Three years ago, India’s Prime minister Narendra Modi had paid a special visit to Colombo. He was the chief guest for the International Vesak Day celebrations which is another name for Buddha Purnima – the biggest festival for Buddhists.
India’s Buddhist legacy gives it a big advantage in Sri Lanka. The cultural connection is something that India’s prime minister has tried to leverage on more occasions than one. In 2017, Prime minister Modi had visited the Seema Malaka temple which is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka.
Two years later, he became the first leader to visit the island nation after the Easter bombings. India has been using soft power and cultural diplomacy to counter the Dragon in Lanka.
However, it is clearly not enough. China has expanded its footprint in Sri Lanka by using its chequebook pumping in around $11 billion by 2019. Recently, Beijing granted an urgent loan of $500 million to Colombo to battle the Wuhan virus. In response, New Delhi partnered with Japan to make investments in Sri Lanka.
India and Japan signed a deal with Sri Lanka to develop a terminal at the Colombo port. Now, there are plans to set up an import terminal too. Recently, India and Sri Lanka struck a $400 million currency swap agreement. Colombo has even requested New Delhi for rescheduling outstanding debts but Sri Lanka hasn’t shown willingness to give up its dependence on Chinese cash.
According to recent reports, the Colombo port deal is on a sticky wicket. Colombo is yet to green light the agreement leading many to believe that the Chinese influence is holding Indian investments back.
A possible solution to India’s China problem can be found in the past. In 2004, the Asian tsunami led to the birth of an alliance. Sri Lanka needed urgent humanitarian assistance.
Colombo made the first call to New Delhi and within 12 hours, Indian ships, aircraft and helicopters were dispatched to assist the Sri Lankan government. A few days later, the then US president George Bush announced that America, Japan and Australia will set up an international coalition.
An alliance to coordinate rescue and relief efforts, rehabilitate the homeless, and restore power and connectivity was put in motion. It is how the Quad was born – a coalition of India, Australia, Japan and the United States. It is seen as an effective counter to China today.
Until now, India has been cautious about Quad but with the threat of the Dragon looming over the Indian Ocean, the quad is an idea whose time has finally come.