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Indian Think-Tank Sanguine About Indo-Lankan Ties, But Calls For Security Redlines – Analysis

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New Delhi is alive to the possibility of anti-Indian elements co-opting China to destabilize Indo-Lankan relations

Two articles published by the influential New Delhi-based think-tank, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), on August 29 and September 8, give an idea of how the Indian Establishment is viewing developments in Sri Lanka from the point of view Indo-Lankan relations.

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The articles say that the efforts of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda augur well for India-Sri Lanka relations, but challenges to the relationship could arise from traditional anti-Indian elements tying up with China, which is trying hard to wean Sri Lanka away from India.

The articles note the wholehearted and public acknowledgment of India’s timely economic assistance by President Wickremesinghe and the ceaseless efforts of High Commissioner Moragoda to keep bilateral relations ticking. At the same time, the articles also bring out the existence of a serious gap in the relationship on security matters as seen in the recent episode involving the docking of the controversial Chinese vessel Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota harbor.

Brighter Side  

Looking at the brighter side first, one of the articles said: “India may have every reason to feel relieved with President Ranil Wickremesinghe (PRW) at the helm of affairs. India has been his ‘international safety net’ when he negotiated the ceasefire with LTTE in 2001. The quality of Sri Lankan diplomacy in India has undergone a sea-change since August 2021, thanks to the efforts of Milinda Morogoda, High Commissioner to India, and his equation with the political leadership and strategic community here.”

“PRW has made two important statements on Sri Lanka-India relations. On Aug 14, he was present at a ceremony in Colombo to witness the handing over a Dornier Maritime Recce and Surveillance Aircraft to the Sri Lankan Navy. Even more importantly, he delivered an 8-minute speech giving his reflections on Indo-Lanka relations. It was very thought provoking. The speech and his presence at the ceremony have important connotations in the backdrop of the controversy over the permission given by Sri Lanka to a Chinese survey vessel to visit Hambantota.” 

“Even in his Throne Speech (Aug 03) in Parliament, PRW devoted several minutes talking about India. It was exceptional, as no other country was mentioned directly or indirectly. This is unprecedented in recent times in as much as no Sri Lankan Head of State has used the parliamentary platform or diplomatic event to articulate positive statements on India. It can be surmised that these are indications of relations moving to the next level and greater positivity as well. It also underlined that he feels secure in his job.” 

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“The impressive Throne Speech (TS) was PRW’s masterstroke. Without ruffling feathers, he conveyed the sense that he is in command and expects to run his term till November 2024. By publicly closing the door on GR’s (Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s) immediate return to Sri Lanka, PRW used the parliamentary platform to signal his distancing away from the Rajapaksas and their supporters. He is, however, unlikely to shake the cage at this juncture or till he constitutes the All-Party Government.”

“It is important to note that PRW has received support across party lines. The SJB (the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya) is the latest to join the bandwagon. The minorities have vested faith in him, while some are keen to join the government others have expressed outside support. Government has lifted the proscription on overseas Tamil groups and has also banned some unnamed Muslim groups. The effect of both decisions needs to be examined.”

Road Is Still Hard

The good developments notwithstanding, the road ahead for India-Lanka relations looks hard.  

“There is no pro-India constituency in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka still remembers the support India lent to the Tamils. India has now signaled that it has the ability to offer lines of credit quickly. But India’s ability to provide constant succor to Sri Lanka is limited. Many of the Indian previous proposals including the connectivity projects and bilateral energy grid, remain unimplemented.”

“India will have to follow a policy of close engagement, but not play favorites. While there is no pervasive anti-India sentiment, the Sinhala Buddhist political constituency uses that narrative to demonize India.”

“It is known that Sri Lanka has not been sensitive to India’s security concerns. It is critical for India to convey that point across to the Sri Lankans, reiterate the concerns and convey the red lines,” one of the articles said. 

“India needs to increase the people-to-people connectivity as well as build infrastructural connectivity. In the recent past, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India had highlighted a ten-point agenda to increase bilateral engagement. It will be worth examining these again. India could focus on developing the Buddhist Bodh Gaya travel circuit. That would have an immediate appeal to a large population in Sri Lanka,” it added.

Ranil-Modi Meeting in Tokyo 

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Tokyo to take part in the commemoration ceremony of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will give him a “golden opportunity” to meet the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “It will give India time to review past actions of the Sri Lankan government and to remove irritants preventing the growth and development of bilateral relations. PRW’s interaction with the Chinese and other dignitaries including QUAD, ASEAN and Western countries should be watched with interest,” the VIF article said.

“The trust deficit that had presided over bilateral relations particularly since 2009 has receded, but it remains a source of worry for Indian foreign policy managers. The meeting between Indian and Sri Lankan leaders at upcoming Tokyo event must provide the solution to addressing the deficit trust,” the VIF article added.

JVP-FSP Alliance

The articles also noted the rise in the popularity of the anti-India JVP and its impact on India. Referring to a survey conducted by the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the VIF said that JVP’s  leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka received an endorsement of 48.5% followed by Ranil Wickremesinghe with 36.65% with  Mahinda Rajapaksa at the tail end with 11.28%.

“The JVP veteran receiving top marks in the opinion poll is an important development which needs to be carefully analyzed especially its alignment with FSP (Frontline Socialist Party).” The FSP is openly hostile to India as it had had armed conflicts with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the late 1980s. 

Options for India

The VIF stressed the need to identify fault lines and distrust in India-Lanka relations, considering them to be “urgent and important.” It  suggested some options for consideration. 

“One way forward is to focus attention on southern Sri Lanka and along the west coast that have remained bastions of Sinhala-Buddhist society. This is the heartland that decides major issues binding the parties in power to making decisions often not commensurate with contemporary developments.”

“The opposition to India’s participation in the West Coast Terminal project is one such example and there are others too. It is not difficult to identify the vested interests here. These have cast a deepening shadow on India-Lanka relations. Policy makers on both sides have an arduous task ahead to try and remove the irritants.”

“The CPA opinion poll has some interesting revelations especially about the JVP. The Inter University Students Front (IUSF) and Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) are of interest and may have the potential to influence people against India. The “united” JVP in the past had a clear anti-India agenda besides being identified as pro-Beijing. The presence of several parliamentarians from JVP to welcome the Chinese “spy” ship at Hambantota on Aug 16, 2022 is another example.”

Hambantota Port

“That Hambantota is an irritant in India-Lanka relations is to state the obvious. The recent visit of Yuan Wang-5 has proved it beyond doubt and also exposed the limitations of Sri Lanka’s strategic thinking on such critical issues. This may be the beginning of a new challenge to both India and Sri Lanka as more such visits will take place in the future. This fault line has to be addressed by both sides. Obviously, there are lessons to be learnt here especially for Sri Lanka policymakers,” the VIF said.

Need for Detailed White Paper

The need for a detailed White paper on India-Sri Lanka relations has become necessary with the objective of bringing balance to the relationship and highlight India’s contributions, the think-tank felt. 

“There is not much that is written on India’s role along with Norway in brokering the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); India’s insistence of creating the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to monitor the ceasefire, the activities of two Indian Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in Humanitarian Demining efforts in Vavuniya and Mannar and India’s role in Tsunami relief. The list is endless.”

Study of China’s Activities

The VIF suggests study of Chinese activities in Sri Lanka in the past seven decades, particularly in the 21st century. “This will be an important strategy paper which should serve as institutional memory and a ready reckoner for present and future policymakers, opinion makers and practitioners.”

“China did not shed a tear for GR when he lost political office. The lesson here is that China has its national security interests as foremost in all its transactions and nothing else matters,” the VIF pointed out. 

But China continues to woo Sri Lanka to set the latter up against India. The latest is the article the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka circulated to the media which clearly indicated this agenda. The Ambassador said: “Sri Lanka and China should jointly protect their sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence in view of threats they face”. The article was built around the visit of US delegation led by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and the visit of Yuan Wan 5 to Hambantota. “

“Just like Sri Lanka, China had suffered a hundred years from 1840 till 1949. Because of similar dark experience, China has always been supporting Sri Lanka”. 

The Ambassador’s article made no attempt to disguise criticism of India and went on to draw attention to the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in September in which, it said, it would be known as to “whether they use human rights as a cover-up tool to interfere in the Island nation’s internal affairs and continue to rub salt into the wounds of Sri Lankan people”.

Commenting on this a VIF article said: “For a country like China to abandon Sri Lanka when it needed assistance to overcome its severe economic crisis, the article by the Chinese Ambassador is like rubbing salt into the wounds of the Sri Lankan people.” 

Here are the links to the articles cited above:

https://www.vifindia.org/august/29/2022/sri-lanka-current-political-situation

https://www.vifindia.org/event/report/2022/september/08/vif-discussion-on-recent-developments-in-sri-lanka

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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