China Courts Sri Lanka : India must protect vital strategic interests

China Courts Sri Lanka : India must protect vital strategic interests

Shreya Upadhyay Engagement has been the buzzword lately in South Asia. Political and diplomatic spaces saw new players emerging, old friends renewing...

Shreya Upadhyay

Engagement has been the buzzword lately in South Asia. Political and diplomatic spaces saw new players emerging, old friends renewing vows, rivalries being diluted by new bonhomie and heartburns over new partnerships. Even as Pakistan saw a landmark democratic change of guard and new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif immediately extended an olive branch to arch-rival India, Chinese Premier Li Kequiang's visit to New Delhi underscored hitherto unknown warmth in bilateral ties.

But in a twisted reciprocal of raised eyebrows, Indian Prime Minister's visit to Japan and Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa's visit to Beijing twirled the grapevine in India and China. While New Delhi believes that growing ties with Tokyo would act as a counter-balance to aggressive Chinese posturing in the Indian Ocean region, it was clearly disturbed by Rajapaksa's sixth visit to China whereby the 'string of pearls' theory is back in discussions as Colombo upgraded its bilateral ties with Beijing to "strategic cooperative partnership".

According to New Delhi's strategic pundits, this thrust in China-Sri-Lanka relations is bound to help Beijing extend its encirclement strategy vis-�-vis India. The recent interaction between the top leaders resulted in Beijing granting fresh $2.2 billion development loan for infrastructure projects to Sri Lanka. It also agreed to provide defence technology along with training to the Sri Lankan army.

There is a move to connect the Northern Express Highway to the central highlands of Kandy with Northern Jaffna at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion in private sector investment. Undoubtedly, the political and strategic significance of the proposed communication link is huge as China's support would help integrate the Tamil-dominated regions with the rest of the country. Add to this, extension of railways, while Southern highway and thedevelopment of Colombo Port were other features of Rajapaksa's visit.

This is in addition to the Hambantota Port construction wherein China is giving multi-billion dollar assistance. Notably, infrastructure development has wider tactical ramifications for China. True, the Hambantota Port development has been projected to have only commercial interest for China. But, the harbour is strategically located not only for Chinese merchant vessels and cargo carriers sailing to-and-from Africa and the Middle East to make a stop-over, but can also be used by any military fleet.

Undeniably, the regularity of Rajapaksa's visits to Beijing is a reminder of the Island nation's keenness to firm up ties with China. In the early years of his Presidency, the priority was seeking Chinese military hardware to overcome the Northern separatist insurgency. There was a steady supply of arms and ammunition from China to Sri Lanka. However, in the post-2009 era, the focus is on economic development. Interestingly, the Chinese, unlike the West, have no qualms in lending unconditional loans to Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa's strategy on economic development has been to enhance ports-related economy whereby Sri Lanka is repositioned as a 'pearl of the old silk route'. Thus, Colombo seems to be more than happy to be one of the pearls in China's 'string of pearls'.

Importantly, the growing Chinese footprints in Sri Lanka have been a matter of concern for the Indian security establishments for some time. It is evident that a strong Chinese foothold in Hambantota would allow it to have dominance over a vast area of the Indian Ocean, extending from Australia, Africa and even Antarctica. This would help China to closely monitor ships --- military and non-military --- shuttling in the Indian Ocean, thereby encircling India. Further, in their recent meeting, Li told Rajapaksa that Beijing would explore the possibility of establishing an industrial zone in Hambantota. Much to India's chagrin, China is also supporting Sri Lanka to develop capabilities in satellite communication, space technology and maritime industries.

New Delhi's fears have been bolstered by Beijing's several defence and security cooperation pacts with Colombo. However, India's strategic response seems to be both misplaced and inadequate. On the one hand, New Delhi is still employing a traditional approach whereby it constitutes the South Asian region under its sphere of influence. This is contrary to the Chinese approach which augments more independence and strategic autonomy to countries in South Asia, obviously aimed at countering India's presence in the region. In addition, New Delhi's foreign policy has been gagged by coalition compulsions. It is understandable that in a large country like India relations with neighbouring countries would have their immediate fallout on contiguous States.

Thus, India-Lanka relations are bound to affect Tamil Nadu. The competitive nature of Tamil Nadu politics, where every party competes in one-upmanship, makes it difficult for the Centre to forge an independent foreign policy. Besides, President Rajapaksa's visits to India in the past have been marked by protests by many Tamil parties, including the MDMK, CPI, DMDK, Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), etc. DMK supremo Karunanidhi has resurrected the Tamil Eelam Solidarity Organisation (TESO) in support of the Tamil cause. TESO meetings have so far stopped short of advocating a separate State for Sri Lankan Tamils, but the outfit's revival has itself allowed hardliners in Sri Lanka to argue that the grant of rights to Tamils is a slippery slope to their secession.

Furthermore, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is not only championing the cause of Tamil Eelam, but also advocating a referendum among Sri Lankan Tamils in the Island and the Tamil diaspora. She has disproved participation of Sri Lankan players in sports and suggested that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) venue be shifted from Colombo to another country. This is not all. Jayalalithaa wants Rajapaksa to be branded a war criminal and tried in the International Court of Justice. In an attempt to garner public support, she wants New Delhi to declare Sri Lanka an "unfriendly State" and demands imposition of an economic embargo.

Thus, New Delhi is torn between internal political wrangling and balancing foreign policy goals. Presently, India is not jittery with Chinese presence in the region. But its main concern remains the possibility of use of Chinese infrastructure against Indian interests. Yet, New Delhi's responses have remained slow and uncertain when it comes to addressing such concerns. Clearly, it is time New Delhi displays soft power in its foreign policy approach. It must play a more constructive involvement in Sri Lanka's development.

Resettlement, tourism, cultural exchange and trade are a few areas where India has a distinct advantage over other countries. Additionally, it is important for policymakers to have dialogue with its political actors. There is a conscious need to balance regional peace with India's own strategic interests.


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