally, the figure that Colombage quoted was a result of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s -- now the Prime Minister -- ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’, or ‘Mahinda’ Thoughts’ poll manifesto for his first-term election in 2005.

The manifesto promised to make Sri Lanka a naval and maritime-hub, to be able to create jobs, family incomes and government revenues, in the services sector. In turn, this was an implied acknowledgement of the nation’s limited scope for setting up manufacturing industries, for job-creation and revenue-generation.

First victim?

Read between the lines, Sri Lanka continues to be peeved at being taken for granted in matters of what Colombo seems to be perceiving as ‘militarisation’ of the neighbourhood Ocean. The message is clear: “You big players do it all in our backyard, and if it hurts any one first, it will be us, it will be us.”

This much became obvious when Colombage reiterated that Sri Lanka was a “neutral”, “non-aligned” country. As he has always been saying,  “We don’t want to be caught in this power-game.”

In yet another disclosure on some of what had transpired at Gotabaya’s high-level meetings on the subject, Colombage clarified that the President had conveyed this message to Secretary Pompeo and also the visiting Chinese delegation, led by Yang Jiechi, a top-ranking foreign policy official, last month.

Unilateral creation

India’s strategic community needs to read Colombage’s frankness in opening out, as he has been doing since taking over as the Foreign Secretary, in context and content. The trouble on this score was waiting to happen almost from the day the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hurriedly signed a defence pact with the US in 2005 without taking smaller neighbourhood nations into confidence.

The ‘unilateral creation’ of Quad with implications for ‘helpless, hapless’ small Ocean neighbours like Sri Lanka, according to some sections of the Sri Lankan strategic community, has become a core concern for the nation’s foreign and security policy-makers. To some, it also indicates that India, despite being a large and most powerful nation in South Asia, both in political and military terms, has been ‘taking us all for granted”.

Some in the Sri Lankan strategic community, who have been avid India-watchers from before the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971) and later the ‘forced induction’ of IPKF (1987), point to the existence of a national consensus on security and strategic issues within the country, especially among Sinhala political parties with possibilities of coming to elected power – just as in India, “where the incumbent Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is (only) taking forward the initiatives of ‘post-Cold War’ predecessors”.

If the question is about Sri Lanka offering Hambantota port contract to China, they are not tired of pointing out how it was offered only to India – and more than once. According to them, successive governments in Colombo at least from those days have been consciously keeping India’s security concerns in mind and have been working accordingly.

In this context, they argue that once India had showed dis-interest in investing on Hambantota, New Delhi cannot dictate whom we approach for funds and on what terms, especially when we guarantee that we would protect India’s security interests, which also ‘coalesces with ours’. According to them, “Anyway, then or now, only China has disposable funds for investments, and not one nation or international organisation that has reservations about Hambantota or other nice-funded projects in our country has ever offered that kind of funding…”

Colombo-based Sunday Times reported (1 November 2020) that the public sector Sri Lanka Port Authority has since handed over the management of Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) to India’s Adani Group. The tri-nation project, which included Japan, was left hanging after the Rajapksas returned to power, but Colombage in his first interview as the Foreign Secretary said that they understood New Delhi’s  reasoning as India accounted for 70 per cent of the port’s business.

In this overall background, the question arises why New Delhi chose not to take the ‘more friendly’ erstwhile Wickremesinghe leadership into confidence on Quad-like security decision. Also, as Secretary Colombage said, quoting Jaishankar, if there is more to Quad than security cooperation among the four nations, the partners should have been more transparent on those matters, and should have also engaged other Ocean littorals like Sri Lanka, to convince them that there was no hidden agenda.

Afghanistan: Procedural issues continue to threaten peace talks

Shubhangi Pandey

It has been over a month and a half since the historic intra-Afghan negotiations began in Doha, Qatar, on 12 September. While the beginning of the talks was widely applauded as a step in the right direction, the simultaneous rise in violence in Afghanistan alarmed observers the world over. Ramped up violence in the face of ongoing “peace talks” was proof of the fact that the Taliban intended to leverage violence as tool to maintain their upper hand in negotiations, while staying preponderant on the battlefield. Despite the fact that the talks were a key outcome of the United States’ agreements with the Taliban and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the underwhelming trajectory of the peace process has raised serious concerns about the future of peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The talks, which began after six months of back and forth between the warring sides on the contentious issue of prisoner release, have witnessed little progress so far. The Taliban seems to be negotiating in bad faith, constantly shifting the goal post to delay progress in talks until the outcome of the US presidential election is known.

The group has demanded the release of their remaining prisoners in government captivity, as was reportedly conveyed to the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at his meeting with senior Taliban leadership on 28 October, in Doha. The biggest roadblock to progress in talks, however, is the fact that the delegations of the Taliban and the Afghan government have failed to agree on a joint agenda and resolve even the most basic procedural issues -- a deadlock that has held back the talks from moving onto the more substantive matters up for debate.

Issue of jurisprudence

The two sides have remained at loggerheads on the issue of jurisprudence. The Taliban have demanded for the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence to be the guiding principle in all decision making about the country’s future, especially in case of disagreements over religious texts. The Afghan government has so far refused to accept this demand, citing concerns regarding the rights of minorities communities such as the Hazaras, who are predominantly Shia Muslims and thus, function in accordance with the Jafari school of thought. The government is also mindful of the possibility of being subjected to a limited space for manoeuvre in negotiations, once the Hanafi framework is established, forcing them to accept the Taliban’s diktat on issues such as women’s rights, the role of civil society, et cetera.

At the moment, the Hanafi school of thought is accepted as the law of the land, which Article 130 of the Afghan Constitution provides for. However, it functions only in a supplementary capacity to the provisions and legal procedures laid down in the Constitution. Making Hanafi jurisprudence the bedrock of all socio-political activity in Afghanistan, would not only ruffle the feathers of those Afghans that follow other Islamic schools of thought, but may even threaten to relegate them to the status of second – class citizens. It is imperative for the Afghan government therefore, to oppose the Taliban’s exclusionary demand and ensure that constitutional inclusivity is safeguarded at all costs.

Basis for deal

The other issue that has emerged as a major sticking point is the Taliban’s unwavering demand to make the US-Taliban agreement of 29 February 2020, the basis for intra-Afghan talks. Senior members of the Taliban have often alluded to the fact that till the US-Taliban agreement is referenced as the basis for ongoing negotiations, progress in talks would remain elusive. The Afghan government did not seem as averse to the demand as they were in the matter of jurisprudence.

However, their quid pro quo proposition to have the US-Taliban Agreement and the US-Afghanistan Joint Declaration to be accepted as the basis for talks was refused by the Taliban. As a result, the Afghan government revised its accommodative stand, and argued that since it wasn’t party to the US-Taliban Agreement, the provisions of the agreement would not apply to the Afghan people.

Interestingly, the US-Taliban deal is itself limiting for the Afghan government, insofar as it does not force compliance on the Taliban, on any of the issues that the Afghan government has deemed as crucial. Instead of making comprehensive ceasefire a non-negotiable for the Taliban, by incorporating it as an integral component of the US-Taliban deal, the condition was simply made an agenda point of intra-Afghan talks that were to take place in future.

As a result, the Taliban has been able to increase the frequency and severity of its attacks that has caused casualties among civilians and Afghan forces alike, without worrying that it would undermine their strengthened position in negotiations. Reports also suggest that the group has refused to sever ties with the Al Qaeda, in effect, indicating that it could care less about honoring the US-Taliban agreement.

Country Reports


Demand for more prisoners’ release

At a meeting held between the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and senior leadership of the Taliban in Doha, the group demanded the release of its remaining prisoners from government facilities. A spokesperson for the Afghan government addressed the demand as baseless, reiterating that the government had already fulfilled the obligation of releasing over 5,000 Taliban prisoners, in accordance with the joint declaration signed with the US, and well as the US-Taliban agreement.

Stress on violence-reduction

US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad renewed the call to the Taliban as well as government forces to reduce the levels of violence to pave the way for progress towards a negotiated political settlement. He urged Afghans to choose “development over destruction, stability instead of chaos” and compromise instead of rigidity. He emphasised on the need for the warring sides to make use of the window of opportunity to achieve a political settlement, warning that it wouldn’t last forever.


Free vaccine for all

In a significant decision, the government has decided to provide Covid-19 vaccines to all citizens at free of cost.  The government plans to purchase vaccine after it is out in the market and it will cost $2 billion. The government has sought financial assistance from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency to support the programme.

Anti-France protest

Religious conservative political party Islami Oikyo Jote staged an anti-French rally in the capital Dhaka this week.  Hundreds of activists of the party participated in the rally and they protested against French President Emmanual Macron’s support of secular laws that deem caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as protected under freedom of speech. Meanwhile, another rally was organised by religious party Islami Andolon in Dhaka that calls for a boycott of French product. Thousands of people took part in this rally too.

Air-link with India resumes

After the suspension of the flight services for eight months due to the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, India and Bangladesh air connectivity resumed this week.  The service restarted as per the air-bubble service between the two countries. Initially, three Bangladeshi airlines- Biman Bangladesh, US-Bangla Airlines and NovoAir will operate 28 flights per week to India. Similarly, Indian carriers including Air India, Vistara, Indigo, Spicejet and GoAir will run 28 flights a week to Bangladesh.


$30-m pact with ADB

The government and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on 29 October signed a USD 30 million policy-based loan agreement providing the borrowing member countries with flexible liquid funding to support policy reforms in various sectors, including financial sector. Provided as budgetary support to the government, the loan would help boost financial market reforms, targeted at increasing access to finance of the private sector and improving financial inclusion in Bhutan. The loan support covers the banking system, nonbank financial institutions, financial inclusion, and financial literacy.

India rail-link work this year

Indian Railways  has completed a field survey of the first ever railway line between Bhutan and India, a 37.5 km stretch between Mujnai in West Bengal and Neyopaling village under Phuentshopelri Gewog in Samtse. Foreign Minister, Dr. Tandi Dorji providing the details after his ministry received a copy of the completed survey, said that this route was found to be the most feasible as it also skirted populated areas in West Bengal. With the survey done construction of the project is expected to start within the next one year.

Conservation project

A tripartite agreement between the government, the Tarayana Foundation of Bhutan and the WWF was signed for Euro 10 million project to help biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation actions. To be implemented in the nine south-western dzongkhags in the next eight years the project baned as ‘The Living Landscapes: Securing High Conservation Values in South-Western Bhutan project’ would help in securing biodiversity and ecosystem services outside the protected area system by identifying landscapes with high conservation values. The project is also expected to promote integration into the national land-use plan.


Opposition alliance in West Bengal

The CPI(M) Party has decided to have an electoral understanding with the Indian National Congress (INC) in the West Bengal Assembly elections scheduled to be held in April next year. The CPI(M) party’s Polit Bureau had approved the decision earlier. In 2019 national election, CPI(M) and Congress were unable to forge a formal alliance due to lack of consensus. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury has stated that the party would make similar alliances in states like Assam and Tamil Nadu which would also go to polls next year.

Panel on Covid vaccine

Last week, the Central government has asked the States to constitute committees for managing the COVID19 vaccination drive in order to ensure that the other regular healthcare services do not get disrupted at that time. The Health ministry has stated that the vaccine will be made available “sequentially starting from health workers” and called for the constitution of committees at the state and district level to facilitate the distribution of vaccine in all regions and to all sections of people.


US to open embassy

In a first visit of the kind after James Baker in 1992, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Maldives. He announced the decision for America to open an embassy in capital Male, Pompeo, who held discussions with Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid and called on President Ibrahim Solih, reiterated the US’ desire to remain "a close partner to a sovereign, democratic and prosperous Maldives". The Framework Agreement signed by the Defence Ministries of the two nations recently was intended to address growing security concerns in the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region, including the threat of piracy, violent extremism, terrorism and illicit trafficking. The security concerns in Maldives and other island nations in the Indo-Pacific region such as Micronesia and Sri Lanka had become more relevant due to the Chinese government's "lawless and threatening behaviour", he added. The PPM-PNC Opposition combine identified with jailed former President Abdulla Yameen, at logger-heads with the ruling Solih-led MDP dispensation on every major policy issue, welcome Pompeo’s visit.


Senior citizens vote first

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, cast her ballot on 29 October ahead of Election Day next week, with hundreds of thousands of elderly voters across the country expected to follow suit to reduce the risk of coronavirus. The 75-year-old's National League for Democracy (NLD) is widely expected to be returned to power in the 8 November polls, only the second election since the nation emerged from outright military rule.


Twin issues in diplomacy

Two important developments in the diplomatic circle has caught global attention. First, the visit of Indian Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) Chief, Samant Goel and second, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not visiting the Himalayan country during his three-nation South Asia trip. Consequently, the country has been balancing out perceptions and insecurities. On the one hand, speculations of India attempting to topple Prime Minister K.P Sharma Oli’s Government exist. On the other hand, the US’ neglect has posed questions on Nepal’s position in the region. Many have also pointed out the America’s controversial MCC founding offer as the cause for the souring of relations between with the US.

World Bank aid

The World Bank, as part of its post-COVID recovery programme, has granted the country $ 80-million credit, mainly for rural enterprises and development scheme, mainly women-led. The Agricultural Development Strategy (2015- 2035) shall receive special attention under this program. Since Nepal is primarily an agriculture-based country, this progress is nothing short of an opportunity to make the economy better.


Imran blasts Macron  

Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has denounced the remarks made by French President Emmanuel Macron on Islam and the blasphemous caricatures. Khan said these remarks are encouraging Islamophobia. In a series of tweets, Khan said Marcon should have given a healing touch, rather than encouraging Islamophobia. Khan also wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to ban content encouraging Islamophobia. 

US should be even-handed: PM 

Prime Minister Imran in an interview with German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel said that Islamabad want, “even-handed treatment” from the US, especially on the Kashmir issue and with respect to India. The region is a hotspot and can face war anytime, he said, adding India’s policies in the neighbourhood threatened all neighbours including China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The US’ idea of nurturing India to contain China was based on a false premise as the current government in India is racist and most extremist in the sub-continent, he added. Khan refrained from comments on who will be next President of the US but said “we expect the US, as the strongest country in the world, to be even-handed, whoever becomes President”.   

Sri Lanka

China, ‘predator’: Pompeo

In Colombo for delayed discussions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described China as a ‘predator’ which pushed nations like Sri Lanka into a debt-trap. Against this, the US was transparent in its investments relations, he said, responding to President Rajapaksa’s call, seeking American investments. While naming Coke, Oracle, etc as among the possible investors, Pompeo however seemed to have linked such investments to Colombo’s response to ‘accountability issues’ pertaining to the ethnic war a decade ago and to ‘reconciliation’, obviously a reference this to a political solution to the decades-old ethnic issue. President Gota reportedly told the visitor that Sri Lanka would not compromise the nations’ sovereignty, and would remain non-aligned without getting caught in the emerging ‘cold war’ between the US and Sri Lanka. He also said told Pompeo that as long as he was President, there was no going back on his commitment to an ‘India First’ security policy.



Opinion Pieces

Mohammad Basir Karimi, “An Overview of Petrochemical Industry in Afghanistan”, The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 28 October 2020

Mohammad Reza Bahrami, “Afghan Talks: A Road Leading to Peace?”, TOLO News, 26 October 2020


The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, “Growing Concern Over Death Toll and Fragility of Talks”, 28 October 2020

Afghanistan Times, “Countering Normalisation of Anti-Peace Rhetoric”, 26 October 2020


Opinion Pieces

Sifat Islam Ishty and SyedaTasfia Tasneem, “Bangladesh RMG: Time to look beyond the comparative advantage of cheap labour”, The Daily Star, 29 October 2020

Ashikur Rahman, “Bangladesh edging past India”, Dhaka Tribune, 28 October 2020


Opinion Piece

Sonam Tshering, “Institutional obstruction to fight corruption”, Kuensel, 24 October 2020


Opinion Pieces

Javed Iqbal Wani and L David Lal, “The Precarity of Dalit Lives in India”, The Indian Express, 27 October 2020

Harish Khare, “The President who called a spade a spade”, The Hindu, 27 October 2020

Shaibal Gupta, “Bihar: A referendum on Nitish Kumar”, hindustantimes, 26 October 2020

Gautam Bhatia, “Domestic Violence Act: The Supreme Court took a progressive turn”, hindustantimes, 26 October 2020


The Hindu, “Grand collision: On Bihar polls”, 30 October 2020

The Hindu, “Real estate: On changes to J&K land laws”, 29 October 2020

The Indian Express, “Resist the binary”, 28 October 2020


Opinion Pieces

Kyaw Zwa Moe, “Understanding the Bigger Picture of Myanmar’s Election”, The Irrawaddy, 30 October 2020

Aung Zaw, “Post-Election Palm Reading as Myanmar’s Vote Nears”, The Irrawaddy, 30 October 2020

San Yamin Aung, “Myanmar Election Violence on the Rise as November Vote Nears”, The Irrawaddy, 29 October 2020


The Irrawaddy, “Has Myanmar’s Submarine Purchase From India Hit a Nerve in Beijing?”, 29 October 2020

The Irrawaddy, “Incoming Myanmar Govt Must Tackle Chinese Casino Haven in Myawaddy”, 26 October 2020


Opinion Pieces

Mahabir Paudyal, “Fellow Nepalis, fear the government, fear as much for the country,” Republica, 31 October 2020

Achyut Wagle, “Somehow, federalism rightly flagged up,” The Kathmandu Post, 29 October 2020

Bhairab Raj Kaini, “Can job creation and productivity increase happen together?Republica, 20 October 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “Virus goes to the villages,” 28 October 2020

The Kathmandu Post, “Building back better,”, 22 October 2020


Opinion Pieces

Aneela Shahzad, “The Indo-Pacific narrative for a new war”, The Express Tribune,29October 2020

Inam ul Haque, “Afghan people, Afghan govt and the Taliban — a necessary distinction”, The Express Tribune,28October 2020

Duranda Najam, “How India brutalised Kashmir”, The Express Tribune,28October 2020

Zahid Hussain, “A national dialogue, Dawn, 28 October 2020


Dawn, “US-India Pagreement”, 30 October 2020

The Express Tribune, “Attack at IIOJK demography”, 28 October 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

D B S Jeyaraj, “Killing of Premachandra and conviction of Duminda Silva”, Daily Mirror Online, 31 October 2020

Ameen Izzadeen, “South Asia great game, a challenge to Lanka’s neutrality”, Daily Mirror Online, 30 October 2020

Lynn Ockersz, “International cleavages sharpen over South Asia”, The Island, 29 October 2020

Malinda Seneviratne, “Dimensions of a ‘Sri Lanka First’ policy regime”, Daily Mirror Online, 29 October 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “19th Amendment: Vendetta against Rajapaksas”, Ceylon Today,27 October 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “The shape of things to come”, Colombo Gazette, 26 October 2020


Easwaran Rutnam, “Taliban-produced drugs entering Sri Lanka through Afghanistan: Ashraf Haidari”, Daily Mirror Online, 27 October 2020


Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

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