Why are India-Sri Lanka relations in such trouble? The recent case of five Indian fishermen who were initially sentenced to death and then released (pending an appeal) for alleged smuggling of contraband is a case in point. The episode is scarcely the root of all problems but different perceptions of it point to a trust deficit.
Similarly, the docking of Chinese nuclear-powered submarines and warships in Colombo, too, caused concern. When spoken to by Indian officials, the Sri Lankan defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (brother of the country’s president), is said to have been evasive and to have dissimulated, until irrefutable evidence was presented. This too has broadened the trust gulf.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the past few years, as the UPA government faltered, it adopted a very short-sighted Sri Lanka policy. This policy was governed by Tamil Nadu politics and fringe groups in Chennai. As PM, Manmohan Singh did not visit Sri Lanka for the first Commonwealth summit in South Asia since 1983. All this disappointed Colombo. It was often joked that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the international leader who was most looking forward to Narendra Modi’s election.
The BJP-led government in New Delhi has been more open and clearheaded in its approach to Colombo. There is little question of surrendering to small-time politicians in TN or to those who are in effect LTTE apologists. In fact, there is reason to believe the entire idea of South Asian leaders attending PM Modi’s swearing-in event originated in the context of a discussion on Rajapaksa and the need for a breakthrough with Sri Lanka.
Subsequent months have betrayed that early promise. In the highest quarters of this government, there is an increasing sentiment that Rajapaksa is not playing with a straight bat. While Sri Lanka has benefited enormously from the end of the civil war and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, and has seen an economic boom in recent years, it is still not in a position to leverage its economy and geography to become some sort of a swing state, playing off China against India. In this Rajapaksa’s ambitions may be moving ahead of reality.
China is today a very important economic partner for Sri Lanka. In the past four decades, the Chinese have given over $ 5 billion in loans and grants to the Sri Lankans. Tellingly 80% of this money has been transferred in the past five years, after the civil war. There is a big Chinese role in Sri Lankan infrastructure projects and Chinese debt has part-funded the property surge in Colombo. In September, when President Xi Jinping visited Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa enthusiastically signed on to the Maritime Silk Route project and legitimised China’s arrival as a south Asian power stakeholder.
To be fair, some of these infrastructure projects were offered to India. But it was either incapable of executing them or the previous government was too confused to do so. Neither do they take away from the importance of Sri Lanka’s economic engagement with India. Colombo port is viable only as a transhipment facility that serves the Indian economy. It cannot exist in the absence of Indian commerce, at least not for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that any Chinese Maritime Silk Route network can make use of Colombo port as an Indian Ocean way-station and allow it to completely bypass India.
Having said that, there is concern Rajapkasa is not showing the due maturity of a leader who has been in power for a decade. The credit lines the Chinese had opened in the past five years seem to be leaving an impact on him and claiming a strategic price. There is a sense that businesses of Rajapaksa’s immediate associates, including relatives, are in personal debt to Chinese credit institutions. At some point this money will need to be repaid or a compensatory benefit will need to be offered. India fears that compensation could be a re-orienting of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.
In January 2015, Rajapaksa is likely to call early elections, two years before they are due. Election campaigns are unpredictable and rhetoric can easily run faster than rationality. Given Rajapaksa’s Sinhalese base, it is to be hoped an overdone domestic triumphalism or a needling of India will not become part of the election. Should this happen, it will only strengthen those in New Delhi who are coming to believe that the current government in Colombo will now only respond to coercive diplomacy – given that it is willing to snub even a generally sympathetic Indian PM.
That China has become the third person in the room in what used to be a purely bilateral equation is suggestive of wider challenges for India. If it is Colombo today, it could be Dhaka or Kathmandu tomorrow. Beijing will not stop, not unless Modi finds the economic muscle and the hard-power tools to secure his nearneighbourhood.