By Husanjot Chahal*
While embarking on a two-day visit to New Delhi in October 2016, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was probably aware of the forthcoming challenges. Sri Lanka had recently announced that the prevailing regional environment was not conducive to hold a SAARC Summit in Islamabad, citing “lack of unanimity among member states.” This came about three days after Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan announced a ‘boycott’ of the summit, highlighting escalation of terrorism, interference in internal affairs, and “imposed terrorism” by Pakistan as reasons, respectively. Sri Lanka’s move was misunderstood by many as exclusively a pro-India attempt to isolate Pakistan. Adding to the confusion, opposition leaders in Sri Lanka referred to it as a foreign policy “blunder” and an act to please India.
In this environment, and in context of PM Wickremesinghe’s statements in India, it is important to evaluate Sri Lanka’s current regional priorities vis-à-vis three significant players, i.e., India, Pakistan and China.
PM Wickremesinghe is the first regional leader to visit Delhi after the Uri attack and subsequent cancellation of the SAARC Summit. In his talks, he openly acknowledged the issue of cross-border terrorism as being important. However, his remarks reflected a clear avoidance of any reference to Pakistan. In fact, he drew attention to how in 1985 Sri Lanka wanted the subject of cross-border terrorism on the SAARC agenda – a move New Delhi successfully defeated following bilateral diplomatic spats regarding the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Apart from highlighting New Delhi’s perceived hypocrisy, PM Wickremesinghe’s remarks probably aimed at avoiding bilateral complications with Pakistan, with whom Sri Lanka has a history of warm relations. While Indo-Lanka interests were in conflict for decades over the Tamil issue, Pakistan-Sri Lanka ties were marked by Colombo’s support to Islamabad during the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Former President Rajapaksa, who was keen on decimating the LTTE, received hard military equipment from Pakistan at a time when India refused similar support. A hiccup was caused in January 2015 with the coming of the new Sri Lankan government to power, which triggered the cancellation of a US$400 million deal to buy the jointly produced China-Pakistan JF-17 aircraft from Islamabad, reportedly due to a “diplomatic suggestion” from New Delhi. However, with the revival of Pakistan’s bid to sell the aircraft to Sri Lanka in August 2016, a majority of the cabinet voted in favour of acquiring the new jets.
While Sri Lanka’s strong friendship with India is indubitable, this should not lead to the assumption that the island country will openly stand up against Pakistan in the event of an Indo-Pak stand-off. Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations may currently be devoid of growth but their history of good relations without any major setback unlike Delhi-Colombo ties, and the prospect of jointly keeping New Delhi’s regional influence under check may act as a significant determinant of Sri Lanka’s actions in the future.
PM Wickremesinghe also emphasised the purely economic nature of Beijing-Colombo ties during his New Delhi visit. Interestingly, recent Sino-Indian competition in the strategically located country is also mainly set in the economic realm. Such a struggle between the two economic giants is favourable to Colombo, which has anxiously cited its policy of balance between India and China in support of its national interests and to prevent either from gaining too much ground. However, to what extent such a balance exists or is even possible – at least in economic terms – is highly debatable. China’s early lead in big-ticket infrastructure projects along with its foundation for future investments established under the pro-China Rajapaksa regime ensures that the very base of the balance is not uniform. Chinese economic muscle coupled with New Delhi’s inability to fund the needs that China’s deep pockets can finance further highlights the improbability of such a balance. Sri Lanka’s economic woes will drive most of its priorities in the current scenario and this imbalance spells out an obvious choice.
Colombo is aware of this economic imbalance – hence, the recent active engagement with its Indian counterparts. While the Sino-Lankan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) still awaits progress, PM Wickremesinghe announced that the India-Sri Lanka Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) will be signed by the end of the year. Even the vexatious fishermen issue will see serious efforts towards its resolution as the two sides step up high-level negotiations.
Above all, Sri Lanka’s priorities in the region are linked to securing its economic benefit, ensuring a power balance, and considering historical relations – in that order. For Sri Lanka, between India and China, links with the latter address the first priority, the second is dependent on which side gains more ground, and historical and civilisational ties are stronger with India. Between Pakistan and India, New Delhi is economically dominant, while the other two priorities will ensure Sri Lanka’s support to Islamabad. These dynamics of inter-state relations are not static, but recognising them is key to assessing the current situation and envisaging geopolitical advances.
* Husanjot Chahal
Programme Director, SEARP, IPCS