There is no doubt India-Sri Lanka relations have run into rough patches during the last few years. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that the chair of Sri Lanka's ambassador to India had remained vacant for a year so far. The High Commissioner-designate to India, Milinda Moragoda is in New Delhi only now to assume the office, even though Sri Lankan media had hinted at his appointment as early as August 2020. Of course, the delay in appointing the high commissioner to New Delhi can be conveniently attributed to the Delta variant of the COVID-19 pandemic that hit both countries. However, it also highlights President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s domestic preoccupations overtaking the need to reinvigorate the relations with India, which had become ragged since he assumed power in November 2019.
Of course, the Sri Lankan president visited New Delhi within ten days of assuming office, after Jaishankar, minister for external affairs, flew to Colombo to convey Indian Prime Minister's invitation to visit India. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi so soon after assuming office showed that he was conscious of the unique relations existing between the two countries, umbilically linked by geography, culture, religion and shared historical experience.
According to media reports, the Sri Lankan President during his meeting with PM Modi stated that India was the “closest neighbour and longstanding friend” and “whilst, with India the cooperation was multi-faceted with priority given to security-related matters, with other countries [obviously hinting at India’s concern over China’s presence in Sri Lanka], the initiatives for cooperation are by and large, economic and commercial.” He is said to have told the PM that “he would not allow any third force to come in between cooperation with India.”
However, much water has flown in the Palk strait since 2019. There has been a lot of churning up in the internal and external environment of not only India and Sri Lanka, but the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. All the neighbours of India, except Maldives and Bhutan, have joined China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), firming up China’s presence in India’s immediate neighbourhood. India’s relations with China have irreversibly changed from cooperation to confrontation on many fronts, after Chinese troops intruded across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020 resulting in the clash at Galwan post, causing casualties on both sides. Even after many rounds of talks to defuse the situation, force levels on both sides of the LAC continue to be high. With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, China is likely to play an increasingly assertive role in the region in partnership with Pakistan. This is likely to add further complications to the tenuous relations between the big Asian neighbours.
In the face of China’s increasing belligerence in the Indo-Pacific, India, the US, Japan and Australia have come together to build their collective strength through the Quadrilateral framework. The security relations between the members are also being scaled up. In fact, Indo-US security relations are closer now, than ever before. With these moves, the centre of gravity of global strategic power is shifting to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), with Sri Lanka emerging as its pivot. China’s investment in developing maritime and infrastructure assets in Sri Lanka are an important part of China’s Indo-Pacific security. We can expect China’s influence in Sri Lanka to grow wider, deeper and all-embracing in the coming years. Sri Lanka as the vanguard of the South Asian region is likely to find it difficult to safeguard its national interests as strategic pressures build up in the Indian Ocean.
President Rajapaksa despite his reassuring words to India, has not endeared himself to India in his actions. Under his watch, the trilateral agreement with India and Japan to jointly develop the strategically important Colombo Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) was given up, on specious grounds. The Colombo Port City (CPC) special economic zone coming up in reclaimed land in the heart of Colombo will be controlled by the China Harbour Engineering Co which holds a 99-year lease on 85 percent of the land. It will be overlooking the Colombo port through which 70 percent of India’s container traffic moves. So, India has real concerns as the CPC SEZ would legitimise the presence of the Chinese. It would involve a large influx of Chinese in trade, commerce, logistics, communication, finance, infrastructure and security.
In January 2021, Sri Lanka has approved a Chinese firm – Sinosar Etechwinee Joint Venture – to instal hybrid renewable energy systems in Nainativu, Delft and Analaitivu islands located in Palk Bay, barely 50 km from Tamil Nadu coast.
These Chinese assets can become hotbeds of Chinese intelligence and be used to eavesdrop and interfere with Indian communication, track ship movements and enhance electronic warfare capacity. A greater Indian concern would be their ability to buy influence over Sri Lankan politics and trade to suit China’s goals. India’s growing concerns on these developments are known to Sri Lanka. And India will be factoring these aspects in its relations with the island neighbour.
President Rajapaksa by his own admission has taken a pledge to protect the unity of the country and to safeguard and nurture Buddha Sasana. He is running the country with handpicked military officers heading oversight committees and occupying administrative posts. He has also pardoned military men convicted of criminal acts and dropped cases against armed forces personnel who were being prosecuted for such acts. The democratic polity sees this as a sign of increasing militarisation of the administration.
The Covid-19 pandemic infection has crossed the 400,000-mark by the end of August. The tourism industry, foreign remittances and export trade crippled by the pandemic are yet to recover. This has affected the livelihood of the people, sending prices of essential commodities shooting to the skies. Unmindful of these developments Rajapaksa has introduced some of the most drastic measures, ostensibly for shoring up the sinking economy and creating an environment-friendly society. These include banning the import of chemical fertilisers to popularise the use of organic fertilisers, ban on import of phones and automobiles, which have made life difficult for the citizens.
The US State Department’s recent report on the investment climate in Sri Lanka says: “Sri Lanka is a challenging place to do business with high transaction costs, aggravated by an unpredictable economic policy environment, inefficient delivery of government services, and opaque government procurement practices. Investors noted concerns over the potential for contract repudiation, cronyism, and de facto or de jure expropriation. Public sector corruption is a significant challenge for US firms operating in Sri Lanka and a constraint on foreign investment. While the country generally has adequate laws and regulations to combat corruption, enforcement is weak, inconsistent, and selective.
US stakeholders and potential investors expressed particular concern about corruption in large infrastructure projects and in government procurement. The government pledged to address these issues, but the Covid response remains its primary concern. Historically, the main political parties do not pursue corruption cases against each other after gaining or losing power.”
It is in this complex environment, the 57-year-old Asoka Milinda Moragoda's job as Sri Lanka High Commissioner in New Delhi is going to be a challenging one. The politically savvy Moragoda is a two-term parliamentarian, who had served as a cabinet minister for justice and law reforms under President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Presumably, his cabinet rank appointment indicates he has the ears of Rajapaksas. He has wide interests and experience in business, government, diplomacy, media and not for profit organisations. Moragoda, an alumnus of the IMD Business School, Lausanne, Switzerland, has come to New Delhi armed with a plan of action.
The action plan titled “Integrated Country Strategy for Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions in India 2021/2023” contains clear goals, objectives and strategies to be followed by the three Sri Lankan missions in India. Goals include elevating existing bilateral relationship to a strategic level, bolstering foreign investments and earnings from exports, expand strategic cooperation in defence and Indian Ocean security,
The seven objectives given are ambitious. Some are mundane like strengthening bilateral relationships through the exchange of high-level visits and parliamentary diplomacy. Some are novel like promoting greater interaction with the states of India which can resolve long-drawn issues of displaced persons and protecting Sri Lanka’s marine resources (euphemism for resolving a fishing dispute). A few goals are achievable: convene bilateral joint commissions, enhance cooperation in the fields of culture, education and science and technology. So is the goal of enhancing air, sea, electrical grid and digital connectivity.
Though the document is for internal use, he has discussed its content in various interviews with the press both in Sri Lanka and India, perhaps to gain public confidence. However, it can come only when both the countries act together to come up with some quick results. For instance, if Tamil Nadu chief minister can be persuaded to form a consortium of the state industrialists to invest in Northern Province to create employment opportunities for unemployed Tamil youth, it would make it easier for Tamil refugees in India to return home. But with Chinese footprint increasing in the island, will equal opportunities be given to Indian investors? Only, Sri Lanka can reassure them by taking the initiative.
Similarly, enough homework has been done to find ways to resolve the vexing issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen fishing in Sri Lankan waters. What is required is the political will to find an out of the box solution to arrive at a win-win solution.
Sri Lanka cannot wish away the issue of equitable rights for the Tamil minority as it has political connotations in Indian politics. Indo-Sri Lanka Accord 1987, despite its many shortcomings, still remains valid in meeting some of the Tamil aspirations. The 13th amendment to the constitution created provincial councils with limited autonomy. Though President Mahinda Rajapaksa had spoken of implementing a 13A plus, before the Eelam War ended, nothing came of it. It is clear President Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not favour the 13A. Many feel he may do away with it.
If the new Sri Lanka High Commissioner show results in some of these issues, he will be achieving much more than what he contemplates in his ICS document.
Colonel R Hariharan, former MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90