Beyond Liminality: India’s Geopolitical Concerns In Sri Lanka – Analysis


Does the commissioning of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant—amid the wrangle over the visit of China’s Yuan Wang-5—auger well for the Indian navy and the country’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean?  India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh categorically stated that INS Vikrant “will enhance India’s capability of fulfilling its requirement of collective security.”

The reference to ‘collective security’ has apparently a feisty geopolitical dimension for India’s ‘Grand Strategy’ in the Indian Ocean and beyond—a dream nurtured by Sardar K.M. Panikkar seven decades back. Describing it as “the largest ship ever built in the maritime history of India,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “in the past, security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean have long been ignored. But, today this area is a major defence priority of the country for us. That is why we are working in every direction, from increasing the budget for the Navy to increasing its capability,” he said. Many experts believe that the commissioning of the 47,400-ton warship in Kochi has sent a strong signal to China and its potential clients across the Indian Ocean region. This also has tricky implications for India’s maritime strategy in dealing with small states in the region, such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives. 

Beyond Liminality 

Recent developments have shown that India’s maritime security concerns and perceptions have more than a ‘liminal’ dimension. While scholars like Maria Mälksoo argue that ‘liminality’ is also a critical “moment of creativity, a potential platform for renewing the societal make-up,” its temporal and situational nature need not necessarily offer a substantive framework for down-to-earth geopolitical engagements in South Asia. Mälksoo brings in the writings of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner who delved into the “rites of passage”, and here liminality demonstrates “in-between situations and conditions” where established structures are disturbed, hierarchies overturned, and conventional locales of authority probably imperilled. Many sensitive locales of the world may have such moments of ‘creativity’ for ‘renewing’ geopolitical ‘make-up’, but the established geopolitical hierarchies have perpetuated embedded notions of ‘Thucydides Trap.’ The context of this ‘liminality’ discussion is a range of issues freshly associated with the exchange of ‘concerns’ over the recent visit of China’s dual-purpose naval tracking vessel Yuan Wang-5 at Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. 

On August 26, China’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka—Qi Zhenhong—published a signed article in the SriLankaGuardian placing India (without naming it) in a malicious position. Zhenhong writes: 

Looking back at the great history of the island, Sri Lanka who overcome aggression from its northern neighbour for 17 times, colonization by the west for 450 years, and an anti-terrorism war for nearly 3 decades, is now still standing in the world bravely and proudly. Any infringement on the national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka shall not be tolerated. Approving a foreign vessel’s port call at Hambantota or any other port for replenishment is a decision made by the Sri Lankan government completely within its sovereignty, not to mention all the scientific research activities of “Yuan Wang 5” comply with the international law and common international practice. External obstruction based on so called “security concerns” but without any evidence from certain forces is de facto a thorough interference into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence. 

The Chinese Embassy in Colombo also reproduced this article on its website. In reply to this, the Indian high commission in Sri Lanka tweeted: “His violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait or reflecting a larger national attitude.” In subsequent tweets, it said: “His view of Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. India, we assure him, is very different.” Furthermore, the Indian High commissioner noted: “India pointed out that the importance given by China to the visit by Yuan Wang 5 was a clear indication that the ship had other functions besides that of a purely scientific manner. His imputing a geopolitical context to the visit of a purported scientific research vessel is a giveaway.”  

Two weeks before, Arindam Bagchi, the official spokesperson of the MEA said:  “we reject the insinuations in such statements about India. Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own independent decisions. Insofar as India-Sri Lanka relations are concerned, you are aware we’ve been talking about it, the centrality of Sri Lanka in our Neighbourhood First policy. …. India is also fully supportive of the Sri Lanka’s democracy, stability and economic recovery.” Speaking on India’s security concerns, he said, “this is a sovereign right of each country. We will make the best judgment in our own interest. This naturally takes into account the prevailing situation in the region, especially in our border areas.” 

Many foreign policy observers agree that India’s security concerns with the visit of Yuan Wang-5 are quite legitimate even as Colombo sought to balance between Beijing and New Delhi for obvious reasons. Similar incidents—exchange of concerns—happened in 2014 and 2017 when the Chinese military vessels came closer to Indian maritime boundary. That was the period when New Delhi’s apprehensions were at their height—about the Rajapaksa regime’s hobnobbing with China. Today, with the continuing stalemate of the economy, Colombo has little option but to remain on tenterhooks, strategically, so as to ensure the next bailout package from IMF. President Ranil Wickremesinghe already indicated that the government would “raise taxes and strengthen social safety schemes in a budget designed to help secure an IMF support deal and steer the bankrupt country out of a severe economic crisis.” Colombo knows that China has very little leverage under the IMF dispensation, especially in the context of disagreements between the IMF and China over the future of BRI projects in debt-distressed countries like Sri Lanka. Experts argue that the Chinese loans flout numerous “international lending best practices involving procurement, transparency, and dispute settlement.” 

Why geopolitics of Sri Lanka matters for India? 

Going beyond liminality, South Block has always seen Sri Lanka within a larger context of India’s South and Southeast Asia policy. More than the geopolitical proximity between the two—though important as it were—Sri Lanka’s strategic locale has always been central to India’s Indian Ocean policy. It was Sardar K. M. Panikkar who first articulated this, way back in the 1940s, in his India and the Indian Ocean: an essay on the influence of sea power on Indian historyHe wrote: “It need hardly be said that such an Oceanic policy for India is possible only in the closest collaboration and association with the states of the Indian Ocean area.”  Writing that the “future of India will undoubtedly be decided on the sea,” Panikkar reminded that “Indian freedom can be upheld only by firmly deciding to shoulder our share at all costs in the active defence of the areas necessary for our security.”  He further noted: “Tie main islands in the Ocean arc Ceylon, which is so close to India as to lose its insular character, and Madagascar which by its size and position provides an ideal cover to the South- East coast of Africa. Ceylon has at least two fine harbours, Colombo and Trincomalee, whose importance has been recognised from time immemorial and Madagascar has unique facilities in Diego Suarcs which the Third Republic vainly converted into a base second only to Singapore in the Indian Ocean.” Panikkar also pointed out that “Ceylon’s defence, both naval and land cannot be separated from that of India and the possibility of her launching out as a naval power need not be seriously considered.” 

Warning that “the Indian Ocean will be one of the major problems of the future,” Panikkar observed, “with major powers developing so near the area, the old conception of that ocean as a preserve has to be given up. America, China and perhaps Russia will have access to the sea, in a manner totally different from what the European nations had in the centuries that followed Vasco da Gama’s arrival.” His articulation of the Indian Ocean policy is clear enough: 

The freedom of India will hardly be worth a day’s purchase, if Indian interests in the Indian Ocean are not to be defended from India…. Unless India is prepared to stand forth and shoulder the responsibility of peace and security in the Indian Ocean, her freedom will mean but little. She will be at the mercy of any power which has the command of the sea, as it will be impossible for us to require of Britain or any other country to defend the Indian Ocean for us.

Even as India publicly declared its independent foreign policy after 1947, Sri Lanka sought to maintain its strategic tie-up with Britain under its defence umbrella. The new rulers of the UNP government were probably influenced by the position of Nehru and Panikkar, before independence, who made statements that small states in the region would be extremely vulnerable and that India must step in to fill the power vacuum with the British withdrawal. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, President of the Indian National Congress in 1948, went to the extent of suggesting that India and Sri Lanka should have common defence strength, resources and strategy. Colombo-London strategic tie-up was rationalised in the context of such statements. India knew that Britain was a senior partner of the NATO and a key Western power in cold war politics. Colombo’s foreign policy during this time was exhibiting a pro-western tilt. During the Korean war, the American navy used Sri Lankan harbour facilities. However, in spite of the professed anti-communist rhetoric and pro-Western tilt, Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala did not join the cold war military alliances such as the SEATO due to internal pressures. 

The change of government in Colombo after 1956 marked a clear transformation in Sri Lankan approach. This almost coincided with the Suez crisis and the consequent inability of Britain to maintain a prolonged presence in the Indian Ocean. Yet, New Delhi had apprehensions about Mrs. Bandaranaike’s policy of ‘balance’ between China and India. During Prime Minister Nehru’s visit to Colombo in October 1962, Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike’s plea was that a “big and great country like India” would “always view our difficulties with sympathy and understanding.” This statement came just five days before the outbreak of a large-scale war launched by China on the Indian territory, across the western and eastern sectors. The Chinese attack actually heightened fears and apprehensions in small countries in South Asia. 

Colombo’s convening of a six-nation nonaligned conference was an expression of this fear with Mrs. Bandaranaike calling it as a challenge to Afro-Asian solidarity and the very notion of nonalignment. She further warned that the war “afforded an opportunity for power politics of the ‘cold war’ to penetrate… into the affairs of the Afro-Asian world.” Yet, India felt perturbed by the silence and non-condemnation of Chinese attack by the nonaligned nations. In fact, though India half-heartedly welcomed the Colombo Proposals for a peaceful negotiation with China, Nehru realised that nothing would work with China’s non-compliance. However, it was also an embarrassment for India to see Colombo developing strategic ties with China. In July 1963 Sri Lanka and China signed a Maritime Agreement, which provided the ‘most favoured nation’(MFN) status to commercial vessels of the two countries engaged in cargo and passenger services. Insofar as the major chunk of Sri Lanka-China trade was operated through the Trincomalee harbour, the Maritime Agreement triggered concerns and anxiety that there was a ‘clandestine agreement’ with China to make Trincomalee ‘a Chinese naval base.’ Colombo denied this and Mrs. Bandaranaike underlined that the relationship of Ceylon “can’t depend on the relations between India and China.” 

In subsequent years, Colombo did not take any direct position on issues concerning India—from Kashmir to the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and 1971. While New Delhi had apprehensions about Colombo’s granting of overflight facility for Pakistan aircrafts, amid the East Pakistan crisis, India extended military support to Sri Lanka to combat the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection in 1971. JVP was seen as “a split on the left from a pro-Chinese Communist Party.” In the post-1971 situation, Colombo’s perceptions began to change with India developing strategic tie-up with Moscow, and Beijing getting further close to Islamabad. However, one major area where both India and Sri Lanka shared their security concerns was the militarisation of the Indian Ocean which began to assume a new dimension with intensified superpower rivalry. That led to both nations championing the UN resolution for making the Indian Ocean a zone of peace (ZoP). 

Meanwhile India and Sri Lanka entered into a maritime boundary agreement in 1974 and 1976 that spans some 288 km from the tripoint with the Maldives in the west to the 200 nautical mile limit of India and Sri Lanka in the east. As per the first agreement, the Indian fishermen and pilgrims were allowed access to visit Kachchativu. Things began to change with the worsening inter-ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. 

India’s Assertive Diplomacy 

In the background of the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka and the influx of Tamil refugees into Tamil Nadu in the 1980s, India began to reassert its role. That was also the period of mounting anti-Indian feeling in Sri Lanka. As the negotiations for a settlement reached nowhere, amid reports of another JVP infiltration into the army, New Delhi sought substantive measures to protect the lives of Tamil population, besides assurances of protecting Indian geopolitical interest. Even as negotiations for a bilateral accord got underway, the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, J.N. Dixit, told the Sri Lankan President that while the proposed accord and its annexure would deal with major aspects covering the ethnic issue, “India’s concerns about India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations and India’s political and security concerns had not been taken care of.” Dixit’s Assignment Colomboprovides details of this scenario. He writes: 

When Jayewardene asked me to be specific about India’s concerns, I said that Sri Lanka should give assurances to India on the following points:

1. Reduction and phasing out of foreign military and intelligence personnel in Sri Lanka from the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and so on.

2. Sri Lanka should reorganise its foreign and defence policies and reduce its involvement with USA, Pakistan, China, Israel and South Africa.

3. Sri Lanka should give some assurances to India that its seaports and airports would not be utilised by foreign powers which were antagonistic towards India or which affected India’s security interest negatively.

4. Sri Lanka should fulfil the assurances which it gave in 1985 that India would be given an opportunity to maintain the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farms and that Sri Lanka would prevent foreign broadcasting stations like the Voice of America from being utilised for military purposes by countries like the United States, West Germany, etc.

According to Dixit, Jayewardene considered them as “excessive demands being made at the last moment.” Dixit then “reminded politely that these concerns of India were specifically mentioned to him between April 29 and May 5, 1985 by Minister Chidambaram.” He recalled that he “had repeated these concerns and requests to Jayewardene on June 9, 1985. Minister of State Natwar Singh did the same on November 24, and again between December 17 and 19, 1986.” Dixit pointed out that “India’s co-operation with Sri Lanka to solve the ethnic problem was predicated on Sri Lanka giving positive responses on these important concerns of India.”  

Dixit wrote, eventually “it was agreed that the points raised could be covered by means of a letter.”  Dixit then drafted the letter covering these points prepared when he “proceeded to Delhi for consultations on the proposed Agreement and bring it back for approval.” When the India-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on July 29, 1987, both parties sought to ensure that this would form part of the whole Accord. As such the ‘Exchange of letters between the President of Sri Lanka and the Prime Minister of India’ indicated that both countries “will reach an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presences will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lanka relations.” It was stated that “Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests; the work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee Oil Tank will be undertaken as a joint operation between India and Sri Lanka; Sri Lanka’s agreement with foreign broadcasting organisations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes. 

In the same spirit, India agreed to “deport all Sri Lankan citizens who are found to be engaging in terrorist activities or advocating separatism or secessionism”; “provide training facilities and military supplies for Sri Lanka security services” and both countries “agreed to set up a joint consultative mechanism to continuously review matters of common concern in the light of the objectives stated in para 1 and specifically to monitor the implementation of other matters contained in this letter.” Apparently, this eventually turned out to be a quid pro quo in India-Sri Lanka negotiations. The Sri Lankan scholar Jeyaratnam Wilson wrote that this amounted to ensuring the “Indian hegemony over the subcontinent.” At the International Conference held in London in 1988, he said that Lord Curzon’s opinion that the “Indian subcontinent was one strategic unity” was further vindicated by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi through their interventions in countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives.  Bhabani Sen Gupta also characterised this as part of India’s regional security doctrine.  Though China did not figure prominently at that time, New Delhi’s apprehensions were based on the reports of American intelligence operations across the region. What prompted New Delhi to be on alert was India’s  reported move to secure a Soviet nuclear submarine on lease. 

Post-IPKF Flashpoints 

However, following setbacks in the IPKF operation in Sri Lanka, particularly after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, New Delhi was extremely careful about meddling in Sri Lankan affairs. This obviously provided a new opportunity for China with India’s transient retreat. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, China made further strategic inroads into the Island nation with military support being extended in its fight against the Tamil tigers. Defence ties between the two countries grew exponentially during this time. Parallel to this process was China’s economic diplomacy with its strategy to widen the Belt Road project across a range of fields in Sri Lanka, including ports and roads. New Delhi sees all this as part of a deepening Beijing-Colombo nexus to offset the Indian calculations, particularly in the context of deteriorating Sino-Indian relations. 

Evidently, the concerns raised in the context of Yuan Wang-5’s visit have such a deeper geopolitical anxiety of New Delhi, and India fears that its long-term goals in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region would be upset with China’s mounting activities. India also knows that Trincomalee and Hambantota ports have great strategic significance in its Grand Strategy in the region. Speaking on the Yuan Wang-5 episode,Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson described “India’s pressure on the island country as a brutal interference in Sri Lanka’s private and normal foreign exchanges and cooperation, when it’s facing severe economic and political difficulties.” According to Wang, “It’s a typical case of ‘taking advantage of others’ dangers, which goes against the basic norms of international relations.” It was also in this background that the Chinese ambassador wrote a commentary in the Sri Lanka Guardian with vituperative attacks on India. However, New Delhi is apparently very careful in responding to such remarks given its strategy of ‘peaceful accommodation’ and ‘flexible containment’ vis-à-vis its smaller neighbours. 

India’s support to the Island-in-distress—with money and materials—was a manifestation of this desire to engage smaller neighbours in the spirit of ‘non-reciprocity’—a diplomatic strategy enunciated by I.K. Gujral way back in the 1990s. At the same time, New Delhi is fully aware of the changing strategic milieu in the Indian Ocean with China seeking to subvert the traditional power hierarchy in the region—resuscitating itself as an ‘heir-apparent’ of the erstwhile hegemons. India’s naval strategy in the coming years will certainly be China-centric given its deepening engagements in the Indo-Pacific. The 4th round of the India-US Maritime Security Dialogue, held on 23 August 2019  in California discussed regional maritime security issues and exchanged views on ways to further strengthen bilateral maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. A high-level US delegation is visiting India from 5 September to attend key meetings to deepen the bilateral strategic partnership and discuss ways “to expand cooperation to support a free and open, resilient and secure Indo-Pacific region.” The two sides have been talking about the need to ensure a free, open and thriving Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of China’s rising military manoeuvring in the resource-rich region. However, a crucial question is related to the concerns of the small states in the region. They are apparently worried about the scenario of deepening rivalry in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific—with China and the United States remaining at loggerheads on the Taiwan question. 

The author, an ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.  

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Liminality: India’s Geopolitical Concerns In Sri Lanka – Analysis

  • September 6, 2022 at 2:38 am

    Insightful account of the past with a sharp analysis of the present.
    Three observations.
    1) India agreed to work with Sri Lanka on the move to make Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace mainly because New Delhi realized that it was better to support the idea for presentational purposes. New Delhi assessed that Colombo was concerned about India’s growing naval strength.
    I was UnderSecretary (Sri Lanka).
    2) By sending a vessel in August 2022, China has successfully signaled to Sri Lanka not to get too close to India.
    3) Sri Lanka has no control over the port at Hambantota. It does not even know what equipment the vessel might have left at the port.

    Professor Seethi has put the issue in a proper geopolitical context by drawing attention to India’s interests and anxieties, and China’s plans and intentions . Washington at present plays a peripheral role owing to its preoccupations elsewhere.

    • September 7, 2022 at 5:49 am

      Thanks Ambassador Fabian for your comments. I do agree on the major points you mentioned. But the United States is currently taking enormous interest in the Indian Ocean as part of its indo-Pacific strategy which is getting a new dimension with China reasserting its role.

  • September 6, 2022 at 5:18 am

    India’s “neighbourhood first” policy needs to be evaluated in this larger context. Agreed, India never sought to advance a policy of territorial expansion, but its interest and involvement in internal affairs of the neighbours were seldom appreciated. As the author rightly suggested, peaceful accommodation is the best policy that New Delhi can carry forward. It’s high time that SAARC is revived with a realistic perspective of this peaceful accommodation.


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