The times are best, civil wars ended, governments overruled, and above all leaders of both the nations are pursuing global foreign policy with a multilateral outlook. Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi will be in Sri Lanka between March 13 and 15 in the first official visit by any Indian Prime Minister since 1987. On the 15th of last month, Indian officials welcomed the new Sri Lankan President, Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, to New Delhi. The four-day visit to neighbouring India was Sirisena’s first trip overseas since being sworn into office in early January. Sirisena and India’s Prime Minister, Modi, signed four agreements, including a bilateral deal on civil nuclear cooperation.
Indian Anglophone media released many articles recently, suggesting that the increased engagements and especially the nuclear pact between India and Sri Lanka are to contain China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean. However this claim is largely artful, typecast echoes of western interests in containing China. These reports are skeptical of Asian Regional Integration.
The Government of Sri Lanka sees both India and China as important allies and it will continue to engage with both the nations at separate levels. To speak of India concerns over Chinese encircling India, with its proposed maritime silk route (string of pearls) while discussing Indo-Sri Lanka relations is neither an impressive idea. Because, if a nation like China, characterized by its strong economy, decides to take such a strategy, there is nothing much India could do competing with it.
The claims, India is trying to contain China through engaging Sri Lanka is largely based upon two beliefs: (1) India welcomed the New Srisena Government which was antithetic to Rajapakshae government’s tilt towards China, (2) Growing economic influence of China in Sri Lanka coupled with Chinese military presence in Colombo port irks India.
Of course both the reasons are well formulated, but it represents only one side of the story. The other side of the story is that India is neither bothered about containing China, nor is interested in internal affairs of Sri Lanka, except for reconciling the interests of Tamilian population in India. Acceptance of Srisena was a symbol of appeasement of Tamilians, not much an indicator of balancing Chinese interests. The growing economic influence of China, in the neighbourhood states — is something which India cannot match up. Moreover, Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, though a matter of concern, is less experienced on the High Seas than India. Sri Lanka, also will not favour Chinese naval mobilisation beyond certain limits. Finally, and more importantly, the Indian sub-continent being one major trading market, which the Chinese manufacturers rely extensively, China can never think of provoking India to a serious conflict. Therefore, there is no reason for India to contain China. Perhaps, India may find a reason to limit Chinese oceanographic activities in Indian Ocean. But then again, engaging Sri Lanka is not an answer. For such containment India must enhance its oceanographic presence in the Indian Ocean.
Therefore, India’s increased engagement with Sri Lanka, must be seen as a part of India’s larger foreign policy whereby, it tries to engage with nations more bilaterally than involving itself into any major trading partnerships or pacts like TPP and TTIP. Though official stand of India is supportive of multilateralism, Indian policy makers are bit more precautious of multilateralism than it appears. With its current trade capabilities, India is more likely to act bilaterally and perhaps what should be learned from the Modi cabinets increased diplomatic involvements.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is all set to become a destination of choice among businesses looking to tap opportunities in pan-Indian Ocean trade due to its strategic location. For this ambition to come true, it will require a careful balancing act on the political front and Sri Lanka will never throw out China whatever reason. As Jabin T Jacob, told the Diplomat Magazine, even the nuclear pact with India might open up Sri Lanka to the attentions of Chinese nuclear power equipment suppliers and this can again increase the Chinese presence in the country.
Moreover, if we look at the pattern of Indian engagements with Sri Lanka, the Modi government is giving due respect to its counterpart and follows a pattern of discursive, pragmatic and constructive approach. The discussion on transforming of RECP to a full-fledged free trade agreement is an example for such an approach. Within few months of its succession of into power Sri Lanka is in constant communication with India marking the relationship more conducive on multiple levels, like political, economical, cultural and even agrarian.
Above all, on 27th February Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, backed a trilateral partnership with India and Sri Lanka to establish a Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and promote better co-operation. Mr. Wang’s comments, signaling a better regional integration of the Asian region also goes counter against the concerns raised by Indian Media.
Nithin Ramakrishnan (inputs from Business standard, the diplomat, Times of India, The Hindu, Smart analyst. Com)