Saturday, August 09, 2014

Balancing or band wagoning?

Sri Lanka's relations with India and China

As the centre of global power shifts eastwards, competition is brewing between the great powers in Asia to define their respective roles by expanding their spheres of influence and securing their interests in the emerging order (Mahbubani 2009). While China, India and Japan remain regional great powers, the United States (US) still maintains a significant presence in Asia; pursuing shared interests through strategic alliances and economic partnerships with key countries including India and Japan (Twining 2007). The Indian Ocean bears great geopolitical significance to all stakeholders in the aforementioned great power balance. As a vital trade and communication link between resource-rich Africa, the energy-rich Middle-East, influential markets in South-East Asia and China and the population Centres in South Asia, it is heavily contested for its strategic and economic significance (Kaplan 2011).

Here I do not intend to cover the political history of the region or of individual states, but focusses on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy challenges as a small and weak state placed in a geographically advantageous position at the middle of the highly contested Indian Ocean, vis-à-vis the great power rivalries between India and China. The focus on India and China is based on the evidence that they have assumed preeminence in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy while considerations of Western and Japanese interests have become secondary (2014a; The Canberra 2012; Wijesinha 2013). The question of whether these two countries have displaced the US as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean is beyond the scope of this discussion, but will be raised where relevant. It must be noted on the outset that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy considerations are dependent on a complex web of domestic, sub-regional, regional and global considerations (Desilva-Ranasinghe 2013). However, Sri Lanka’s relations with Russia, Japan and the West – though important factors – must be analysed in detail as a separate topic. Unlike during the cold war era where weaker countries were more explicit in declaring their allegiances or policies of non-alignment, most Asian states today are actively cultivating relations with multiple great powers to secure diverse interests (Goh 2007). Sri Lanka also has exploited the great power rivalries between India, China, Japan and even Europe to a limited extent; to maximise investment, aid and strategic cooperation during and after the end of its recently concluded civil war (Srinivasan 2004). Yet, domestic and sub-regional pressures pose serious challenges and add complexity to its foreign policy questions at present. Here, I wish to address the central research question of  whether Sri Lanka can afford to balance its relations with India and China or whether it will be forced to bandwagon with either one; and the risks and opportunities that each of these choices entail.

Sri Lanka currently faces challenges in defining a clear foreign policy direction (Yusuf 2012). These have three notable dimensions. The first two can be framed in reference to a global diffusion of power from the West to the rising population and economic centres in Asia which is creating two separate contests for power in the region. One contest is played out between the US led West which is ‘pivoting’ back to retain their relevance in Asia against rising Asian powers – led by China - which are arguably displacing Western influence in the region (Friedberg 2011). The second contest is between the rising great powers within Asia; to define their spheres of influence – if not dominance - within key subregions such as the Indian Ocean and East Asia (Gilboy and Heginbotham 2013; Srinivasan 2004). Sri Lanka as a small and weak state located at a geographically advantageous position in the Indian Ocean, is particularly vulnerable to be entangled in both these contests. Apart from these external factors, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy faces a third challenge; of defending the legitimacy of its actions against allegations of human rights violations – particularly during the conclusion of its long-running civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) (Kumar 2012; Wickramasinghe 2014). The country’s foreign relations apparatus is under pressure to fend off international scrutiny of its human rights record that may threaten to make Sri Lanka vulnerable to external interference and weaken its sovereignty.

Relations with India

Historically, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been anchored to India – its closest neighbour and regional hegemon. Geographic proximity and cultural links stemming from their shared history and colonial experience have reinforced close ties between the two countries (Krishna 1992). Sri Lanka’s position in the world has been tied to that of India since Arab traders plied the Indian Ocean for spices, then during European colonisation and independence and afterwards through the non-aligned movement and commonwealth heritage. India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner; a position further strengthened by the FTA signed between the two countries in 2000 (Look 2014). India also benefits from transhipment facilities in Sri Lanka for its trade with the world (Look 2014). However, there are two emerging trends that are straining this symbiotic relationship. The first is growing Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean that is attracting Sri Lanka closer to China (Behuria and Sultana 2013). Even though stronger ties with China need not be at the expense of the close relationship Sri Lanka enjoys with India, the great power rivalry between India and China makes India suspicious of being contained by Chinese strategic and economic partnerships with countries in its periphery. The second factor straining India-Sri Lanka relations is domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu including the Tamil National question and incursions by Indian Fishermen into Sri Lankan waters; that threatens to make India less accommodating and at times hostile to Sri Lanka’s interests (2014c; 2014d; Mayilvaganan 2007; Radhakrishnan 2013). Sri Lankan foreign policy, though pivoted on India, has shifted its stance from a West facing one to an East facing one, where relations with China have been significantly strengthened during the last two decades. Sri Lanka’s recent focus on India and China is arguably indicative of a relative weakening of US influence in the region and a perception that the US is acting via proxy through India. What is of concern however, is that Sri Lankan foreign policy has lost its emphasis on neutrality and made India cautions - if not suspicious - of Chinese dominance (Gunaratne 2013).

India has considered China to be its primary security threat since suffering a swift defeat in the 1962 war. Its relations with the West – particularly US and Japan - have strengthened during the time Sri Lanka has shifted its focus from the West towards China (2011; Majumdar 2012). This misalignment with India’s priorities make Sri Lanka more vulnerable as a small state in the Indian Ocean; to be torn between the hegemonic interests of India and China’s increasing economic and strategic interests in what India considers its own sphere of influence. Sri Lanka’s West-leaning foreign policy in the late 70s and 80s aroused similar suspicions in a pro-Soviet Indian government, which nurtured Tamil separatism in the island and then intervened in the conflict on two occasions (Dixit 1998; Rao 1988; Silva 2013). These involvements did come at a cost though – as the disgruntled LTTE assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi. From that and other historical experiences, India has recognised the value of a stable and prosperous Sri Lanka and has since provided crucial diplomatic assistance to end Sri Lanka’s long-running civil conflict and invested heavily in its post-war rehabilitation and redevelopment (2009). Sri Lanka is also sensitive to India’s security concerns and regional interests. Even while strengthening economic and strategic relations with China, Sri Lanka has often kept India informed and appeased (2013) with preferential access to major development projects and key economic and strategic assets – including bunkering facilities at the Trincomalee harbour (2005). However, issues of fishing rights and Sri Lanka’s strict enforcement of its maritime boundaries have caused problems in recent years.

Relations with China

Chinese interests in diversifying and securing its energy supply routes through the Indian Ocean and their strategy of building ports along the Northern half of the Indian Ocean rim including Hambantota in Sri Lanka is already well documented (Chellaney 2007; Holmes and Yoshihara 2008; Khurana 2008) . But Chinese cooperation with Sri Lanka’s interests in recent years extends beyond investment in infrastructure. China is one of the largest arms suppliers to most of India’s neighbours including Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Dutta 1998; Malik 2001). As a member of the P5, it also provided vital diplomatic cover for Sri Lanka to conclude its long-running civil war in the years leading up to 2009 (Weiss 2011). As great power competition in the Indian Ocean intensifies, China can be expected to draw Sri Lanka even closer due to the strategic and economic value of the island – much like the US have done with Taiwan.

Sino-Sri Lankan relations predate the visit of the Chinese monk Faxian to Sri Lanka in 410 AD. Sri Lanka understands that its present relationship with China will be of vital importance in the emerging order within Asia and the world; and has immensely benefited from it since the 1990s (Samaranayake 2011). China as a member of the P5 - together with Russia - is an indispensable diplomatic partner of the Sri Lankan government that is currently facing significant international pressure regarding its conduct during the recently concluded civil war (Kumar 2012). The relationship with China as a major supplier of weapons to the embattled island, is also of key strategic importance; especially when Sri Lanka’s strategic partnerships with India and major Western arms exporters have been constrained in recent years (Rao 1988). Perhaps the greatest impact of Sri Lanka’s relationship with China has been on its economy and infrastructure development. Chinese investment in major infrastructure projects including two large ports, one international airport, Coal power plants, commercial and entertainment complexes and a highway network are prime examples (Samaranayake 2011). Sri Lanka even launched a communication satellite with help from China, symbolising ever deepening ties between the two countries (Reuters 2012). In effect, China has displaced Japan as Sri Lanka’s largest foreign donor and continue to invest in infrastructure and development projects (Goodhand and Klem 2005).

Domestic and subregional factors

Sri Lanka, with a Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority is adjacent to Tamil Nadu which forms a subregion that has a Tamil majority. Therefore grievances of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka has inflamed Tamil nationalist elements in the subregion that includes Tamil Nadu which had significant clout in the recently ousted Congress Party led government of India (Mayilvaganan 2007). Domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu have constrained the ability of successive coalition Indian Governments from deepening their natural relationship with Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government too - because of its dependence on ultranationalist parties – have been slow to respond to Indian interests and Tamil concerns; often resulting in strains on the relationship across the Palk Strait (Behuria and Sultana 2013). India’s regional rivals such as China and Pakistan have sought to exploit such weaknesses to fill the gaps left by India’s inability to engage too broadly with Sri Lanka. For example, despite the LTTE assassination of one of its Prime Ministers, India was too constrained to supply weapons and strategic support to the Sri Lankan armed forces in their final push to eliminate the LTTE which India had already proscribed as a terrorist organisation. That opened up a gap in the strategic relationship between the two countries which Pakistan and China were quick to exploit (Dutta 1998).

Sri Lanka’s increasing dependence on China and the resultant leverage it gives China in the Indian Ocean has been a matter of increasing concern for India. India’s unease of China’s growing presence in the region – though at least in part a result of India’s inability to cultivate natural alliances with its culturally homogenous neighbours – should be a matter of concern for Sri Lanka too. A cold-war like rivalry in the region will be especially detrimental to the security and economic interests of weaker states within the region. Sri Lanka and India has a shared interest in neutralising separatist movements within the respective states – particularly of Tamil Nationalists with shared identity and grievances in the North and East of Sri Lanka and adjacent Tamil Nadu in India (DeVotta 2005; Irschick 1969). The recent election of a BJG government with a clear majority in India provides a valuable opportunity for Sri Lanka to normalise and strengthen ties with India with minimal interference from Tamil Nadu, but the relationship could turn brittle given that the BJP led government is likely to adopt a tougher stance against growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka (2014e). Some political analysts have pointed out that Sri Lanka must not compel India to annex its North Eastern regions as Russia was able to do with Crimea in recent months (Jayatilleka 2014); as a forced final solution to both the Tamil national question as well as to neutralise Chinese influence in the Island.

It is clearly not in Sri Lanka’s interest to neglect or abandon its relations with China in order to appease India or vice versa. A stronger partnership and a greater level of trust between India and China is the most desirable outcome for Sri Lanka, and therefore the island’s foreign policy should be aimed at building confidence between the two great powers. Recognising Sri Lanka’s limited capacity to influence relations between these two great powers, it should instead focus on assuring both countries of cooperation with their peaceful interests aimed at trade and development. Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries can also benefit by following the example of ASEAN (Goh 2007) in actively seeking the inclusion of India and China in regional organisations; and working with partners to enmesh them through norms and shared interests.


Despite being nuclear armed states, given their no-first-use nuclear doctrines, both India and China are rapidly modernising and broadening their conventional military capabilities partly in response to each other and in part to balance perceived external threats from the US (Gilboy and Heginbotham 2013; Jae-Hyung 2002). Evidence points to a volatile strategic build-up between the two states. Even though the growing volume of trade between China and India hints of economic integration and cooperation between the two countries, the trade deficit in favour of China remains a matter of contention for India (Holslag 2013). While China is increasingly seen to be occupying strategic and economic interests in the Indian Ocean – ranging from patrolling Somali waters against piracy, to investing in infrastructure projects in India’s periphery – India is seen strengthening its ties with countries in China’s periphery such as Japan and Vietnam (2011). All these factors point to a brewing rivalry between Asia’s two rising giants.

However this rivalry between China and India in Asia is unlikely to mirror the cold war – because China in particular as a nominally communist country – recognises the economic cost and political risks associated with such a build-up, based on the Soviet experience (Ong 2013). If Sri Lanka anticipates the emergence of India and China as primary great powers in Asia, its main foreign policy priorities should be aligned with the role that it foresees India and China playing in its own security and economic development. Distancing itself from the rivalry between China and India by taking measures to assure India that the island will not be a strategic base for China and reassuring China of full cooperation on its trade and economic interests in the Indian Ocean will be pre-requisites for pursuing such a mission. Understanding its own limitations and weaknesses, as well as regional threats to its foreign policy interests, Sri Lanka must diversify its foreign relations by strengthening ties with ASEAN, Japan and particularly the global south with whom it shares economic and development interests. Sri Lanka must work with smaller regional actors in South and South East Asia to enmesh India and China in an extra-regional framework that facilitates greater dialog between the two.

The West remains a key market for Sri Lankan exports, while historic links and commonwealth traditions offer opportunities for normalising relations that have been strained in the recent past due to the Sri Lankan government’s allegedly poor human rights record. While good relations with India is vital for peace, security, trade and its international standing, China remains a vital source of trade and investment, as well as a key P5 veto-wielding defence against external interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Hostility from domestic elements within India must be balanced using responsive and progressive domestic policies that addresses the Tamil National question. The full implementation of the 13th amendment to the constitution would provide a platform for engaging with India and its subregional actors in good faith and help build confidence (Behuria and Sultana 2013). Sri Lanka must also recognise external balance of power considerations - such as India and its allies working to neutralise Chinese influence in South Asia - that shape India’s policy towards the island. Given that countries such as Pakistan have strategic and diplomatic clout to withstand Indian pressure against Chinese influence in ways Sri Lanka does not, the Indian government may adopt a tougher stance against Sri Lanka for allowing Chinese influence to grow in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy must therefore take these risks into account and leverage the complex balance of power considerations in South Asia to secure its interests. US and Japanese influence have already become comparatively less pronounced – though they maintain a significant presence directly and in partnership with India. Yet in a stable and norms-based world order, the emergence of the rival population centres of China and India as dominant powers in Asia may be inevitable. In the absence of a strong friendship between India and China, the regional power balance will largely depend on two main factors. The first is how smaller and weaker states in Asia such as Sri Lanka define the scope of their relations with their two giant neighbours. The second will be how those weaker states act in concert to enmesh the two great powers in a norms based order.

Internal political instability and interference by the powerful defence establishment are threatening to distract Sri Lankan policy makers from recognising, prioritising and addressing these foreign policy objectives (2014b). The misconception within the Sri Lankan policy elite that relations with China and Russia could be used to balance against India could prove to be costly.


My focus in this essay was to identify opportunities and risks in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards India and China. Much of the policy discourse in Asia with regards to China is limited to discussing the relative merits of balancing or band-wagoning. However, it is my contention that Sri Lanka as a small but geopolitically and strategically valuable asset in a highly contested part of the Indian Ocean within India’s immediate periphery, must look beyond these two options and adopt policies that enmesh India and China in a cooperative order that enhances options for greater peace and prosperity. Even though Sri Lanka’s relationships with these emerging great powers have come into sharp focus because of the vital importance and challenges associated with them, I have shown that they should not be pursued at the expense of a broader engagement with the world. Sri Lanka must maintain its traditionally strong links with friends such as Russia, Japan and Pakistan as well as countries of the global south, while improving engagement with the West.

Another important point I have raised in my argument is that Sri Lanka must pay attention to the great game being played out in the Indian Ocean region between India, China and also the US whose interests have come into focus in its pivot back to Asia. Sri Lanka must be sensitive to the concerns and interests of India, China, US and Japan or risk being embroiled in a great power contest in the Indian Ocean. China and India are conscious of how a super power rivalry like that of US and USSR can be costly; impeding economic progress and how they could ultimately undermine their great power ambitions. Therefore Sri Lanka in concert with other Asian states can help build a platform that engages India and China in particular – facilitating greater cooperation and understanding between the two traditional rivals in a way that help normalise relations over time.

Lastly, I have identified internal and external factors that threaten to undermine Sri Lanka’s foreign relations in coming years. Sri Lanka must foster strong democratic governance and independence from domestic political concerns as prerequisites for a strong foreign policy that serves regional as well as national interests of Sri Lanka. Failing to do so may imperil a weak state like Sri Lanka by making it vulnerable in a rapidly transforming regional and global political order.

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