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Sri Lanka in the Geopolitical Radars of India and China

As the new Chinese administration, under President Xi Jinping, is set to complete its first year in office we in India gear up for the Lok Sabha polls—one of the largest exercises in democracy in the world’s most populous democracy. If opinion polls are any indication India is all set to usher in a completely new regime. This seems as good a time as any to re-look at foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with regard to India, its increased interest in the Indian Ocean, and its engagement of India’s neighbours, especially Sri Lanka. India’s foreign policy has a history of being reactive but events unfolding make it essential for the post-election Indian government to engage in a predictive exercise prior to formulating its external course.

The foreign policies of India and China cannot be studied in isolation. The analysis must be done after taking into account domestic developments in each country and international dynamics. Thus this article seeks to answer the following questions keeping in mind events within India, China, Sri Lanka, and in the international arena as a whole.

Is China’s interest in Sri Lanka part of its Indian Ocean strategy?

Is China’s role in Sri Lanka hurting India’s interests?

Professor V. Suryanarayan, a Southeast Asia expert, began his talk in a panel discussion on the Asian Century held recently in Chennai on a lighter note providing an anecdote from the World Astrologists’ Conference, which predicted that Chinese language will gain prominence in the 21st century. Also, fortune tellers have foreseen the Chinese New Year of the Wood Horse as including “increasing violence, turmoil and natural disasters.” From a rationalist point of view, these forecasts may not appear acceptable; however what looks inherent in them is the capacity to arouse curiosity among people.

A ‘Core interest’ concept is dominating China’s strategic course since mid-2009; maintaining territorial integrity and protecting strategic trade routes, have accordingly become central to the PRC’s foreign policy. On territories ranging from the disputed islands in the South China Sea to Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh in India, Beijing, under its “core interest” banner, is more than willing to unflinchingly stick to its perceived sovereign rights. This brings China into conflict with its neighbours as well as the international super powers. It will be in New Delhi’s interest to monitor such developments and align with nations whose interests match with those of India. India seems to be already doing so; its getting closer to Japan is an example.

Beijing’s adoption of a core interest–based foreign policy led the Indian Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh to comment that “there is a new assertiveness on the part of China; it will be difficult to say which way it will go and India should be prepared.” It is through this lens that one must view India’s growing strategic engagement with the United States, despite the diplomatic hiccups; its support to the U.S.-led resolution in Geneva contrary to that of the Asian bloc probing war crimes in Sri Lanka; the regular international naval exercises in the Indian Ocean such as the MILAN and other bilateral exercises in the Greater Indian Ocean region; and finally the presence of a pacifist prime minister, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, as chief guest at India’s 65th Republic Day parade where India showcased its military might—a highlight of which was the nuclear missile—and our diverse cultural influences.

The PRC has begun to view the situation in India’s Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as well Arunachal Pradesh strategically. Examples are the presence of Chinese troops in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir, China’s building of ‘economic corridor’ with Pakistan and the PRC’s consistent claim over Arunachal despite its inclination to hold border talks with India. In such a situation, India’s geo- political interest demands that it keeps conditions in border areas stable. New Delhi needs to ensure elimination of damaging dogmas such as a core-periphery approach to relations with the country’s citizens from J&K and the Northeast. The racist attack that led to the death of a teen from Arunachal and the low intensity harassment that continues targeting students from the northeast, both in the capital New Delhi and elsewhere, are revelatory of India’s underperformance in this regard. How can India successfully secure its interests internationally when xenophobia within a nation priding itself in its China has been equally, if not more, active in the international arena. After decades of intensely internal absorption, the PRC—now the world’s banker—is flexing its newly developed international muscle especially since its unprecedented success in organising the Olympics in 2008. It has unquestionably arrived as a power to be reckoned with; indicators include China’s growing collaboration with Russia, its exercises to secure its strategic maritime routes, its development of alternative “silk routes” to secure business supply pathways, and its unflinching use of the veto at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to prevent what it felt was U.S. interference in the domestic developments in Sri Lanka.

Even as the United States displays keen interest in the developments in Asia and the Indian Ocean, under Chinese President Xi, we witness a strong partnership developing between world super powers, Russia and China. When President Obama, the British Prime Minister Cameron, and many of the EU leadership decided to give the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi a miss, the presence of the Chinese president, as well as that of the Japanese premier, with the glaring absence of even the Indian flag—a blemish to our national pride and international influence considering our traditional ties with Russia—at the elaborate opening ceremony showcasing Russian grandeur, past and present, is seen by many experts as a firm shift in geostrategic focus into the Asian heartlands. China has established itself as a power in the world stage and in Asia while Russia under Vladimir Putin is emerging as a very strong alternative to the EU in Europe. The international community has to keep in mind now this collaboration of giants while reacting to world events as witnessed by their dominance in resolutions against Syria and Sri Lanka. China and Russia’s well-publicised joint naval war games in the Mediterranean Sea are also signs of these Asian and Eurasian giants’ dominance of the international arena whenever they decide to collaborate.

According to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory in the post–Cold War world people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict and no two civilizations have stronger and more ancient identities than India and China. With “India moving east and west while China to the South,” to quote international relations expert Robert Kaplan, it is inevitable that spheres of influence will intersect and one such “faultline,” to use Huntington’s term for the scenes of clash will be, the Greater Indian Ocean. In his work “Monsoon—the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” Kaplan describes the sea-routes of the Greater Indian Ocean from the gulf off the Horn of Africa to the seas enveloping the Indonesian archipelago as “the centre of global conflicts, because most international business supply will be conducted through this route … it is in this region the interests and influence of India, China and the United States are beginning to overlap and intersect. It is here the 21st century’s global power dynamics will be revealed.” The Indian Ocean may be named after our country but unfortunately or fortunately it encompasses some of the busiest sea routes in the world including the Malacca Straits, most of them vital to China’s supply chains. With China bilaterally developing strategic ports dotted across the region, including Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, likened to a string of pearls in the Indian Ocean, it is self-evident that, to quote what has been said in Mr. D.S. Rajan’s paper, “China’s priority will always be on protecting its energy security interests, by way of securing the Sea Lanes of Communications, spreading from the Gulf to the South China Sea.”

It is not surprising that China is expanding its naval capabilities in order to protect its energy security interests. The PLAN’s (People’s Liberation Army Navy) 5-day, 10-exercise, 3-ship flotilla drill ushering in the Chinese New Year in Lumbok Strait near Indonesia, clearly demonstrates China’s strategic imperatives in this region. Srikanth Kondapalli, an expert on the Chinese military at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, enumerates them as first a demonstration of capability to access disputed East China Sea and South China Sea regions; next to arrive at alternatives to China’s “Malacca Dilemma” which makes this busy sea lanes one of the choke points of China’s supply chain, and finally it closes in on Indian Navy’s Andaman & Nicobar (A&N) Command.

It is through this filter that China’s interest in Sri Lanka has to be viewed. So the answer to one of the questions that forms the core of this paper is: Yes, China’s interest in Sri Lanka is definitely part of its Indian Ocean strategy. The Indian Navy has also successfully demonstrated its strong presence and capability in the Indian Ocean with its biennial international naval exercise MILAN 2014. Sixteen nations’ navies from the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) including Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand participated in the naval event that highlighted the presence of the Indian Navy in A&N for half a century.

Sri Lanka is still reeling from the effects of the last bloody war that sought to root out the LTTE from its North and East. Even as its population both Sinhala and Tamil try to move forward in the aftermath of such a devastating exercise, progress and development is hampered by international resolutions and criticisms. British and American administrations continue to criticise the slow responses of Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) in dealing with and investigating allegations of war crimes and human rights violations during and after the Sri Lankan army’s successful bid to neutralize the LTTE. The findings and recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as well as the UN Human Rights Commission’s (UNHRC) resolution add pressure to a nation trying to recover from the effects of a devastating war that has damaged the very fabric of its society.

Sri Lanka’s relations with its closest neighbour India has slowly been deteriorating with many minor conflicting interests. These points of conflict include the continued clashes between Indian fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy as well as Sri Lankan fishermen; Tamil Nadu’s political parties’ unflagging interest in the island Kachatheevu; the Indian prime minister’s decision not to participate in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in Colombo in December 2013; as well as plans to dredge and create the Sethusamudram canal in the Gulf of Mannar which could adversely impact commercial interest of Sri Lankan ports even as it devastates the delicate ecological balance of the sensitive eco-system there. The Indian Supreme Court’s decision to commute the death sentences of the Sri Lankan Tamils convicted in the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the unanimous and prompt resolution of the Tamil Nadu administration, with an eye on domestic interests enabled by Tamil national sentiment when Lok Sabha elections loom, to set them free, after 23 years will be a bitter pill for the GoSL to swallow.

Immediate irritants in bilateral ties between India and Sri Lanka also include the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s letters to the central government demanding national diplomatic action to secure the release of the 26 fishing boats and over hundred Tamil fishermen detained by the Sri Lankan Navy. Adding to this is the Tamil Nadu opposition DMK’s inclusion of demands for a stronger UNHRC resolution against the GoSL, the commencement of the Sethusamudram project and the inclusion of Kachatheevu as an integral part of India as part of its Lok Sabha election campaign which seeks to kindle Tamil national sentiments.

Even a cursory review of Sri Lankan media reveals an overwhelmingly positive view of China in dire contrast to a poor view of India. At the governmental level relations between China and Sri Lanka have been on the upswing ever since Mahinda Rajapakshe came into power. It is reported that the Sri Lankan premier visited China five times in office and thrice before.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris’ Beijing visit in early February 2014 has resulted in plans that take the two nations closer economically. Along with plans to improve maritime connectivity with Sri Lanka more funds were allocated to the next phase of the development of the port of Hambantota in addition to nearly $4 million in railway and road projects. A generous Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is also in the works and the two nations seek to implement it before the end of 2014.

Since 2009 China has been the largest lender to Sri Lanka and despite international calls for demilitarization it has aided the GoSL in constructing and establishing military installations in the war-ravaged North and East. Sri Lanka has also been granted dialogue partner status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) making it a key player in this association of Asian giants as early as 2011. Even before his visit to India, Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie stopped off in Sri Lanka in August 2012. China marked the first ever visit by a defence delegation headed by its minister to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean by many financial investments in the Sri Lankan defence establishment including a $30 million donation to the Sri Lankan Defence Services College (DSC)—an national level educational institution for children of defence and police personnel—the highest such investment in an academic institution. The latter is an exercise in soft power that won the hearts and minds of generations of Sri Lankans.

Above and beyond the investments China stepping in to shield and support Sri Lanka at the United Nations is what has completely won over the GoSL. Contrasting with Indian actions China, which was one of 14 countries elected to serve on the 47-member UNHRC late last year for a three-year term, has been repeatedly come to the aid of the Sri Lankan government and lobbied hard for it amid increasing international criticism of the post-war reconciliation process and the Sri Lankan human rights situation. As permanent member of the UNSC, China even exercised its veto to block discussion of the steps taken by the Rajapakse administration to fight the LTTE.


China’s core-interest driven foreign policy has made it appear as a power increasingly willing to escalate tensions along its periphery. With China focused on the goals “to preserve the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, create a favourable international environment for reforms and opening up, modernize construction, maintaining world peace and propelling common development” it is inevitable that it will flex strategic muscles in the vitally important sea-routes in the Indian Ocean as well as in other arenas of international collaboration. Sri Lanka, as well as other IOR countries will remain central to both China’s foreign and maritime policies. This does not necessarily bode ill for India. Chinese interest in the region will keep India’s military and naval machinery sharp and Chinese collaboration and commitment to wipe out terrorism and piracy in the region will be a definite advantage for India especially keeping in mind the Mumbai attack where the enemy landed on Indian soil by boldly using the sea route in our venerable port city as well as repeated kidnapping of crew from merchant vessels by pirates.

To quote the late Mr. B. Raman, a renowned security expert, “I do not rate highly the dangers of Sri Lanka throwing itself into the arms of China or Pakistan to spite India for its vote against it in Geneva. … We do not need to be worried about the Chinese grandstanding at Geneva.”

Specifically in international relations parlance there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. At this particular time in history it is Sri Lankan perception that China has offered unconditional and timely help for its overall development. It may seem obvious that silk and pearls match! Viewed against the backdrop of clashes with India and the international calls for probes regarding allegations of war crimes and human rights violations during and after Sri Lanka’s defeat of the LTTE it is obvious that deepening ties with China aligns with Sri Lankan interests. This in turn doesn’t mean that the deepening ties will hurt Indian interests. It just means that if India is serious about maintaining a positive influence in South Asia and in Sri Lanka in particular it needs to modify its foreign policy to take into account neighbourhood interests that align with India’s strategic outlook. India while donning the mantle of regional and international super power must keep in mind that like other South Asian nations Sri Lanka is more than just a neighbour or in Sri Lanka’s case India’s teardrop. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean is one of the jewels of the sceptre of South Asia and New Delhi needs to formulate policies that make more friends than enemies in its backyard by a process of prioritising and matching interests.

(The writer, Ms Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst. She holds a master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on social issues. Email:

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