The Maldives and Sri Lanka were the two countries Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to visit after his sweeping victory in the general election in May. He was also the first foreign leader to visit Colombo after the heinous Easter Sunday terror attacks, one of the worst witnessed on the subcontinent. The Prime Minister visited one of the churches that was attacked to express “solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka”. Indian intelligence agencies had forewarned their Sri Lankan counterparts on the terror threats to their island nation. However, there was no speedy follow-up action, which has been blamed on the political impasse that has affected the government in Colombo from late last year. The blame game that has been going on has further divided the embattled Sri Lankan government.
Since coming to office for the first time in 2014, the Modi government has been emphasising a “neighbourhood first” policy. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said that Modi’s decision to visit the Maldives and Sri Lanka for his first overseas trip in his second term “underlines the continued importance that the government lays on the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy”. Pakistan, despite being an immediate neighbour, has been treated more as an “enemy nation” by the Modi government. China is considered a strategic rival. As it is, the Indian government’s “neighbourhood first” policy has not been much of a foreign policy success.
In the past five years, Nepal has tilted towards China. The Bhutanese elected a new government last year that wants to break free from Indian tutelage and pursue an independent foreign policy. The previous government in the Maldives headed by Abdullah Yameen had a strained relationship with India. The Modi government viewed it as being close to China. Yameen’s defeat in the election in April this year has not changed the ground realities there despite the new government’s announcement that it is reverting to an “India first” foreign policy again. China remains the biggest investor and aid donor in the Maldives. In its dealings with developing countries, China abstains from interfering in their internal affairs. India, on the other hand, is viewed as being close to certain parties and individuals in the subcontinent.
Most governments in the region view “big brother” India with suspicion, and the Sri Lankans are no exception. The Modi government’s interference in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries is well documented. Previous governments too have blatantly interfered in the internal affairs of South Asian countries. India could get away with a lot in the past as both the United States and China recognised South Asia as being within the ambit of India’s sphere of influence.
Belt and Road Initiative
But things have changed since China started aspiring to be a superpower and an important player in the region. South Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, were thirsty for investments for infrastructural development. Some countries would have actually preferred Indian investments and aid, but India was in no position to compete with China. All the South Asian countries, excluding India and Bhutan, have signed on to the ambitious multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that China launched in 2013. Ambitious flagship projects under the BRI were launched in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. This included the development of Colombo Port City and Male-airport link road. Male is the capital of the Maldives. Colombo Port City and the new Hambantota port are slated to play an important role in the BRI.
India was offered the first option of developing the Hambantota port, but it had to turn the offer down as it could not muster the necessary finances for the gargantuan project. The port has now been handed over to China on a 99-year lease in a controversial $1.2 billion debt for equity swap. India has been offered a lease on the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, 220 kilometres from Colombo, which has been dubbed the world’s emptiest airport. No international flights land there.
Chinese companies have already invested $15 billion in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. India was able to pledge only $2.6 billion for development projects. In 2017, India agreed to refurbish and use 99 oil tanks in the Trincomalee harbour. In March this year, China agreed to extend a loan of $989 million for the construction of a road that will connect the tea-growing areas in the central region to ports in the south.
It is not only India that is concerned about China’s growing footprint on the island. The U.S. and the G7 countries have also expressed their concerns to the Sri Lankan government. Before the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Colombo, there was an agreement between India and Japan to develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo port. India and Japan will hold a 49 per cent stake in the ECT with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority holding the rest. This is an indication that the two countries may join hands to counter China’s influence in the maritime arena, especially in Sri Lanka. Indian naval ships recently participated in a military exercise in the South China Sea alongside Japanese, U.S. and Philippine naval vessels.
Bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka have been fraught on occasion, starting from the 1980s when India despatched peacekeeping troops to the island. India’s hand has been suspected in the political machinations that led to the exit of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. India had viewed the Rajapaksa government as being too close to China for comfort.
In the first four years of Modi’s first term, the Indian government cooperated closely with the U.S. in efforts to militarily and diplomatically pressure China. The visit of a Chinese submarine to the Colombo port in 2014 caused alarm among policymakers in New Delhi. Their displeasure was made known to the Rajapaksa government. It was during his tenure from 2005 to 2015 that China-Sri Lanka relations were dramatically strengthened. In 2013, the Rajapaksa government signed the $1.4 billion deal to develop Colombo Port City. Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and is slated to play an important role in the BRI.
After the ouster of the Rajapaksa government, the new government with Maithripala Sirisena as President and Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister was viewed as being more pro-India. But the bonhomie did not last long. According to reports in the Sri Lankan media, Sirisena claimed that Indian intelligence agencies had hatched a plot to assassinate him. In October 2018, Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinghe, who is viewed as the most pro-Indian politician in the establishment, and replaced him with Rajapaksa. Sirisena ultimately did not have his way, and Wickremesinghe was reinstalled as Prime Minister. The fissures in the government remain, and its failure to react in time to warnings about a possible terror attack is being blamed on a dysfunctional government.
Meanwhile, most observers of the region are of the view that it is only a matter of time before the Rajapaksa clan returns to power. The patriarch of the political family, Mahinda, has been stressing for some time that he has no animus against New Delhi for the events of the recent past. He has, however, admitted that relations soured in 2014 after Modi came to power. But Rajapaksa now says that the opposition coalition he is leading has good relations with the Modi government. All the major stakeholders in Sri Lankan politics concede that India has vital stakes in the island.
The Sri Lankan establishment does not want to be beholden to one country. Already there is talk of the country being caught in a “debt trap” by China, to which Sri Lanka owes $5.5 billion. And because of the massive investments China has made in the island nation, it has a big stake in ensuring that political stability prevails in Sri Lanka. During the political crisis last year, China again pledged that it would not interfere in the internal affairs of the country. The Indian government should henceforth also refrain from interfering even indirectly in Sri Lankan affairs. Modi made it a point to meet with Rajapaksa during his recent visit to Colombo.
Plight of Tamils
At the same time, the Indian government should not forget about the plight of a large number of Tamils who still are without homes and jobs as a result of the brutal civil war. The Sri Lankan government is backtracking on its commitments to displaced Tamils using the recent terror attacks as an excuse. Investigations against security personnel accused of war crimes and disappearances of journalists and activists have been put on the back burner.
The economy has been badly affected by the terror attacks. The tourism industry, which was booming in recent years, has been devastated. Politics on the island is once again acquiring a sharp chauvinistic edge. The Muslim community, which constitutes 10 per cent of the population, is under immense pressure. The Tamils, who constitute 15 per cent of the population, are still waiting for promises made by the government to be fulfilled. There is a fear that the country could once again be sucked into a vicious cycle of violence and bloodletting. Such a scenario would be dangerous for India and the entire region.