India and Sri Lanka have shared a relationship with each other for more than 2500 years. This millennium old relationship between the two nations have diversified and matured with the passage of time, encompassing all spheres of contemporary relevance. The spread of Buddhism began in Sri Lanka with the advent of Sanghamitra as an envoy of King Ashoka in the country. Over the centuries, both the countries not only shared a friendly bilateral relationship but also it was once ruled by one of the most powerful kingdoms of South India, The Cholas. With the advent of the European powers and their subsequent rule, Sri Lanka too came to be ruled by the British. It won its independence from British rule a year after India’s independence, in 1948, though it remained a dominion of the British Empire until 1972.
India and Sri Lanka have always shared a common culture, language, and religion. Both the country shares a maritime border and is separated by the Palk Strait. Considering the present geo-political scenario in South Asia and the rise of China as an economic power and as military might to recon with, Sri Lanka is being considered one of India’s closest strategic partners in the Indian Ocean region.
In recent times, the ties between these two nations have become even stronger with India signing a civil nuclear deal with Sri Lanka in 2015. In fact, India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner in South Asia. However, of late, Sri Lanka’s growing proximity with Pakistan and China has been a cause of concern for New Delhi. In February, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Sri Lanka. During his visit, he was scheduled to address the Sri Lankan Parliament. However, this was abruptly cancelled at the last moment resulting in a controversy that Khan’s address was called off on India’s insistence.
Since 2005, Colombo has a Free Trade Agreement with Pakistan. As a matter of fact, Pakistan is also the second largest trading partner of the island nation. There is a joint working group between these countries assigned to resolve pending issues on trade. Apart from trading, Pakistan also supplied India’s closest neighbour to the south with arms and ammunitions and even provided training to Sri Lanka’s fighter pilots during its fight against the LTTE, following the withdrawal of Indian Peace Keeping Forces from the Jaffna peninsula. This well-established long-standing relationship between the two nations has been a cause of major concern for India.
The Improving Relationship
In 2009, the three decade long Sri Lankan civil war, finally came to an end. India had extended help to its southern neighbour by providing valuable intelligence inputs and sending Indian Peace Keeping Forces to counter the LTTE and bring back peace in the country. After the war concluded, India tried to settle the ethnic issue in the country through peaceful talks and political dialogue.
India’s relations with Sri Lanka have gradually improved since then. The conclusion of the civil war saw the major humanitarian crisis in the region. In the post-war period, nearly 3,00,000 Tamilians were housed in camps for the Internally Displaced Persons of the region. Subsequently, the Indian government extended a helping hand towards its neighbour in order to support the community in returning back to normal life quickly. India assisted Colombo in rebuilding houses and railways tracks, establishment of Vocational Training Centres, wreckremoval & rehabilitation of the KKS Harbour, reconstruction and rehabilitation of a hospital in Jaffna peninsula region. In addition to these, developmental assistance from India also included construction of a Cultural Centre at Jaffna, establishing Centres for English Language Training, providing technical assistance for National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka, Research Institute in the Northern Province, expanding scholarship programs for Sri Lankan students to pursue their higher studies in India, restoration of Thiruketheeswaram Temple. To summarise, India assisted Sri Lanka in the areas of education, health, transport connectivity, development of small and medium enterprises in the region and imparting training to the people. In other words, India assisted Sri Lanka in every possible way to counter the loss.
In the post-war period, India had committed to provide 1372 cr as grants for the housing project undertaken by the Sri Lankan government. Sri Lanka had been at the receiving end of major development credit given by Government of India with a total commitment US$ 2.63 billion. Even, Emergency Ambulance service was launched in Sri Lanka with India’s assistance US$ 7.55 million.
Former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena visited India in 2015. Followingly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also undertaken several visits to Colombo since 2015. Realising the importance of one another as strategic partners in the region, the bilateral relationship between these nations has become even stronger since then.
India and Sri Lanka share a robust trade and investment relationship with Sri Lanka being India’s one of the largest trading partners in South Asia. Trade between both the countries grew rapidly with the enactment of the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement in March 2000. India’s exports to Sri Lanka in 2018 alone touched US$ 4.16 billion while exports from Sri Lanka to India were US$ 767 million.
Additionally, the Government of India had also given $5 billion credit to Sri Lanka for various developmental purposes. This money was to be used against capital goods, consultancy services & food items, consumer durables, purchase of petroleum products, rehabilitation of Colombo-Matara railway, fishing equipment for fishermen in eastern Sri Lanka, solar energy aided computer education for rural schools in Eastern Sri Lanka, upgrading the Trincomalee city and construction of Trincomalee port, water supply projects, a joint venture to revive loss-making Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota, thermal power plant projects, building tourism establishing hospitals, supply of medical equipment, etc.
The main exports from India to Sri Lanka are Gas oil/Diesel, motorcycle, Pharmaceutical Products, Portland cement, Rice, military equipment, and semi-finished iron products. On the other side, exports from Sri Lanka to India includes Base oil, poultry feeds, Areca nuts, paperboard, paper, copper wires and Marble.
We are living in a geopolitical situation where the economic power shift to Asia has already begun. It is believed that by 2030, Asia will become the major economic hub and have manpower surpassing North America and Europe combined. The control over the maritime trade in the Indian Ocean region will determine the future of these two countries in the region. India has already declared that its southern neighbour as its Priority One partner in the defence sector. Apprehending the need for making the ties even stronger, India has increased its naval cooperation with Sri Lanka over the past decade. With Combined naval exercises, training and interaction among the armed forces of both nations, India-Sri Lanka jointly has set up a new strategic partnership goal in South Asia.
However, New Delhi’s strategic partnership with Sri Lanka suffered a setback with the arrival of the new regime. The newly elected government is termed to be pro-China in its approach.
Back in 2019, Sri Lanka, under the leadership of Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka had signed a memorandum of cooperation with India and Japan to jointly develop and operate the East Container Terminal (ECT) wherein India and Japan were to hold 49 percent stake. The opposition parties of Sri Lanka, opposed the Indian involvement in the construction of the port. Now, with the change in power in Colombo, the new Government under Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to over-turn the agreement leading to much controversy in the region.
The port was being considered as a strategic one for India in the region, considering the Theory of ‘String of Pearls’ through which China is building ports at strategic locations across the Indian Ocean surrounding India in the region including Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan. The port was close to the Chinese run Colombo International Container Terminal. Moreover, had this port become functional, it would have turned out to be an important trade and connectivity link for India.
Instead, India and Japan have been reassigned the West Container Terminal to be developed along with Sri Lanka with an 85 percent stake for India and Japan in the port. Considering the location of the WCT, it will not be a cause of much concern for India, as we intend to develop a strategic port in the region. The only cause of concern is that the construction of ECT was partially complete, while the WCT has to be developed from scratch.
The growing fondness of the Sri Lankan leadership with Pakistan and China has been a cause of concern for India in recent times. With India’s two hostile neighbours coming close to each other in the Indian Ocean region with Sri Lankan help, it has not gone well with New Delhi. On the other hand, Colombo is trying to balance its relations with its neighbours, especially after the ECT controversy is not willing to invite the wrath of New Delhi. Perhaps this was why Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan did not address the Parliament during his official visit to Sri Lanka.
UNHRC Resolution Against Sri Lanka
Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council has passed a resolution that will allow the United Nations to strengthen the UNHRC office in Colombo to collect information and evidence on war crimes committed in Sri Lanka both by the army and the LTTE during the civil war, especially during the final months of the war. According to some human rights group, this resolution can be viewed as a critical decision in providing justice to the victims of war crimes committed during the war and is expected to be a big blow to Sri Lanka’s commitment to Human Rights. India abstained from voting at the resolution, while both Pakistan and China voted against the resolution.
The Sri Lankan government has strongly rejected the resolution. It has claimed that the resolution lacked the authority as the combined strength of the countries which have voted against or abstained from voting outnumbered the countries voting in favour of the resolution. Colombo has described the resolution as ‘unwanted interference by power countries.’
The resolution is expected to impact the India-Sri Lanka relationship with Sri Lanka, fearing a tarnish in their global image if evidence regarding the war crimes committed both by the military and the LTTE on civilian life and property comes out in front of the international community. Moreover, India has indicated that the support provided by India at the UNHRC should not be taken for granted in the present scenario. New Delhi further added that India is highly committed to the Sri Lankan Tamils’ aspirations for ‘equality, peace, justice and dignity’. India has called on Colombo to take necessary steps through reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.
Chinese influence on Sri Lanka
China has always tried to follow an expansionist policy in the Indian Ocean region. Be it constructing new ports or taking over ports from other countries of the region through its debt-trap policy, it has left no stone unturned to ensure its dominance in the region. The String of Pearls theory has repeatedly proved China’s ambition to control India’s dominance in the Indian Ocean. For instance, it has already taken over the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka through its debt trap policy. However, the previous regime of Maithripala Sirisena was more inclined to the cause of India than China. Things changed with the return of Rajapaksas in 2019 as they are far more pro-Chinese than being inclined towards India. Although the Sri Lankan authorities have shown a balance in their relationship between the two Asian giants, yet the ECT issue clearly portrays China’s influence on the Sri Lankan government.
Considering the current geopolitical situation in the region and the increase of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region, India needs to look for key strategic partners as the Chinese presence at the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka is a major threat to India’s maritime security. Starting from culture to the Puranas, there are various common features between these two nations. The relation between both countries has witnessed a gradual improvement in recent years, although several ups and downs have occurred. Currently, it remains in a state of procrastination surrounded by several tricky issues. Hence, how will the recent international developments and flickering nature of the Sri Lankan Government impact the bilateral relations between the two countries will be a key area to watch in the coming years.