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India and Sri Lanka need to circumvent irritants, focus on diversification of ties

India could reset its approach by engaging with Sri Lanka as a country in the Indo-Pacific region and not just as a neighbour.

Niranjan Marjani Sep 28, 2022
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India-Sri Lanka

During the discussion on the report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on September 12, India expressed its concern over the lack of any measurable progress by the Sri Lankan government on its commitment to finding a solution to the Tamil issue. India issued this strong-worded statement at the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

India’s remarks at the UNHRC came weeks after the Chinese missile and satellite tracking ship Yuan Wang 5 docked at the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. India had expressed concerns over this docking due to the possibility of the ship’s tracking systems spying on India’s defence installations. 

These two recent incidents, Sri Lanka favouring China over India and India raising the Tamil issue, point to the discord in the India-Sri Lanka relations, which continues even after both countries have sought to diversify their ties. These incidents also indicate the need for both countries to work around their differences to be able to explore more areas of cooperation.

During the seven decades of their diplomatic relations, India and Sri Lanka have followed a particular trend in engaging with each other.

The Tamil factor

For India’s part, the Tamils in Sri Lanka have been the principal area of concern in its engagement with the island country. Domestic politics of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu too played a major role in shaping India’s policy towards Sri Lanka. Complexities in settling the citizenship issue of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka through the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) further widened the already existing distrust between both countries.

For Sri Lanka’s part, after gaining independence in 1948, it continued close relations with Britain, to the extent of depending on the latter for foreign and defence policy. However, Sri Lanka’s proximity to Britain, termed bandwagoning, was directed toward creating a counterbalance to India. Sri Lanka viewed India as a regional hegemon and chose close relations with Britain at a time when India did not enjoy exactly cordial relations with the western countries. Inequality with India, in terms of size, population, and economic and military capability, has been a constant driving factor of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Besides, India’s interest in the Tamil issue further made Sri Lanka suspicious of India’s intentions.

After the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, India-Sri Lanka ties did witness some thaw on the Tamil issue. India has also been involved in a number of developmental projects in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka which include the construction of houses, schools, railway station and the upgradation of Palaly International Airport.

As a neighbouring country, Sri Lanka has been an integral part of India’s Neighborhood First Policy. India has been a first responder to Sri Lanka during various crises. India was the first country to send assistance to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami in December 2004. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka was among the first countries to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from India under the Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) initiative. Recently, India has extended assistance of $3.8 billion to Sri Lanka to deal with the economic crisis.

The Indo-Pacific factor 

While India and Sri Lanka have had uneasy relations for a better part of their seven decades of diplomatic ties, the past few years had indicated some shift toward fruitful engagements.

Irrespective of the irritants, India and Sri Lanka have managed to diversify their ties in the past about one decade, particularly in the areas of strategic cooperation and non-traditional security threats such as terrorism and climate change.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, released Integrated Country Strategy 2021-2023 which prioritizes its relations with India.

The last decade has witnessed India looking for proactive engagements across the Indo-Pacific region for forwarding and protecting its economic and strategic interests. As a part of this approach, India has been increasing its outreach to the countries in the eastern as well as the western Indian Ocean Region. As a response to the emerging geopolitical concerns, India needs to be nimble-footed in its approach.

While Sri Lanka has been going through an economic and political crisis, both India and Sri Lanka have high stakes in stable and strong bilateral ties. India and Sri Lanka, being neighbours, do have unresolved issues that prevent both from realizing the full potential of their bilateral ties. 

India could reset its approach by engaging with Sri Lanka as a country in the Indo-Pacific region and not just as a neighbour. Sri Lanka would also do well to adopt balancing as its policy.  This would allow it to strengthen ties with India while reducing the overdependence on China. 

(The writer is a political analyst based in Vadodara, India. Views are personal. He can be reached at @NiranjanMarjani)

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