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India-Sri Lanka Relations

  Mar 11, 2020

India-Sri Lanka Relations

Give a background to the relation. 

The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is more than 2,500 years old. Both countries have a legacy of intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic interaction. In recent years, the relationship has been marked by close contacts at all levels. Trade and investment have grown and there is cooperation in the fields of development, education, culture and defence. Both countries share a broad understanding on major issues of international interest. In recent years, significant progress in implementation of developmental assistance projects for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and disadvantaged sections of the population in Sri Lanka has helped further cement the bonds of friendship between the two countries. India made a nuclear energy pact with Sri Lanka in 2015.

India is the only neighbour of Sri Lanka, separated by the Palk Strait; both nations occupy a strategic position in South Asia and have sought to build a common security umbrella in the Indian Ocean. Both India and Sri Lanka are republics within the Commonwealth of Nations and members of SAARC and BIMSTEC.

They have been however tested by the Sri Lankan Civil War. The nearly three-decade long armed conflict between Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE came to an end in May 2009. During the course of the conflict, India supported the right of the Government of Sri Lanka to act against terrorist forces. At the same time, it conveyed its deep concern at the plight of the mostly Tamil civilian population, emphasizing that their rights and welfare should not get enmeshed in hostilities against the LTTE. 

In recent years Sri Lanka has moved closer to China. 

How big is the Developmental assistance that India gives?

The conclusion of the armed conflict saw the emergence of a major humanitarian challenge, with nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians housed in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The Government of India put in place a robust programme of assistance to help the IDPs return to normal life as quickly as possible. 

India’s development assistance includes construction of 50,000 housing units, rehabilitation of the Northern Railway lines, establishment of Vocational Training Centres, construction of a Cultural Centre at Jaffna, restoration of Thiruketheeswaram Temple, establishing an Agricultural Research Institute in the Northern Province, expanding the scholarship program for Sri Lankan students to pursue their higher studies in India, setting up Centres for English Language Training and providing technical assistance for the National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka. 

The Housing Project, with an overall commitment of over INR 1372 crore in grants, is the flagship project of Government of India’s assistance to Sri Lanka. The first stage of construction of 1,000 houses in the Northern Province was completed in 2012. In 2018, India handed over the first lot of houses built for Indian-origin people in Sri Lanka’s tea plantation areas.

Sri Lanka is one of the major recipients of development credit given by the Government of India, with total commitment of around US$2.63 billion, including US$ 458 million as grants. Under a line of credit of $167.4 million, the tsunami-damaged Colombo-Matara rail link has been repaired and upgraded. Another line of credit of $800 million for track laying and supply of rolling stock to support construction railway lines in Northern Sri Lanka is already operational. Emergency Ambulance Service was launched in Sri Lanka under Indian Grant.

Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM Bank) extended credit amounting to nearly US$ 185 million to Sri Lanka for water supply and other projects. 

India also continues to assist a large number of smaller development projects in areas like education, health, transport connectivity, small and medium enterprise development and training in many parts of the country through its grant funding.  

What are India’s interests in Sri Lanka?

India expects the government in Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean country close geographically to India, to safeguard India’s strategic interests including 

  1. countering Chinese influence
  2. keeping Indian Ocean secure
  3. disallowing any Chinese military base in the island nation 
  4. timely implementation of India-funded projects (India is funding a number of infrastructure and energy projects in Sri Lanka)
  5. not allow Chinese submarines into the island nation    
  6. Safeguarding rights of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil population 

Briefly describe the Chinese influence as it grew in Sri Lanka recently

Sri Lanka has been one of the countries drawn to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping to build an estimated $1 trillion of infrastructure to support increased trade and economic ties and further China’s interests around the globe. However, China’s politically controversial investments in Sri Lanka became an election issue in 2015.

One controversial project in the country is Port City Colombo being built by China Communications Construction Co., or CCCC. The plan envisions a financial district — pitched as a new hub between Singapore and Dubai — with a marina, a hospital, shopping malls, and 21,000 apartments and homes.

Another is Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka — with almost no container traffic and trampled fences that elephants traverse with ease — has become a prime example of what can go wrong for countries involved in Belt and Road. Sri Lanka borrowed heavily to build the port, couldn’t repay the loans, and then gave China a 99-year lease for debt relief.

Why is India concerned?

There has been a lot of discussion within the Indian and global strategic community as to how the Hambantota and Colombo Ports would adversely impact India’s strategic interests. These concerns became stronger after the docking of Chinese submarines at the Colombo Port in 2014. The increasing numbers of Chinese ships visiting the port raised concerns among Indian strategic experts. New Delhi justifiably felt that this trend would impact its long term security interests, and was in violation of the 1978 accord between Colombo and New Delhi which provided that both countries would not allow their ports to be used for activities which could affect the other’s “unity, integrity and security”. Sri Lankan Government rejected China’s proposal for allowing submarine docking in 2017-  to mitigate India’s security concerns.

How has India responded?

In addition to development assistance detailed above, India has done the following: 

India agreed to form a joint venture with Sri Lanka to operate the country’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota. It may ease some of India’s security concerns vis-à-vis the Chinese naval presence at Hambantota and in the Indian Ocean.

Colombo Port is strategically and economically important for India as Indian companies use this port for unloading of cargo from large ships and then ship it to India on smaller boats. Around 70 per cent of the trans-shipments at the Colombo Port come from India. So, Sri Lanka signed a deal with India and Japan to develop a deep-sea container terminal in the country to jointly build the East Container Terminal at the Port of Colombo. The involvement of India and Japan is the project is being seen as a big development aimed at neutralising the growing influence of China, which has poured money into the South Asian island nation under its mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure plan.  

PM Mod visited Sri Lanka in June. Why? What was the outcome?

Since first becoming prime minister in 2014, PM Modi has stressed a “neighborhood first” policy for the South Asian region, promising neighbors prioritized benefits of India’s economic growth and security.

India has been concerned with Sri Lanka and the neighboring Maldives leaning toward China, which is seeking more influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Modi arrived in Sri Lanka from the Maldives in June 2019, where the archipelago nation’s new president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, pledged closer ties with New Delhi in a departure from his predecessor’s pro-Beijing policy.

Sri Lanka leased a Chinese-built port located near the world’s busiest east-west shipping route to a Chinese firm in 2017 for 99 years in a bid to recover from the heavy burden of repaying a loan the country received to build the facility.

The port is part of Beijing’s so-called string-of-pearls plan for a line of ports stretching from Chinese waters to the Persian Gulf. In March 2019, China agreed to provide a loan of $989 million to Sri Lanka to build an expressway that will connect the island nation’s tea-growing central region to the China-run seaport on the southern coast.

China’s influence in Sri Lanka makes neighboring India anxious because it considers the Indian Ocean region to be its strategic backyard.

Sri Lanka’s government has been trying to balance both Asian giants. Sri Lankan officials have reiterated that the port’s security will be handled by the government in an attempt to allay fears that the port could be used by China as a military hub.

In an apparent bid to offset Chinese influence, India has been helping Sri Lanka fund the building of houses and university facilities, as well as a free island-wide ambulance service. India also has extended credit to develop rail transport and a water project.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an "immensely fruitful" day-long visit to Sri Lanka in June 2019 reflecting the importance India attaches to its Neighbourhood First policy. During his Lanka visit, Prime Minister Modi visited a Catholic church bombed during the Easter suicide attacks and paid tributes to the victims of the Easter terror blasts. He held talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa. He also interacted with the Indian diaspora.

This is PM Modi’s first visit to Sri Lanka after returning to power, and the deadly terror attacks on Easter Sunday in which 250 people were killed in the Island nation. India has been providing intelligence and assistance in the investigation of the Islamic State-led attack.

PM Modi is the first world leader to visit the island nation over two months after the serial bombings on Easter left more than 250 dead. He assured them of India's cooperation and stressed that terror needs to be fought jointly.