Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka by the Indian government in 1974. As a result, India and Sri Lanka are only separated by 12 nautical miles. Until the Eelam war broke out in 1983, Palk Bay was peacefully maintained, with the fishermen in both countries enjoying mutual use of the strait for their livelihood. In the last three decades it has become a hot topic for Indian policy makers, especially as it reflects on Tamil Nadu state politics. The Sri Lankan navy arresting Indian fishermen for fishing near the islet of Katchatheevu has aggravated the issue further. The naval forces have also increasingly denied the fishermen’s rights to fishing close to the islet, creating uproar in India. The main concern for Sri Lankans is – firstly, preventing any form of re-growth of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). However, apart from a small number of media reports, there is little substantial evidence that the LTTE are in fact regrouping. Hence, the Sri Lankan army have received widespread condemnation from Indian political parties for their atrocities, which include gunning down the impoverished fishermen.
Secondly, Sri Lankan fishermen “who have just commenced fishing after the end of war in 2009” (www.idsa.in) raised concerns that Indian fishermen were taking their livelihood by using bottom trawling to achieve more catch per venture. At the same time, the third round of bilateral meetings, which took place between the fishermen in March 2015 and involved both countries, ended on a positive note. However, the May 2015 meeting that was aimed at providing a sustainable solution to the fishermen’s issue ended in a deadlock.
India faces many other challenges as well as dealing with Sri Lanka, such as rehabilitating the war-hit zone and issues with pending war crimes. Moreover, the Indian ruling elite is sensitive to the expanding Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean; especially considering the possibility of Chinese advances overwhelming their relationship with Sri Lanka.
President Rajapaksa’s administration had completed all the necessary homework to bring Colombo closer to Beijing during and after the war with the LTTE. Under his government Sri Lanka had taken a view that their relationship with the Chinese should match their relationship with India. This would be a strategic shift by the Sri Lankan government to balance India’s influence on security matters, particularly if India acted against Sri Lanka’s interests in the future. Moreover, since 2009 China has been trying to bring Sri Lanka’s ambit into part of the “strings of pearl” against India in the Indian Ocean. Whether Sri Lanka was aware of the strategic direction of China’s plan against India or not, they cannot now reject the support they are receiving from China. Not only has China helped to modernise the Sri Lankan military and develop their infrastructure, but it has also invested around $5 billion in the country.
In this context, it appears that the Sri Lankan government’s unilateral decision to demolish and reconstruct St Antony’s church in Katchatheevu was made without consulting the Indian Government. This has encouraged all political parties across India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, to stand together with one voice, demanding that New Delhi step in to impede Sri Lanka’s efforts. This atmosphere strengthens the reiterated stance of politicians in Tamil Nadu to put pressure on New Delhi in order to take back Katchatheevu. Furthermore, the current heated atmosphere Katchatheevu issue will have serious implications for the 2019 parliamentary elections.
With China’s support, Sri Lanka might be intending to expand its navel force. Though Sri Lanka has denied building a naval base, India is not easily convinced. In actual fact, there was no real reason to demolish and rebuild this traditional church In Katchatheevu. Thus, it can be perceived that China has strategic motives in backing up Sri Lanka, since the islet is just 12 Nautical Miles or 17 km from the Indian side of Rameshwaram. By providing a continuous flow of investment to Sri Lanka, Beijing could be hoping to permanently contain India’s interests in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, India’s ambitious Sethsamudram Shipping Canal Project, which is supposed to pass near to the Katchatheevu would create serious sensitivity to India’s security, especially if Sri Lanka moves to expand its naval base.
What should India do? First of all, the post cold war realignment has allowed Asian countries to seek new friends, and Sri Lanka is no exception.
Furthermore, the post 2009 war has allowed Sri Lankans to develop strategic relations with other countries, especially China, which in turn is a real concern for India. The emerging China – Sri Lanka relations should be dealt with cautiously in the early stages. Otherwise, India’s relationship with Sri Lanka could mirror the estranged relations of the US and Cuba following the cold war. Like Sri Lanka, Cuba is a small island and proved a strong strategic contender against the US during the cold war, which serves as a good lesson for Indian policy makers.
Secondly, India should understand and learn about the China – Sri Lanka relations and their hidden motives. China maintains a strong influence in Sri Lanka due to India’s few strategic mistakes during and after the 2009 war. India’s hesitation to take the opportunity to develop the Hambanthotta port would have serious implications on India’s future security if it did not act immediately on the issue of St Antony’s church. “For the stirring of milk brings forth curds, and the stirring of anger brings forth blood” says the Old Proverb. In 2010, the Rajpaksa Administration offered India the job of developing the port, which we turned down. China then accepted as a result of strategic motives. India may have turned the job down as a result of the huge investment demanded by the project. Or perhaps it hesitated in the face of Tamil Nadu state politicians’ reluctance to provide continued assistance for Sri Lanka’s development.
Finally, the new government in Sri Lanka, under the leadership of President Mathripala Sirisena has demonstrated that they are more in favour of their immediate neighbour India than China. However, after considering China’s huge investment agenda, Sri Lanka is likely to seek parallel relations with the two countries. Prime Minister Modi and his team should pay closer attention to the neighbouring island’s movements and articulate our foreign policy more carefully. Since India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Mr. Ajit Doval originates from the school of realism, it is not surprising that his advocacy to the prime minister is based on this philosophy. However, the Indian diplomatic circle should not repeat the mistake it made with Nepal. Nepal is slipping into China’s hands due to our policy mistake and it is possible to identify parallels with the situation in Sri Lanka. India should keep in mind that our rivals are waiting to put the island nation completely in their ambit. Hence, mutual cooperation with Sri Lanka is essential and continuously assisting them for their security and stability would give India a strategic advantage in balancing China in the Indian Ocean. If this is achieved, Colombo at least should remain within our grasp.
*Antony SV Viglious Clement, Senior Editor, Modern Diplomacy.