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Sri Lankan stability critical to New Delhi’s Indian Ocean ambitions

A controversial advisory panel report, published by the United Nations in late March 2011, called for a full investigation into the perceived breaches in the Laws of Armed Conflict during the endgame of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

This has placed India in a difficult position where it must balance its relations with Sri Lanka while appeasing the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to over 72 million Indian Tamils. The report’s fallout prompted a high level Indian delegation to head to Sri Lanka on 10–11 June for crisis talks with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse. Here, the ultimate objective for India is to ensure that Sri Lanka does not drift further towards China as, presently, China is the most dominant and influential foreign power in Sri Lanka, which is of serious concern to India.

Although Sri Lanka’s relations with the US and the EU have remained strained since the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka’s relations with India, a key Western strategic partner, are stronger today than they have been since the 1970s. A recent meeting in May this year between Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, Professor G L Peiris, and his Indian counterpart, S M Krishna, saw India reiterate its foreign policy stance towards Sri Lanka: ‘Our relationship with Sri Lanka is of critical importance not only to India but to Sri Lanka also. We have always found that in Sri Lanka we have a reliable partner, a steadfast friend of India and we wish well for Sri Lanka’, he said.
Sri Lanka also appears to understand the importance of maintaining amicable relations with India, which is critical to its own security and stability. Although China remains a key ally to Sri Lanka, so does India. ‘We need India’s support to balance off those who are hostile to us or are influenced by the pro-Eelam [secessionist] trend in the Tamil Diaspora,’ said Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to the UN in Geneva from 2007–2009.
Since the end of the civil war in May 2009, salient examples of India’s assistance to Sri Lanka include a financial aid package worth US$100 million to give food, clothing and shelter, and also to expedite the process of removing landmines and resettling. In June 2009, India’s UN Ambassador sharply criticised Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for her insistence on pursuing a war crimes investigation against Sri Lanka after the UN Human Rights Council voted against it.

Similarly, in July 2009, BBC Sinhala reported that M Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, told the Tamil Nadu State Assembly that a separate country for Sri Lanka’s Tamils was ‘unrealistic’. He rejected calls for an investigation into the endgame of the civil war on the grounds that it would be counterproductive to reconciliation. In a historic visit to Sri Lanka in October 2009, a senior Tamil Nadu ministerial delegation visited the island to inspect internally displaced persons camps and endorsed Sri Lanka’s resettlement efforts. On two occasions since 2009, the pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam politician M K Sivajilingam, who resides in Sri Lanka, has been denied entry into India. In May 2010, India again extended its ban on the LTTE for another two years.
In June 2010, President Rajapakse visited India to negotiate the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which India is keen on implementing to further expand relations with Sri Lanka in political, economic, developmental, security and cultural spheres. India has also independently acted on its longstanding interest to obtain the Trincomalee port facility as an export processing zone, where the Indian Oil Company has leased oil-storage tanks for many years.

India has offered concessional loans for a number of major Sri Lankan infrastructure development initiatives, such as: the US$200 million joint venture project at Sampur, south of Trincomalee harbour, which will see the construction of a 500-megawatt coal power plant; funds for the restoration and expansion of northern Kankesanthurai and Point Pedro ports and the Palaly airfield; and reportedly the provision of a US$1 billion line of credit for the restoration of key areas of Sri Lanka’s national railway system. On Sri Lanka’s western coastline, an Indian company has secured a block for petroleum exploration in the Mannar Basin. India is also seeking to share its excess-power output by building a 285-kilometre-long undersea power transmission cable that will link Madurai in Tamil Nadu to Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka. Accordingly, in addition to its High Commission in Colombo and Consulate in Kandy, India has opened two more strategically-placed consulates.

The pattern of India’s behaviour is consistent and clear: it wants to decisively settle the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka, which is vital to its own national security, and prevent a scenario that could possibly revive radical Tamil nationalism as espoused by the LTTE. In addition, by attempting to secure its interests in Sri Lanka, India has is trying to position itself to have a greater say in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, thereby enabling it to contest, and possibly limit, the growth of Chinese influence on the island. Given that Sri Lanka is located just off India’s southern periphery and astride the strategically important east-west shipping route, it will continue to be of concern for Indian strategic planners. As such, India’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka will continue to be at odds with that of the West, and shall continue to focus on political stability, rather than confrontation.

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is Senior Analyst at Future Directions International.
This is an adapted version of an article published here at Future Directions International. 
East Asia Forum


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