Pakistan’s attempts to initiate a new beginning in bilateral ties with Sri Lanka point to a shift away from India. What emerges is not so much a familiar triangle in which India and Pakistan seek to co-opt Sri Lanka, but a quadrangle consisting of the competing interests of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and China.
By Farzana Shaikh for ISN Insights
One of the most commonly used metaphors to describe the complex relationships between the states of South Asia is a triangle in which India and Pakistan emerge as the two main suitors vying for the attention of a minor neighbor. The image persists vis-à-vis Afghanistan, for example, underscoring Pakistan’s determination to employ any means available to use Afghanistan in a Pakistani-led front against India.
The idea of a Pakistan-led coalition against India has long been familiar to seasoned observers of diplomatic relations in South Asia. Crafted in the aftermath of the blood-stained 1947 partition that resulted in the creation of a chronically insecure Pakistan, it bears all the hallmarks of what is commonly described as an ‘enduring rivalry’. As the weaker party, Pakistan has sought to manage this rivalry by assiduously cultivating allies among the smaller states of South Asia, notably Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, which share some of Pakistan’s concerns about Indian ambitions. Although Pakistan’s endeavors have yet to bear fruit, it is widely assumed that its bilateral relations in the region are still overwhelmingly dictated by its desire to contain and counter-balance India.
A fresh initiative by Pakistan to widen its relations with Sri Lanka has put the spotlight on this triangle once more. The two countries have long enjoyed cordial ties, marred only by the brutal attack on a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009. Yet, cultural and linguistic affinities between India and Sri Lanka mediated by their common Tamil population, have given India a natural edge over Pakistan that has effectively pre-empted any attempt by Pakistan to co-opt Sri Lanka as a potential ally. However, the successive military regimes that have ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history, chose to ignore these constraints by plying Sri Lanka with military assistance in its fight against Tamil militants in order to secure a Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state. Indeed, under General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), Pakistan emerged as Sri Lanka’s second largest supplier of military aid after China – the gratitude amply demonstrated during two high profile visits to Pakistan by Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapakse in 2005 and 2006. It is clear that military aid from Pakistan helped the Sri Lankan army clinch a decisive military victory against the LTTE in May 2009.
The return to civilian rule in Pakistan in 2008 and the new government’s desire to be seen as breaking with Musharraf’s legacy has revived interest in a more pro-active civilian role in Pakistan’s foreign policy. While unwritten rules still dictate that Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan remain the prerogative of the country’s military, the civilian government has, whenever possible, tried to stamp its influence in areas where Pakistan’s security (as defined by the military) is judged to be less prominently at stake. Sri Lanka clearly falls in this category. Unsurprisingly, Sri Lanka has emerged as the first testing ground for Pakistan’s civilian government in an attempt to project its autonomy in the realm of foreign affairs and to outline a new set of priorities different from those espoused by past military regimes.
Many of these concerns were on display in November 2010 when President Asif Ali Zardari became the first elected civilian leader in more than a decade to visit Sri Lanka. The president’s tour, hailed by government ministers as a “new dawn'” in bilateral relations, was notable for its shift away from the hitherto dominant focus on defense and security co-operation in favor of comprehensive ‘multisector engagement’ aimed at widening co-operation in trade and investment. For a fragile government deeply sensitive about its perceived subordination to an over-bearing military establishment, this re-orientation was designed to send a clear signal (although lacking in conviction) that the priorities set by successive military regimes in Pakistan were under review.
But it also reflected an astute move by Zardari’s government to secure dividends by capitalizing on Sri Lanka’s post-conflict reconstruction, which would help shore up Pakistan’s sinking economy and possibly even translate into much needed political support. At its heart was a keen appreciation of China’s expanding interests in the country’s post-war reconstruction and the expectation that Pakistan’s long-standing relations with China would ensure a key role for Pakistan in Chinese-led projects in Sri Lanka. The real value of the strategy, however, lies in the fact that it allows Pakistan to adopt a more benign profile in the region through economic cooperation rather than the strategic encirclement policies aimed at India. With China today much better placed to challenge India’s regional ambitions, Pakistan’s civilian government appears to have calculated that the country’s objectives against India are better served by eschewing containment in favor of a policy tied to serving China and its steadfast regional allies, chief among them Sri Lanka.
The importance of China in determining Pakistan’s future relationship with Sri Lanka was recognized by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. While expressing confidence in the “architecture of an enhanced relationship between Pakistan and Sri Lanka”, Qureshi made no secret of his satisfaction with what Pakistan stood to gain from the strength of China’s relations with its southern neighbor, noting that “this would be to the benefit of the three countries”. Those gains were spelled out in the four major agreements that Pakistan and Sri Lanka signed last November, which, while reiterating their common security concerns against the threat of terrorism, showcased Pakistan’s key role in Sri Lanka’s post-war reconstruction plans.
Much of that role is expected to center on trade and investment boosted by China’s deepening economic ties. They involve, among others, the creation of an exclusive economic zone in Mirigama near the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo to attract more Chinese investment; major building projects have been financed by China, notably a new sea- and airport at Hanbantota in the South of the island, and Chinese support for the development a railway network in the country. Chinese firms are also heavily invested in Sri Lanka’s gemstone industry. Not surprisingly, one of the most important areas singled out by Pakistan for expanded collaboration with Sri Lanka is cement manufacturing (Pakistan is the fifth largest cement exporter in the world), followed closely by cooperation in developing Sri Lanka’s gem and jewelry industry. Together they lend credence to Pakistan’s determination, as expressed by President Zardari, to “make maximum use of the investment opportunities available in Sri Lanka”.
Those opportunities are now seen to depend much more on Pakistan’s success in partnering China than in out-maneuvering India. If so, it may be time to revise some standard assumptions about the dynamics of Pakistan’s regional policies and take into account a more complex set of considerations. This is not to make light of Pakistan’s security concerns vis-à-vis India, but to suggest that the idea of a Pakistan-led front against India shows signs of evolving beyond a strictly military policy of strategic encirclement. More importantly, it appears to reflect a growing understanding on the part of Pakistan that competition between India and China, rather than rivalry between India and Pakistan, is now set to emerge as the dominant geopolitical reality in South Asia.
Pakistan’s response to that reality is both creative and reminiscent of previous foreign policy strategies. By opting to seize the economic opportunity, Pakistan has clearly shown its willingness to explore fresh (and less aggressive) avenues to address its security concerns. At the same time, by relying on China to sustain those relations in the hope of eroding India’s influence in Sri Lanka, Pakistan continues to subscribe to a long-established policy of dependence upon great powers to buttress its quest to ‘match’ India.
Farzana Shaikh is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London. This article was publishe by ISN