Swaraj in Sri Lanka: Transforming ties and China factor


sushma-lanka-ranilThe ongoing two-day visit of India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Sri Lanka  is the third bilateral high-level exchange in two months, and underlines a new vitality in multifarious relations between the two neighbours.

Setting the stage for Modi’s visit

India’s foreign minister’s visit is aimed at setting the stage for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the island nation next week. The visit is the first by any Indian prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi’s trip in 1987. Mr Modi will be on a multi- city tour in Sri Lanka, visiting the Jaffna province as well as addressing the Sri Lankan parliament. Since Mr Modi will be visiting Seychelles and Mauritius (where he is the Chief Guest at the National Day celebrations) before he comes to Sri Lanka, the visit is sure to give a boost to New Delhi’s neighbourhood initiative and Indian Ocean diplomacy. He is expected to leverage his visit to dwell on cultural, economic and security developments in the Indian Ocean littoral, possibly giving a new life to initiatives such as Mausam and Spice Route which project India’s soft power in the region as well as maritime defence dialogues. India’s strategic location at the centre of the Indian Ocean littoral gives it a unique position to influence strategic decisions in this area. Also, Sri Lanka is a member of other groupings as SAARC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which India is trying to revive and this visit would be seen as progress on that front too.

The visit of Sushma Swaraj builds on the goodwill of the previous diplomatic exchanges. She has already met Buddhist monks in Colombo, paid homage at the IPKF memorial in Colombo, participated in the talks regarding PM Modi’s visit next week and called upon the prime minister (where the fisherman issue was discussed as well) and the president.

Fishermen issue: Muddying troubled waters

lanka-fisherman1During President Sirisena’s visit to India in February, a constructive and humanitarian approach was sought to be pursued while tackling the fisherman issue bilaterally. However, the remarks of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe ahead of Swaraj’s visit, justifying shooting at Indian fishermen in the Sri Lankan waters have the potential to muddy the picture. The fishermen issue remains a thorny topic with much political mileage and is used for effective signalling. Pending maritime boundary demarcations and deep sea trawling are contentious issues, which may impede a speedy settlement.

Shifting foreign policy stance

The Modi visit is set to open a new chapter in India-Sri Lanka relations. A change in the foreign policy direction of Sri Lanka has been noticeable since the swearing-in of President Maithripala Sirisena in January, with the tilt being in favour of India. While China emphasises on the economic and commercial thrust of the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative, India remains wary of China gaining strategic depth in South Asia, traditionally considered as being under within the Indian sphere of influence. To gauge the significance of the transforming India-Sri Lanka relations, it needs to be placed within the larger domestic and regional political scenario.

Mr Sirisena, the joint opposition candidate, won the January 8 elections with 51% of the votes, trouncing his opponent, the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka was seen to be leaning towards China, favouring high Chinese investment and allowing Chinese naval vessels to dock at its ports, causing India to be wary. After the announcement of the preterm elections in November 2014, Mr Sirisena, formerly a minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, was announced as the united opposition candidate. Even in his manifesto, he referred to a possible debt trap with China, given the high interest rates of the infrastructure loans. India was viewed more favourably. After coming to power, there was sufficient diplomatic symbolism in Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera within a week of swearing-in and President Sirisena choosing India for his first foreign visit. The president’s mandate was backed by minority votes and Tamils in the North and East voted for him given his commitment to implanting Article 13 in letter and spirit. Given that the Tamil question is a flash point even in Indian domestic politics, this move was welcomed by India.

China or India?

China has been pursuing economic diplomacy aggressively, making mega economic investments especially in infrastructure development pitched under its new Maritime Silk Road proposal. India’s response to the MSR has been tepid. The $1.5 billion Port City development project, the largest by any private sector in the country, is one such initiative. Calling for a suspension on the project ahead of Mr Modi’s visit (reportedly for environmental clearances) gives clear signals to China. However, China is deeply entrenched in the Sri Lankan economy, being the second largest trade partner after India and accounting for 24% of the FDI in Sri Lanka. China has been aggressively pursuing economic diplomacy in South Asia and Indian Ocean, consolidating all policies under the MSR initiative.

The $40 billion MSR is supposed to connect the region economically, and China is willing to fund huge infrastructure projects in the hope of receiving economic and political dividends. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka as a part of the extended South Asian and Indian Ocean tour and pitched for strong maritime linkages between China and Sri Lanka, referring to Sri Lanka as the pearl in the Indian Ocean. Since Xi Jinping’s visit, wherein Chinese investment was pledged to boost India’s infrastructural bottlenecks, India is in no position to reprimand the neighbours for taking Chinese aid. The only way about it is to extend more of India’s own.

Resetting India-Lanka ties

lanka-sirisena-indiaPresident Sirisena’s visit to India in February, his first to a foreign country after taking charge, reflected the desire of the new dispensation in Colombo to recharge and expand a multi-faceted relationship that had tended to drift under the Rajapaksa dispensation.  Many agreements were signed in areas including trade and investment, science, education and security agreements, but the most important was the civil nuclear deal cooperation, the first such agreement for Sri Lanka. The agreement is to facilitate cooperation in transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It may not yield practical results for several years, but is a solid symbolic gesture for taking the relationship forward.

Tightrope walk

sushma-lanka-ipkfIn the days to come, Sri Lanka shall have to do some tightrope walking to keep the investment flowing in from China, while tilting towards India. China’s Maritime Silk Route project brings about tangible investment and infrastructure upgradation to the island nation, which may therefore not be very quick in shifting sides to India. Voting at the UNHRC may be a sticky point as well, given that India has thrice voted for the US-sponsored resolution for probing into war crimes committed during the last years of the civil war. Also, there is a significant anti-India and pro-China (given the economic investment and aid during the civil war) feeling among influential sections in Sri Lanka, which may guide the Sirisena government’s attitude towards India. But amid the shifting geopolitics of the region, one can safely say that the new government in Colombo has begun course correction by underlining the centrality of New Delhi to Colombo’s national interests even as it pursues its economic ties with Beijing, albeit in a possibly attenuated manner.