By attending a security conference in Delhi, Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe institutionalised high-level political engagements and enabled us to reclaim space lost to China in the last decade
In 2014, while attending the Sri Lankan military’s prestigious defence seminar in Colombo, a Lankan General seriously joked about President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s “Made in China” Sri Lanka. At that time, the China label was ubiquitous. Beijing’s projects ranged from the Hambantota Port and Industrial Zone, Colombo Port/Financial City through sea reclamation, Shangrila Hotels and apartments, a jetty in Colombo Port, expressways from the Bandaranaike International airport to Colombo and Colombo to Galle, a new military headquarters, supply of military hardware and training and much, much more. India was missing.
Last month, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addressed a cyber-security conference in New Delhi; in reality it was the institutionalising of the unprecedented high-level political engagements, post the Rajapaksas. The purpose is enabling India make up space lost to China in the last decade. It is the story of stark failure of Indian diplomacy when in the 1980s India’s Indira/Monroe Doctrine led to its High Commissioner in Colombo being called the Viceroy. Even in the post-IPKF phase in the 1990s, New Delhi called the shots as Colombo was mindfully deferential and its late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar publicly acknowledged India’s primacy in the South Asian region.
In the year 2000, the Sri Lankan Army was trapped by LTTE in Jaffna following its rout at the battle of Elephant Pass. Kadirgamar had sought Indian military commitment (like assistance provided against JVP in 1971 and LTTE in 1987) to rescue its forces if needed. India did not oblige either with IPKF 2.0 or military equipment. Instead it gave a grant of $ 200 million. Even when the Norwegians initiated a peace process in 2002, India was in the loop. Eric Solheim would regularly brief then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh.
With the arrival of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa brothers in 2005, the changing geo-strategic landscape started diminishing India. To be fair to the Rajapaksas, they first tried to obtain military hardware to deal with the LTTE from India but due to political compulsions of Tamil Nadu, New Delhi sat over Colombo’s list. This forced Rajapaksas to look towards China and Pakistan who readily obliged. The Rajapaksas, after continuing with the ceasefire and peace process which failed, decided to take the bull by the horns — the military solution whereas in the past Colombo had confronted the LTTE only to contain it.
Colombo first offered Hambantota port to India in 2003 (offer repeated in 2005) which was declined. The two nos on military equipment and Hambantota triggered the decline in trajectory of bilateral relations. Still, India joined Lanka’s war by providing valuable intelligence and defensive non-lethal military hardware. Sri Lanka’s stunning defeat of the Tigers surprised everyone, puncturing the halo of LTTE invincibility. India’s disguised support for the war was attributed by the Rajapaksas inelegantly to their successful management of India. Unlike in the 1980s, New Delhi did not intervene in the war. But that did not stop Colombo from inviting China for launching a developmental blitzkrieg centred around Hambantota, Rajapaksa’s electoral constituency that turned into a veritable death trap.
For a full five years after the war, India had taken its eye off the ball in Sri Lanka prompting a Sri Lankan analyst to ask: Why has India gone to sleep? The strategic balance was partially restored with the defeat of the Rajapaksas in the polls in 2015 in which India reportedly tipped the balance. But by then China was deeply entrenched courtesy Rajapaksas’ profligacy which landed Sri Lanka in a $9 billion debt. At present, India is engaged in a belated salvage operation. Wickremesinghe has allocated some key projects where strategic investment is likely to counter Beijing’s overwhelming presence and influence.
First, India has offered to operate, manage, maintain and develop Matala airport in Hambantota district — a white elephant — which is designed more to keep an eye on Chinese naval activities than activate the world’s “emptiest airport.” This has pre-empted China taking over the airport also. India already has a Counsel-General located in Hambantota, close to the port. So far only Japanese and American ships have taken replenishments from Hambantota. Since 2014, when India objected to Chinese submarines docking in Colombo harbour, none has come into Sri Lankan waters. Second, India is planning to take over the eastern terminal in Colombo port, the other two terminals being operated by China and Singapore. Third, in Trincomalee, one of the world’s best natural harbours where India already operates 17 of 99 oil tanks, it is to construct an oil refinery and assorted industries, including a solar power plant overlooking the harbour at Sampur. Trincomalee port is covered by the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. India is expanding its developmental activities beyond the north and east through housing projects in the Sinhalese south.
India’s defence and security relations have also picked up. Since 2003, Colombo was willing to give an arm and a leg for a Defence Cooperation Agreement with New Delhi, which never materialised due to a problematic clause that amounted to India being responsible for the defence of Sri Lanka against the LTTE. Now a multi-layered DCA is in place as also a trilateral naval agreement between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. India has gifted three Corvettes and sold two others at friendship prices. Refit and maintenance of ships is done gratis. A Marine Rescue Centre is also being established as a gift. The bulk of Sri Lanka’s military training is carried out in India.
With no external threat, Sri Lanka employs roughly one third of the Army for nation-building. There is no downsizing, only right-sizing of the forces. The military worries about frequent communal clashes between Sinhalese and Muslims spurred by hardline Buddhist clergy and egged on by political opposition. This could escalate into armed Muslim/Islamic extremism through radicalisation. Although only one case of ISIS has been identified, the challenge is from Maldivian ISIS cells which transit through Colombo.
India woke up rather late in the day to China’s growing clout. The Sri Lankans owe China $ 9 billion in debt which owns strategic assets on lease from between 50 to 99 years. Wickremesinghe has said the government will repay the debt in five to 10 years. Given what it owes to the IMF, income mainly from tourism and remittances and a slow-growing economy debt, repayment could take decades if ever. Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative is a success story in Sri Lanka regardless of its negative consequences in other regions of the world.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)