Sri Lanka’s ‘India-First Policy’: Should India be complacent?

October 15, 2020 8:52 AM

India should not be complacent with the policy announcement from Colombo and must insist that India’s concerns and interests should be taken due care of.

Sri Lanka is trying hard to keep itself away from the ongoing contestation for power in the Indian Ocean.

By Dr Gulbin Sultana

India-Sri Lanka relations get refreshed every time there is a change in the government in Sri Lanka. The new Sri Lanka PadajunaPeramuna (SLPP)dispensation in Sri Lanka, dominated by the Rajapaksas, which came to power after the presidential elections in 2019 and further consolidated its authority after scoring a resounding victory in the Parliamentary elections in August 2020 is now emphasizing its ‘India-First policy’ in response to India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. This is apparently to indicate its willingness to factor in Indian sensitivities in its foreign and security policies. However, it requires deeper analysis to understand the reasons for which the Rajapaksas, known for their leaning towards China and apathy, if not insensitivity, towards India, have sought to warm up to India even after winning the elections so convincingly.

The elements of the ‘India-first policy’ by the Sri Lankan government has been there with previous administrations in Colombo. Such rhetoric has been used in the past too, without any serious effort on the part of most governments to follow it in practice. The Sri Lankan Government, under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa during 2010-14, ignored India’s security sensitivities, despite expressing its commitment to pursue a friendly policy towards India. The question now is whether Sri Lanka, under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be able to adhere to its ‘India-first policy’ in reality. It is believed that unlike the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration during 2010-14, the present Gotabaya-Mahinda administration will not blatantly ignore India’s sensitivities. However, at the same time, it may not shy away from reviewing/reneging on its commitments to placate the anti-India constituency at home, in the name of preserving Sri Lanka’s ‘strategic autonomy’. The possibility of playing the China card against India by the Gotabaya administration too cannot be ruled out.

Maintaining strategic autonomy vis-à-vis India has always been a concern for Sri Lanka since its independence. Sri Lankan leaders have perceived India as one of the potential sources of threat to its strategic autonomy. They have often adopted various approaches to deal with this perceived threat over the years– sometimes by using a third country to counter India’s influence and sometimes by winning India’s confidence through negotiations and high-level engagement. The experience so far suggests that Sri Lanka’s policy of balancing India through strategic engagement with an extra-regional power has mostly back-fired in the past. Rajapaksa brothers understand this very well.

The new administration has set many ambitious goals for itself in the next five years. The main priority of the government has been to ensure national security and economic development as well as to bring changes in the political and administrative system through amendment and drafting of a new constitution. The government is also mulling over the possibility of adopting new approaches to deal with the Tamil questions. It has already disregarded the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) recommendations on the issue of reconciliation, reparation, and investigation on the violation of human rights cases in the last phases of the Eelam War. At this point, when he is trying to execute his policy vision, Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not want any kind of complications, either from India or the international community.

Hence, Sri Lanka is trying hard to keep itself away from the ongoing contestation for power in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lankan Government is also keeping itself away from taking any official position on the ongoing tension between India and China. Sri Lanka is trying to promote the concept of the ‘Indian Ocean as a zone of peace’ to ensure regional security and regional stability. Nonetheless, it is unwittingly falling into the trap of big-power competition due to its proximity to China.

Against this background, the Rajapaksas, who are known for their pro-China approach, claim that they are following the ‘policy of neutrality’ for strategic purpose and ‘India-first policy’. By ‘policy of neutrality’, Sri Lanka means it will maintain friendly relations with all the countries and will follow issue-based multi-alignment policy as per its requirement. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said that he would not allow anyone to dictate terms to Sri Lanka. By ‘India-first policy’, the Sri Lankan Government is trying to assure India that it would respect its security and strategic concerns in Sri Lanka. The new government has also stated publicly that it would not allow any third country to use its territory against India.

Nevertheless, the current administration may not allow India to strengthen its influence in Sri Lanka. There are leaders in the current administration who are paranoid about India and fear that India would always use the Tamils to serve its interests vis-à-vis the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. There is a strong apprehension too that deepening economic engagement with India would only strengthen India’s leverages in the island country at the expense of the long-term strategic interests of Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is likely to continue to facilitate Chinese presence in the Island, not only to check and balance Indian influence but also to ensure the free flow of Indian assistance without any strings attached. But the current administration is now mature and experienced enough to do all these in a subtle manner. It would avoid doing anything drastic which may offend India. The effort from the Sri Lankan side would be to enhance high-level dialogues to create an atmosphere of trust and understanding with the Indian establishment.

The Indian establishment must be mindful of the fact that while, in the name of ensuring strategic autonomy and handling domestic opposition, the Sri Lankan Government may review or scrap deals with India, it will still continue with controversial deals with China despite public protests against them. There is a standard refrain that unilaterally withdrawing from a signed international agreement could have negative repercussions for both the economy and the dignity of the country. Shelving or scrapping deals with India may also be politically useful and economically not too harmful. It may continue to ensure the development through easily availed Chinese loans despite the bitter experience in the past of swapping debts with land, like in the case of Hambantota. In this context, Indian authorities must give serious thought to its response when Sri Lanka, as intended, requests India to review the lease agreement on Trincomalee oil tank farms or the tripartite agreement signed on the Eastern terminal of Colombo International port.

Thus, India must engage, understand, and assist Sri Lanka in a non-reciprocal manner, but it has to ensure that it is not taken for granted under any circumstance. India should not be complacent with the policy announcement from Colombo and must insist that India’s concerns and interests should be taken due care of.

(The author is Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are personal.)

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