The recent presidential election in Sri Lanka has opened up new doors of opportunities for India’s foreign policy makers. The election of Maithripala Sirisena has ended the decade long rule of the strongman of Sinhalese chauvinism – Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka, under Rajapaksa, had darted along a course away from India and the liberal western nations and into the arms of China. Rajapaksa’s regime which was marred in nepotism and human rights abuse took the help of China and Pakistan for diplomatic and military assistance. This Source of assistance was out of limits of western sanctions. This tilt towards China was unprecedented in Sri Lanka’s history and Rajapaksa played the China Card very effectively with India, which was averse to the idea of a strong Chinese presence so close to home.
India, which had serious concerns for the Tamils of Sri Lanka was a hindrance to Rajapaksa’s anti-Tamil pogroms and he tried to offset the influence of India, which is the preponderant power in South Asia, by bringing in China into the equation. With the continued help from China, Rajapaksa was able to wipe out the dreaded LTTE but not before thousands of innocent Tamil civilians were massacred. This approach led to increased isolation for Sri Lanka in the realm of International relations and its relation with India suffered. Now with Maithripala Sirisena in power the relations between India and Sri Lanka are set to thaw.
One of the prime concerns for India in Sri Lanka had been the deep inroads made by China. The construction of the Hambantota port by China in Sri Lanka still continues to worry Indian security analysts. The port will give access to Chinese naval ships and increase the range of supply for the Chinese Ships in the Indian Ocean.
A few weeks back the stationing of two Chinese nuclear Submarines in Sri lanka caused quite a panic in India’s security establishment. The Sri Lankan government gave no inputs to India regarding the submarines in a blatant disregard to the existing agreements between the two countries. In a future conflict hostile Chinese naval ships can be stationed in Hambantota- at the centre of Indian Ocean, which Indian Navy considers its own backyard. The massive supply of Chinese military hardware to Sri Lanka is another matter of worry.
China has become the largest arms supplier to Sri Lankan Army. It was the Chinese military aid that changed the balance of power to advantage of Sri Lankan Army and it resulted in the complete obliteration of LTTE. The Sri Lankan Army has become, to a large extent, depended on Chinese arms and ammunitions. The increased Chinese investment in infrastructure, Telecom and defence sectors has made India apprehensive about Chinese intentions in Sri Lanka. It is believed that Sri Lanka is just another ‘pearl’ in the Chinese ‘String of Pearl’ strategy of encircling India and manifesting a strong Chinese presence in the vital Indian Ocean Region.
Unlike Rajapaksa, the new President Sirisena is considered as an India friendly Politician. During his election campaign he had called for greater ties with India. He promised to reconcile with the marginalized Tamil populace of Sri Lanka- a task that wouldn’t be complete without increased trust and cooperation between India and Srilanka. Soon after Sirisena became the president of Sri Lanka his foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera visited India.
While in India he talked about readjusting the ‘Tilt’ in Sri Lankan foreign policy – a clear reference to the Pro China policies of the previous regime. There exists a growing concern in Sri Lanka on the country’s increasing dependency on China. From ports, roads to defence, China has entered almost all sectors in Sri Lanka. Sirisena has shown intent to diversify the sources of investment and may call for a review of many projects that were awarded to Chinese companies by the Rajapakse Government. A new balanced foreign policy will go a long way in strengthening Indo-Lanka relations and usher in a new era of cooperation between Sri Lanka and its only neighbor- India.
The unexpected change in regime in Sri Lanka is being largely seen as a great setback to China and a boost for India’s Sri Lanka policy. But it would be too early to hail the election of Sirisena as a great positive change. Sirisena, despite his reputation of being a non-controversial honest politician, has to face the challenge of reconciling the Tamil minorities while being in an alliance with of strong Pro-Sinhalese parties.
Sirisena himself was a past ally of Rajapaksa and played important part during the civil war. He himself escaped five assassination attempts by the LTTE. Doubt remains on how sincere Sirisena will be in bringing the marginalized Tamils to the mainstream and in safeguarding their basic human rights. As Sri Lanka’s relation with India is directly related to its internal politics and the Tamil issue, thus the future of Indo-Lanka relations will depend on the progress made by Sirisena in those fronts.
When it comes to China, it will not be easy for Sri Lanka to sever all ties with China. It is neither in a position nor willing to do so. Sri Lanka needs Chinese investment for its economic development and it would be interesting to see how Sri Lanka balances its relation with India and China. It is difficult to predict what the future may hold but as far as the recent presidential election in Sri Lanka is concerned, it provides a much needed opening to India’s Foreign policy makers to engage with Sri Lanka in a far constructive manner.
The ball is in India’s court and we must take the initiative and follow a proactive and an effective Sri Lanka policy.
By: Avinandan Choudhury