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Why Colombo is the key to dominating the Indian Ocean

Notwithstanding the headline grabbing news of MDMK protests and an unfortunate self-immolation, the three day visit of the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, should be a time to reassess the trajectory of India-Sri Lanka ties. The decision by the Indian government to accord summit level status to Rajapaksa’s visit for the inauguration of the University of Buddhist and Indic Studies in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh has already underlined a new seriousness on New Delhi’s part to impart a sense of dynamism to a very important relationship that seems to have become hostage to the domestic political dynamic in Tamil Nadu.Many in India and especially in Tamil Nadu are rightfully concerned about the slow pace of the rehabilitation of Tamils in Sri Lanka and the disinclination of the Rajapaksa government to find a lasting solution to ethnic problems. The anger in Tamil Nadu at Rajapaksa’s government’s conduct during and after the war with the LTTE remains high.The political parties in Tamil Nadu continue to exploit the Lankan Tamil card with an eye on the state electoral calculus, even though the issue had little resonance in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.New Delhi has repeatedly emphasised the need for urgent steps to resettle internally displaced persons and urged the government to undertake speedy rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.New Delhi has underlined the need for a meaningful devolution package, building on the 13th amendment that would create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement. The Rajapaksa government remains largely non-committal on this. But the Tamils in Sri Lanka are not going to get a better deal by attacking Sri Lankan visitors in Tamil Nadu.The Sri Lankan president is at the height of his power after having defeated the LTTE and winning an overwhelming mandate for himself and his party. Yet his government’s human rights record is under critical scrutiny in the West and stable ties with India help him in underlining India’s backing for his government to the world.It is important to recognise that beyond that symbolic value, Sri Lanka is rapidly slipping out of India’s orbit. India failed to exert its leverage over the humanitarian troubles that Tamils trapped in the fighting were facing. New Delhi’s attempts to end the war and avert a humanitarian tragedy in North-East Sri Lanka proved utterly futile.Colombo’s centrality between Aden and Singapore makes it extremely significant strategically for Indian power projection possibilities. After initially following India’s lead in international affairs, even demanding that the British leave from their naval base at Trincomalee and air base at Katunayake in 1957, Colombo gradually gravitated towards a more independent foreign policy posture. And it was India’s enthusiasm for China that made Sri Lanka take China seriously, but after the Chinese victory in its 1962 war with India, Colombo started courting Beijing much more seriously. And today China has displaced Japan as Sri Lanka’s major aid donor, with an annual aid package of more than $1 billion. China is the first foreign country to have an exclusive economic zone in Sri Lanka. China is financing more than 85% of the Hambantota Development Zone to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery, an international airport and other facilities.The port in Hambantota, deeper than the one at Colombo, is to be used as a refuelling and docking station for its navy. Though the two sides claim that this is merely a commercial venture, its future utility as a strategic asset for China remains a real possibility, to India’s consternation. China’s presence at Hambantota enhances its intelligence gathering capabilities vis-à-vis India. India has expressed its displeasure about growing Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka on a number of occasions. In 2007, India’s then national security adviser openly criticised Sri Lanka for attempting to purchase Chinese-built radar system on the grounds that it would ‘overreach’ into the Indian air space.Yet Sri Lanka has emerged stronger and more stable after the military success in the Eelam war and two elections at the national level.To counter Chinese influence, India has been forced to step up its diplomatic offensive and offer Colombo reconstruction aid. With the LTTE out of the picture, the Indian government had hoped it would have greater strategic space to manage bilateral ties. However, New Delhi’s diplomatic energies have been sapped trying to balance its domestic sensitivities and strategic interests.Colombo matters because the Indian Ocean matters. The ‘great game’ of this century will be played on the waters of the Indian Ocean.Though India’s location gives it great operational advantages in the Indian Ocean, it is by no means certain that New Delhi is in a position to hold on to its geographic advantages. China is rapidly catching up and its ties with Sri Lanka are aimed at expanding its profile in this crucial part of the world. Indian policy makers need to shape up soon or else they are in danger of losing this ‘game’ for good.

Author: TELO Admin