Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck an emotional chord in his address to Sri Lanka’s parliament when he proclaimed: “For India, the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka are paramount.” Referring to the “shared heritage and shared future” of the two countries, Modi averred: “I bring the blessings from the land of Bodh Gaya to the land of Anuradhapura.” Referring to the realities of the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region, where India and Sri Lanka occupy centre-stage, India’s Prime Minister noted: “We should expand maritime security cooperation between, India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, to include others in the Indian Ocean area.”

Fortuitously, the atmosphere for India-Sri Lanka relations has changed substantially with the election of Maithripala Sirisena as president and Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister, heading a coalition of national political parties — the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). This coalition enjoys the support of the charismatic and politically influential former president, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Issues of common concern

The SLFP-UNP alliance came about as public disillusionment grew against the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Mahinda Rajapakse and his family, whose strong-arm tactics, excessive dependence on China and violations of human rights, also earned the wrath of the western world.

While India was ready to take a liberal and understanding view of Chinese assistance for developing the port facilities in Hambantota, the constituency of the Rajapakse family, visits by Chinese warships to Colombo and the award of the Colombo port city project involving the allocation of 576 acres of land on ‘free hold’ to a Chinese company, set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. Moreover, a triumphant and remorseless Rajapakse repeatedly went back on his assurances to meet the legitimate aspirations and grievances of the Tamil population in the northern and eastern provinces of the island.

The induction into the coalition of Sarath Fonseka, who successfully commanded the Sri Lankan military during the ethnic conflict, is evidently aimed at eroding the claims of Rajapakse of being the sole architect of the victory over the LTTE. It would, however, be a mistake to underestimate Rajapakse’s ability to exploit issues such as western pressure for the trials of Sri Lankan nationals, for alleged war crimes.

New Delhi and Colombo, however, appear keen to cooperatively address issues of common concern, including the welfare and wellbeing of displaced Tamils. Sri Lanka is proposing to initiate a process of constitutional amendments to meet Tamil aspirations in the north, reaffirming the country as a unitary state, while devolving meaningful powers to provincial governments. Prime Minister Modi’s reiteration of India’s irrevocable commitment to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka was thus timely.

India has provided massive relief assistance to the Jaffna Tamils, including building 50,000 homes, establishing the Vocational Training Centre and Agriculture Research Institute, while expanding scholarship programmes. Rail and road infrastructure have been re-established, linking Jaffna to Colombo, while port and airport facilities are being refurbished. Much has been done for the relatively well off Jaffna Tamils; it is time New Delhi focused more attention on the ‘Indian Tamils’ living in the coffee, tea and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka’s central highlands.

Economic partnership

India is today Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner globally. Indian investments in Sri Lanka exceed $1 billion, in areas ranging from telecommunications and tourism to railways, power and food processing. While there are some understandable fears in Sri Lanka, especially in the IT sector, inhibiting the conclusion of a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, it is only appropriate that ways are being examined to expand the scope and width of the existing economic partnership.

Sri Lanka has consistently maintained the highest growth rate amongst our Saarc partners. But, given the volatility in the global situation and the slowing of growth in western economies, India has stepped forward with a $1.5 billion ‘currency swap’ agreement between the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to facilitate stability in the Sri Lankan rupee.

The growing Chinese interest in port facilities in Sri Lanka and the offer by Pakistan to supply Sri Lanka, Chinese-designed JF-17 fighter aircraft on favourable terms, suggests the emergence of a joint China-Pakistan axis to establish a cooperative defence network across the Indian Ocean.

Cash-strapped Pakistan, which has never had grandiose maritime ambitions, is in the process of acquiring four frigates and eight submarines from China. We can only conclude that the existing military, missile and nuclear weapons cooperation between Pakistan and China is set to attain new maritime dimensions across the western Indian Ocean.

In any case, China has all the facilities it needs in Gwadar, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Just after the visit of former Chinese prime minister, Zhu Rongji, to Pakistan in 2003, President Pervez Musharraf had warned that in the event of conflict, India would find the Chinese navy operating out of Gwadar.

Sri Lanka appears determined to go ahead with the Colombo port city project with China, though it is likely to have the terms amended to address the concerns of its other partners. There are naturally concerns in India that the Chinese built port city does not become a centre for surveillance and snooping in the port of Colombo, whose earnings as a point of transit for goods destined for India are substantial. Hence, the original project parameters would have to be suitably modified.

Wary and watchful

In the larger scheme of things, India will have to balance Chinese power in the Indian Ocean with strategic partnerships and intensive dialogue with Japan, Asean partners such as Indonesia and Singapore, together with the US. We cannot ignore the importance of expanding utilisation of Trincomalee port in the Bay of Bengal in this effort. Modi had indicated New Delhi’s readiness to “make Trincomalee a petroleum hub”. India would do well to undertake such projects in collaboration with Japan and even perhaps Asean members such as Singapore.

Given the manner in which Pakistan is stalling the entire process of economic integration and connectivity in Saarc, India should now activate cooperation across its eastern borders through Bimstec, of which Sri Lanka is a member. Pakistan has secured its participation as a sectorial dialogue partner of Asean, though it shares no land or maritime borders with any Asean member.

India would do well to promote similar Sri Lankan partnership with Asean, given its location and proximity to its members.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan