Quandary over AUKUS? Need to bolster India-Sri Lanka ties

As the developments are taking shape in the Indian Ocean in the context of the QUAD and AUKUS, it is in the interests of both India and Sri Lanka to engage in meaningful and effective cooperation, without affecting their respective bilateral relations with extra-regional partners.

Since the beginning of this year, the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka have declined significantly.
Since the beginning of this year, the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka have declined significantly.

By Gulbin Sultana, PhD

AUKUS-a new trilateral security partnership between Australia, UK, and the USA was announced on September 15, 2021, by the leaders of the three countries to “meet the challenges of the 21st century” in the Indo-Pacific. The underlying reason for this partnership is to contain China, though the Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS does not refer to China as a threat. As the first initiative under the trilateral partnership, the US and UK would facilitate Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy to enhance the member countries’ joint capabilities and interoperability. The announcement of the launching of the AUKUS, comprising of two members of the QUAD and the UK, came as a surprise particularly to the partners of the USA on its Indo-Pacific strategy. While partners like India and Japan officially did not react strongly, French expressed its disappointments not only because it did not have prior information, but also because of Australia’s unilateral cancellation of a $40-$60 billion contract to buy French diesel submarines. There are others in the international community, including countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, China, and a section of the non-proliferation community expressed their concerns that the new AUKUS partnership will further aggravate the militarization, arms race in the Indian Ocean and contravene the non-proliferation treaty.

Sri Lanka, the proponent of the Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IOPZ) in the 1970s, has not officially issued any statement on the AUKUS so far. However, on several occasions in the recent past Sri Lankan leadership has talked about the relevance of the IOPZ in the context of the growing militarization in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. There has been a concern that militarization in the South China sea may anytime shift in the Indian Ocean. According to the Peace and Solidarity Organisation Sri Lanka (PASOS) – the Sri Lankan branch of the World Peace Council, Australia is trying to instigate an arms race by signing the nuclear-powered submarine deal under the AUKUS. Therefore, the PASOS has called for opposition to this submarine deal. However, amidst the ongoing economic crisis, when Sri Lanka is looking for solutions to overcome the crisis, it is unlikely that the Sri Lankan Government would outwardly oppose the submarine deal of the AUKUS. In the 1970s too, though Sri Lanka actively campaigned for the declaration of the IOPZ, and managed to get a resolution passed at the UN General Assembly, it had to face economic consequences and failed to implement the resolution. Later, when pro-US Jayawardene came to power, he lost interest in Srimavo Bandaranaike’s activism on the issue of the peace zone concept.

The current pro-Chinese Rajapaksa Government, though expressed its support for the rules-based order in the Indian Ocean, has not quite been supportive of the QUAD’s strategy of countering China, particularly in the Indian Ocean. There has been strong opposition in Sri Lanka against the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement as well as the proposed Status of Forces Agreement with the USA. Quad member’s- US, India, and Japan’s- interest to have bilateral/trilateral projects with strategic importance with Sri Lanka, has been seen as an effort to counter China in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka considers China’s presence in the country purely due to economic reasons, and unlike the USA does not consider Chinese loans as “predatory”. Rather China has been seen as a true friend in need, who provides assistance without any strings attached. Therefore, Sri Lankan Government unilaterally cancelled Tripartite East Container Terminal (ECT) deal between India-Sri Lanka -Japan; Light Rail Project agreement with Japan, and also decided not to go ahead with the proposed MCC deal with the US (which was later withdrawn by the US) to prevent the quad countries to make the Sri Lankan soil as a theatre to counter China. Sri Lanka’s official explanation of scrapping such deals was, however, attributed to the public opposition. In that context, it would be relevant to mention here that some of the Chinese projects are going ahead in Sri Lanka despite public protests and dissatisfaction.

There is a change of approach in the Rajapaksa administration as the country is going through a severe foreign reserve crisis. Probably there is a realization of the fact that China cannot be a panacea to all the problems of Sri Lanka. For a developing country like Sri Lanka, it cannot ignore or snub the major export destination countries or a next-door neighbour. The latest deal with the New Fortress Energy, A US-listed Company, to develop a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal off the coast of Colombo, and deal with India’s Adani group to develop West Container Terminal (WCT) can be seen as efforts to reach out to the Americans, and Indians.

Given the ideological tilt of the Rajapaksas towards the Chinese and the general Sri Lankan view about the Americans as an unreliable partner (which came out clearly in the writing of the Sri Lankan experts after its withdrawal from Afghanistan), Sri Lanka will continue to be in quandary on how to strike a balance in its opposition against militarisation and arms race in the Indo-Pacific to counter China and its compulsion to look for economic assistance from the US and other Western countries.

The announcement of AUKUS has also caused a dilemma for Sri Lanka’s next-door neighbour- India, though the reason for India’s dilemma is much different. India has been a major partner of the USA on its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Analysts have argued that in its Indo-Pacific strategy, while the US has concentrated on the Pacific part, it has left the Indian Ocean to India. The submarine deal with Australia, has, however, given room for question on India’s prominence in the Indian Ocean in the coming days. Notwithstanding, Foreign Secretary of India Harsh V Shringla, in a press conference, clarified that AUKUS and the QUAD are not groupings of a similar nature, and hence the former had no relevance to, and nor would it impact the latter.

Since the time the Chinese have enhanced its presence in the Indian Ocean, India has been quite accommodative to the desire of the US to enter into defence pacts with its maritime neighbours. The current geopolitical circumstances in the region make it important for India to work with like-minded countries, those that follow rules-based order. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to see it does not lose its importance as a security provider to countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In the desire to contain China, India should not end up just as a minor partner in the Indo-Pacific strategy and an irrelevant power in the Indian Ocean.

From its past experience, Sri Lanka has viewed the USA- as an unreliable partner, China as a reliable partner, but not the first respondent in the time of emergency; and viewed India with suspicion but received its immediate assistance whenever it is in need. India has always been a first respondent to the security crisis not only because geographic proximity allows it, but also because India sees it as its own security interest to quash such a crisis situation in the island nation. Extra regional powers may not be motivated to come for Sri Lanka’s rescue all the time like India.

As the developments are taking shape in the Indian Ocean in the context of the QUAD and AUKUS, it is in the interests of both India and Sri Lanka to engage in meaningful and effective cooperation, without affecting their respective bilateral relations with extra-regional partners. The US has been trying to convince Sri Lanka to support QUAD’s strategy in the Indian Ocean. The US also wants India to pursue Sri Lanka to bring it into the QUAD’s fold. Given the current geostrategic development, in my view, India should leave it to Sri Lanka how it decides to look at the QUAD. Rather India’s effort should be to restore its influence on the island through enhancing bilateral and subregional cooperation. The trilateral National Security Advisor (NSA) level maritime security cooperation between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, provides a readily available good framework for cooperation on the matters of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean. All three countries just need to show the adequate political will to make this sub-regional framework successful. This year the trilateral cooperation made important headway. Hope the momentum continues.

Since the beginning of this year, the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka have declined significantly. A section of the strategic community in Sri Lanka has expressed their concern about the country’s strained relations with the immediate neighbour anticipating negative repercussions. Rajapaksa Government probably too have realized that amidst the economic crisis, it would not be in Sri Lanka’s interest to push India further. Therefore, probably, just before the visit of the Foreign Secretary of India, Sri Lanka signed the WCT deal with India’s Adani group to soothe the disappointment it caused by scrapping the ECT deal. However, India needs to convey the message, while it is good to have an Indian private company onboard in an important project like port development, Sri Lankan Government needs to expedite its decisions on the projects it has already committed to the Government of India. It is hoped that the ongoing visit of the Foreign Secretary of India to Sri Lanka can bring some positive outcomes in the bilateral relations.

(The author is a Research Analyst Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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First published on: 03-10-2021 at 12:50 IST