New Regime in Sri Lanka and Its Impact on India - Current Affair Article for UPSC, IAS, Civil Services and State PCS Examinations
Why in News?
Gotabaya Rajapaksa won Presidential race in the recently held election in Sri Lanka over rival Sajith Premadasa. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the winner, has received overwhelming backing of the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community.
The outcome of Sri Lanka’s presidential election has surprised the winners, the losers as well as the observers. The most obvious, arguably disquieting, and unanticipated trend is the resharpening of the majority-minority divide in electoral choices. However, to fulfil his promise of taking the country out of its present state of deep economic and governance crisis as well as ushering in an era of economic prosperity and political stability, the new President will need to rebuild the trust between the majority and minority communities.
The best, incurring possibly the lowest political cost, to achieving that goal lays through democratic, inclusive, dialogical, and accommodative means, despite the popular support for a possible retreat from traditional forms of democracy. Thus, the election outcome highlights once again how inter-ethnic reconciliation continues to be centrally relevant to any recovery and reform agenda for post-war Sri Lanka. Reconciliation is needed to heal the wounds in a country that is struggling to come out from a recent past of violence and democratic setbacks.
No sooner did Gotabaya Rajapaksa emerge as the winner in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections that the narrative about “China would be happy” was set. Following the ‘pro-China’ security and economic policies of Mahinda Rajapaksa that left Sri Lanka reeling under debt, the coalition government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Renil Wickremasinghe was elected in 2015 in the backdrop of mounting concerns in the island nation against Chinese investments.
As another member of the powerful Rajapaksa family now takes charge, analysts were saying that the return of the Rajapaksa clan may result in a pivot toward China once again.
In India, Gotabaya’s victory on the back of a resounding mandate has largely been interpreted as a “setback”. Memories of Mahinda — former President (2005-2015), now new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka — blaming Indian intelligence agency for his shock defeat in the 2015 elections are still fresh. India’s alleged machinations, which New Delhi has vehemently denied, was thought to have been the result of Mahinda crossing a number of New Delhi’s red lines including allowing Chinese nuclear submarines to dock at Sri Lanka’s port and throwing an unacceptable maritime security challenge to India.
The reality is a little more complex than assuming that Sri Lanka will swing like a pendulum between India and China. There is no denying that the strategic location of Sri Lanka — straddling vital sea lanes and being at the centre of Indian Ocean Region in a space India considers as its strategic backyard — exposes it to the risk of being a pawn in the great game of big powers. But there is an inherent risk in assuming that even small states with limited resources and hedging strategies are completely bereft of an agency or are oblivious to the benefits of pursuing a realist policy. Neither was the government of Sirisena and Wickremasinghe “anti-China” and “pro-India” nor should we expect Gotabaya to do the exact opposite.
India and Sri Lanka Relations
Both countries had a long history of international engagement, as a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and a member of the United Nations (UN), the Commonwealth of Nations, the G77, and the Non-Aligned Movement.
India’s concerns in Sri Lanka, again as in the case of other neighbours, is security-centric. On the external front, India is concerned about China and Pakistan. On the internal, it is Islamic militancy, spreading out from traditional regional centres, to the neighbourhood. Despite, pro-china policy of Sri Lanka, India have to reset bilateral relations between the two strong governments in Delhi and Colombo.
The major challenges are:
- Economic Cooperation: Bilateral economic cooperation and a new trade agreement to replace the timed-out free trade agreement (FTA), which has served well over two decades, is another Rajapaksa inheritance which the successors have left untouched for all practical purposes, even after changing the nomenclature from Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CEPA) to European Communities Trade Mark Association (ECTA). The two nations can consider reviving the talks, from wherever they have left them since, but it will take political will at the highest levels to make them work down the line.
- Ethnic Issue: If the new government in Colombo can advance reconciliation with the Tamil minority, it will be easier for india to strengthen ties with the Gotabaya government. But the Tamil issue is no longer a bilateral one between Delhi and Colombo. The Western powers have expressed deep concerns about the war crimes in the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the need to bring those responsible to book.
- Fishermen: Given the proximity of the territorial waters of both countries, especially in the Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar, incidents of straying of fishermen are common. Both countries have agreed on certain practical arrangements to deal with the issue of bona fide fishermen of either side crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line.
In addition, India needs to invest some political capital in resolving problems such as the long-standing dispute over fisheries. Beyond its objection to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, Delhi, either alone or in partnership with like-minded countries like Japan, should offer sustainable terms for infrastructure development. Delhi also needs to contribute more to the development of Colombo’s defence and counter-terror capabilities.
India is acutely aware that China’s economic and strategic salience in the Subcontinent will continue to grow and is not tied to the regime leadership in its neighbourhood. During his brother Mahinda's regime, China started investing heavily in infrastructure projects in the island nation as Lanka faced international isolation at the tail end of the civil war. Sri Lanka only accumulated unsustainable debt and getting into ‘debt traps’ with China’s infrastructure and development projects as part of its BRI. China financed its projects through loans, while India’s assistance comprised of 70 per cent loans and 30 per cent grants, but the scale of Chinese commitments easily outdid those of India. This was the phase of massive Chinese projects to make the Hambantota port, the Mattala international airport in Rajapakse’s constituency in southern Sri Lanka as well as the Colombo Port City project to reclaim land to expand Colombo. In addition, China invested in a network of highways across the country such as the Katunayke Expressway and the Southern Expressway.
However, the Indian pressure led to a redrawing of the lease agreement that will require the China Merchant Port Holdings Company to divest a quarter of its 80 per cent share holding to a Sri Lankan entity within 10 years. Another clause obliges the Chinese to return the port and land to Sri Lanka after the 99 year period. In addition by shifting a naval base to the port which will be controlled by China, the Sri Lankans are trying to assure the international community that the facility will not be used by the Chinese military. Finally, in any case, Delhi can’t expect its neighbours to shut down economic and commercial engagement with Beijing, notwithstanding the many questions about the terms of China’s assistance on projects, including those under the BRI. But Delhi will be right to ask Colombo not to take steps with Beijing that threaten India’s security.
Outlook for India
The experience of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe period makes it clear that there are limits to the influence that external parties can bring to bear on the Sri Lankan situation. Having initially taken the stand that they would reverse the Chinese connection, the two eventually compromised with Beijing. Nevertheless, the experience of the last five years has taught the Rajapakse’s that there are limits to what India will accept. Sri Lanka is too important from the Indian security point of view to standby and allow a third country to get a pole position there.
In a recent interview, Basil Rajapakse said that while Sri Lanka could not afford to ignore China on economic matters, it would have to find ways to get along with India, its friend and neighbor, on political and security matters. After losing the 2015 election, Mahinda had initially attacked India for conspiring with other western countries to displace him. But months later he conceded that he had no evidence to the effect and he later visited New Delhi along with his son and met Indian Prime Minister.
Current Indian policy is focused on dealing directly with the mainstream parties in the country and its primary goal is to ensure that Chinese influence in Sri Lanka is limited. This is easier said than done. However, there is no reason to assume that whether it is Gotbaya or Sajith, that they will ignore Indian interests. The Nepal experience has shown that geography still remains an important factor in contemporary geopolitics.
There is little doubt that Gotabaya is the only new face for Rajapaksa family rule. India, whose relations with Sri Lanka went through a troubled patch during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency due to his proximity with China, now faces the challenge of rebuilding ties with the brothers. However, the great game in the subcontinent is not limited to just India and China. It is quite easy to forget the considerable interests and influence of many other powers in the region, including the US, European Union, Japan and Russia. Meanwhile, the exclusive focus on major power rivalry masks the agency of South Asian political elites and their capacity to manoeuvre among the major powers. As the world rediscovers the geopolitical value of Sri Lanka at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, Colombo has huge opportunities to leverage its location for national benefit. A prudent and important part of that strategy would be to avoid provoking India. India too would be wise to be mindful of Colombo’s security concerns and find ways to develop long-term strategic cooperation with Sri Lanka.