By: Barun Das Gupta
India-Sri-Lanka relations under the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be interesting to follow. It may be recalled that when Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in November, 2019, there was palpable unease in the South Block. Both he and his brother Mahinda (former president and present prime minister) are known for their pro-China leaning. Gotabaya had openly declared his intention to undo the pro-democracy reforms made by former president Maithripala Sirisena and introduce the presidential form of government. Sirisena, it may be recalled, had wanted to curb the sweeping powers that the Sri Lankan Constitution gave to the president and restricted democratic freedoms.
To be sure, by getting the 20th amendment to the Constitution passed by parliament in October last year, Gotabaya reverted to the presidential form of government, much to the fear and concern of the Tamil population which has not forgotten Gotabaya’s role as the then defence secretary in ruthlessly crushing the Tamil Eelam movement.
His subsequent moves also made it clear that he did not to want to alienate either India or China but to develop relations with both to the best advantage of Colombo. Sri Lanka announced its “India First Policy” at a time when India-China military confrontation reached a critical stage in August last year. This was ostensibly to assure India that China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka will not adversely impact India’s security interests. Colombo also said it considered India as a “relation” while China and Pakistan were “friends.”
Last October, a high level Chinese delegation led by CPC Politburo member Yang Jiechi visited Colombo. Within days, a US delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Sri Lanka, showing the importance both countries give to this small island nation. It seemed The US delegation was sent to neutralize the impact of the Chinese visit. China’s concern at the rising cooperation between the “Quad” Nations (US, India, Japan and Australia) and their “Malabar exercises” in the Bay of Bengal is obvious. It is keenly observing Colombo’s reaction to the Quad which challenges China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean Region.
Colombo cannot ignore New Delhi while developing closer relations with China. Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanth Colombage was frank enough to admit: “China is the second largest economy and India is the sixth…. We are between two economic giants. How we benefit from both is diplomacy. That is why the President said that as far as strategic security is concerned; Sri Lanka will always have an India-First approach. As far as economic development is concerned, we cannot depend on one country. We are open to anyone.” Some have read in it a veiled message to China that Colombo will accept any offer of economic development from any country it considers best from the point of view of its national interest.
But Gotabaya has also to assure Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils and Muslims that they will not be discriminated against but will get a fair deal in the new dispensation. After the suppression of the Tamil Eelam movement, Tamils have always felt insecure. After the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks on several churches and hotels by Islamic extremists in which 267 persons were killed, the Buddhist population of Sri Lanka has become extremely hostile to the Muslims. In fact, Gotabaya’s election as president was also greatly helped by these terrorist attacks, as the majority Buddhists wanted a “strong man” to take charge of the country. Wise statesmanship demands that the government reach out to the Tamils and Muslims and make them stakeholders in the country’s development.
As far as India is concerned, it has to assure Colombo that it expects Sri Lanka sticking to the policy of “India First” which means not doing anything that harms India’s security interests. The blunt truth is that there are in the Gotabaya government influential people who suffer from a pathological fear of India. They believe that New Delhi will use the Tamil population against the majority Buddhists to keep Sri Lanka under pressure. This misconception has to be removed by sustained and painstaking efforts. Economic assistance alone will not change this perception of India.
The plain fact of the matter is that throughout Asia, and especially in South Asia, a silent but intense diplomatic war is going on between China and India to spread their respective influence on the smaller countries. China wants to turn these countries against India, while India wants them to be friendly neighbours. India will have to win their confidence that it will be a strong bulwark against Chinese expansionism. It has also to help them to the best of its capacity in their economic development, not as a usurious State like China, “helping” liberally to inveigle them into a debt-trap, but without any political strings attached.
Most countries which took Chinese economic “assistance” to develop infrastructure are now realizing they have got into a debt trap and are desperately trying how to get out of it. For instance, a Chinese company built the Hambantota port in the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Later, Colombo found it could not repay the loan with interest. So it had to lease the port for 99 years to the China Merchant Port Holdings Co. for $1.2 billion. But now the Gotabaya government wants to cancel the lease in national interest. This is likely to be a friction point between Sri Lanka and China. India has to watch these developments keenly to fashion its neighbourhood policy. (IPA Service)