Will the China factor overshadow India’s Sri Lanka reset?

Stanly Johny Chennai | Updated on March 11, 2015

On the trot Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena during the latter's visit to New Delhi last month.

PM Modi’s visit tomorrow may partly change the balance

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to take up the issue of growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka when he meets the island nation’s leadership later this week in Colombo, even as experts remain cautious about giving overemphasis on the China factor in India’s engagement with its Indian Ocean neighbour.

Modi, who started a tour of Indian Ocean nations on Tuesday, will go to Sri Lanka in the last leg of the trip on March 13 after visiting Seychelles and Mauritius.

This is the first time an Indian Prime Minister is going to Sri Lanka in 28 years. Besides, the visit happens after Sri Lanka elected a new President, Maithripala Sirisena, who had made some overtures towards New Delhi.

His predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had cultivated strong ties with China.

“Of course the Chinese role will be a matter of discussion. We expect positive changes to emerge from the meetings,” an Indian diplomat told BusinessLine requesting anonymity.

During Rajapaksa’s time in office, China pumped billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including an airport, roads and ports. Last year the previous government allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo, raising hackles in New Delhi.

Sirisena has vowed to review some of the Chinese projects. Recently, his government halted work on the Chinese-backed $1.4-billion Colombo Port City project, citing lack of transparency. India had also raised concerns about the project.

“We don’t expect an immediate shift in Sri Lanka’s ties with China. But there will be some kind of a balancing. We are waiting for that,” the diplomat said.

Agreed M Mayilvaganan, a Sri Lanka expert and assistant professor at International Strategic and Security Studies in Bengaluru: “A change is visible in (Sri Lanka’s) approach towards the Chinese. They may try to balance India and China.”

Fourth high-level meeting

What is to Modi’s advantage is the changing political climate in Sri Lanka. His visit would be the fourth high level interaction between India and Sri Lanka since January, when a new government took office in Colombo. Sirisena and his Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera have already visited Delhi, while Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj went to Colombo over the weekend.

“There is a considerable rethink on the previous government’s unthinking romance with China. The new political configuration in Sri Lanka looks at India favourably,” said Ashok K Behuria, Coordinator, South Asia Centre at Delhi-based think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

China, over the past decade, has strengthened economic ties with Indian Ocean countries.

“With Indian policy makers finally acknowledging that both the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions are rapidly being shaped by the Chinese presence, the Modi government is pushing back by enhancing its diplomatic and defence presence in the area,” Harsh V Pant, a professor of defence studies at King’s College London, wrote recently in an article.

“Modi’s trip this week will provide some important pointers as to how New Delhi will proceed.”

Analysts say Modi’s warming up to Sri Lanka will certainly have an impact on bilateral ties, but a decisive shift in Colombo’s China policy seems “impossible”.

“So much money has already been pumped into Sri Lanka from Beijing. They have obligations under the terms and conditions of the Chinese investment. What they may do is review one or two projects and ask for some modification,” said Mayilvaganan.

But Behuria warned against giving over-emphasis to the China factor in India’s relationship with Sri Lanka. “While India's concerns about Chinese penetration into the South Asian strategic space may be genuine, it is not in India's interests to flag it too boldly. Rather, the agenda should revolve around the areas in which India can contribute more meaningfully — deepening economic ties, undertaking developmental projects, etc.”

Published on March 11, 2015

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