New Delhi and Beijing vie for influence in Sri Lanka
India, a big country with a large population drawn from diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities sharing commonalities with other groups in the neighborhood, has tended to perceive threats to its territorial integrity from adverse political developments in the South Asian region. For instance, East Pakistan’s (now Bangladesh) desire to seek independence from West Pakistan (now Pakistan proper) and the latter’s attempt to subdue it led to a massive influx of refugees into India.
India exerted its influence in Nepal in favor of the Madhesi population to force changes to the allegedly discriminatory provisions of the new constitution because of their Indian origin and cultural ties with the people in the border areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Ethnic bonds between the Tamils of the Indian province of Tamil Nadu and those of Sri Lanka led to mounting pressure on the Indian state to respond to the civil war (1983-2009) in the island state. This aside, India and its neighbors share common geographical borders in the Himalayas and Indian Ocean, and therefore any external powers’ involvement in the region is considered a threat to Indian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
New Delhi has made a strong effort to build a security architecture that addresses its concerns, which depends on India’s relations with its South Asian neighbors Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives
In this light, New Delhi has made a strong effort to build a security architecture that addresses its concerns, which depends on India’s relations with its South Asian neighbors Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives.
In a bid to keep Colombo within its sphere of influence, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in Sri Lanka’s troubled north and east between 1987 and 1990 to keep the peace between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamils.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Sri Lankan Tamil minority and the people of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu shared strong linguistic, cultural and kinship ties, New Delhi’s move was geared more toward establishing strong political ties with Colombo than promoting the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
However, New Delhi’s efforts did not achieve the desired objective of disarming the rebels. Rather, India became a party to the cycle of violence in Sri Lanka. Many observers viewed the Indian action as an attempt to halt Sri Lankan efforts to secure external support to stem the crisis.
Later, although India was receptive to external powers’ involvement in the peace process in Sri Lanka, the meeting between Norway’s then-prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee in April 2001 reportedly clarified that Oslo would not work against New Delhi’s interests in the region. India allegedly exercised its influence to ensure that the peace process in Sri Lanka did not involve any great powers and comprised only observers from Nordic countries.
Concerns over Chinese inroads
Sri Lanka remained one of India’s top trading partners in South Asia, with economic ties between Colombo and New Delhi actually outweighing those between Beijing and Colombo. However, Chinese exports to Sri Lanka came closer to Indian levels after 2005.
As the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE worked to find a way to end the civil war, Indian influence began to wane. New Delhi was apparently torn between its desire to maintain healthy relations with Sri Lanka on the one hand and concerns for the Tamil population on the other. Second, pressure from the political parties of Tamil Nadu on the Indian government was too significant to formulate independent policy on the issue.
China has swiftly filled the vacuum created by the withdrawal of US military aid in 2007, which was prompted by Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights record. China not only exercised its veto to prevent the United Nations Security Council from debating the issues pertaining to rights violations during the long civil war, it also significantly enhanced its aid and became Sri Lanka’s biggest donor, supplying tens of millions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated weapons, and gifting six F-7 fighter jets to the Sri Lanka Air Force.
When the civil war ended in 2009, China began to pour development assistance into Sri Lanka, largely in the form of concessional loans. Sri Lanka’s move into the Chinese sphere of influence became more likely as China disbursed almost US$2.5 billion between 2012 and 2015, while India extended just $660 million in lines of credit during the same period.
The Chinese loans were made available under the Belt and Road Initiative’s Maritime Silk Road scheme. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership, Colombo not only an took interest in undertaking several infrastructure projects with Beijing, including building the strategic port at Hambantota, but the Chinese projects are reported to have gradually expanded from the southern parts to the northern and central parts of the country and penetrated into the areas of rubber, tea and coconut plantations.
Chinese economic engagement
Chinese economic engagement with Sri Lanka, because of their significance from the perspective of controlling trade and sea routes, was viewed with suspicion in New Delhi. Indian strategic and foreign-policy experts perceived a threat of “encirclement” in the growing Chinese engagement, although its declared objective was enhancing connectivity.
Declining Indian influence vis-à-vis China was also indicated by the expressed willingness of some of its neighbors, including Sri Lanka, to promote China from observer status to full membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation at the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu in November 2014.
However, New Delhi wanted to foster healthy ties with Colombo whenever opportunities arose, which was exemplified by its quick response to the humanitarian crisis precipitated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2006. Later, India and Sri Lanka agreed to conduct annual defense dialogues and regular talks between different wings of the armed forces in 2011 despite their differences over the Tamil issue. Not only did they conduct joint naval exercises in Sri Lankan waters, but India also offered to train Sri Lankan military officers as well.
New Delhi’s efforts did not achieve the desired objective of disarming the rebels. Rather, India became a party to the cycle of violence in Sri Lanka
Chinese support for a port, airport, and a cricket stadium in Hambantota, and the Maithripala Sirisena government’s leasing out of Hambantota Port to China for 99 years under debt pressure contributed to India’s growing security concerns. It responded to the threat by starting negotiations to operate Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport near the port to keep an eye on Chinese moves.
To check China’s influence in the South Asian and Indian Ocean region, India undertook efforts to invigorate subregional initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which was launched in 1997 and comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Recently, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirsena precipitated a political crisis by firing prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Replacing Wickremesinghe with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was allegedly in violation of constitutional provisions and has been a source of controversy ever since.
Some observers argue that in this context the political imbroglio will invigorate the India-China struggle for power in the country and that the forced change in leadership should be viewed from the perspective of the rivalry between India and China.
During Rajapaksa’s decade-long (2005-2015) presidency, he pushed his country closer to China, which led some observers such as Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, to view the current political crisis through the prism of Chinese interests. He said, “The assumption is that whatever Rajapaksa does, the financial bill, as it were, will be met in some way by the Chinese,” pushing the Sri Lankans further into China’s arms.
He added, “The Sri Lankan ‘coup’ happened after Chinese economic interests were seriously challenged by Wickremesinghe’s administration.” He views Wickremesinghe’s role in increasing and improving ties with India and the West as a threat to China.
A deputy minister from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), Ranjan Ramanayake, reportedly accused China of paying for Rajapaksa’s attempts to win over rival deputies and Beijing swiftly rejected the charges, describing them as “groundless and irresponsible.”
However, the contention that Rajapaksa has a proclivity for China and that the feeling is quite mutual gained credibility when the Chinese envoy to Sri Lanka, Cheng Xueyuan, called Rajapaksa to congratulate him on his appointment as prime minister – he was the first diplomatic representative. Chinese President Xi Jinping was also quick to congratulate Rajapaksa.
The political impasse is understood to have encouraged developments in the country that would end the coalition that was allegedly formed with Indian encouragement in 2015.
India’s former ambassador to Sri Lanka and China and currently the director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Ashok K. Kantha, however, maintains that it would be facile and simplistic to look at the current crisis in Sri Lanka mainly through the prism of relations between India and China.
It is unreasonable to believe that the country wants to be a client state of bigger powers, argues Guo Xuetang, director of the South Asian and Indian Ocean Research Center at Shanghai University. He believes the country’s tilt in favor of India or China in the future will be governed by a “balance of interests.”
The minority question
Rajapaksa’s regime carried out a successful but ruthless military campaign against the Tamil Tiger rebels, which ended the country’s long civil war in 2009. While there are scores of reports that point to massive civilian deaths and disappearances, the Sri Lankan government has vehemently denied that its forces were responsible.
Meanwhile, there have been allegations that Rajapaksa was extremely slow to rehabilitate the Tamil refugees. The current political crisis has led the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) political party, which has 14 MPs, to describe the new government as illegal and unconstitutional.
Leader of the Opposition R Sampanthan, head of the TNA, has reportedly remarked: “In such a situation, the country’s minorities, especially Tamils, may become the victims.” The crisis has further raised questions, according to the Tamil leader, concerning the government’s assurance that it will return the remaining military-occupied land belonging to civilians in war-affected areas, the release of political prisoners, the ongoing work of the missing persons office, and efforts to set up an office for reparations.
In contrast to Chinese aid and military assistance during the Sri Lankan Civil War, India consistently voted in support of the US-sponsored UN Human Rights Council resolution to investigate alleged rights violations by the state against Tamil rebels, and thereby caused Indian influence to decline.
However, concerns for the Tamil population and political pressure from Tamil Nadu on the Indian government are likely to propel New Delhi to engage with and nudge the Sri Lankan government, irrespective of the leadership change, toward the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils. This may be of primary importance for New Delhi rather than Beijing’s influence in the country.