After the positive political developments in Bangladesh and the Maldives last year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s significant victory in Sri Lanka poses a new challenge for India’s efforts to reconnect with the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambition to shape the Indo-Pacific great game will fail unless he gets Gotabaya to play ball and keep China at bay.
For all the critiques of India as a reactionary power lacking in realism, one must guard against two simplistic readings of the bilateral relationship and political context. The first erroneous assumption is that India was caught by surprise by Gotabaya’s election, and that Delhi will struggle to re-engage with a reincarnated Rajapaksa regime. Over the last two years, India silently rebuilt bridges with the various constituents of the Sinhala populist wave. The various meetings between Modi and Mahinda Rajapaksa, the most recent one in June this year, ensure that India does not have to start from scratch now.
The second fallacy is to assume that Gotabaya is fatalistically pro-China, and thus also bound to be anti-India. His election manifesto promises to renegotiate the Chinese lease of the Hambantota port, and he repeatedly emphasised the foreign policy principle of equidistance and geostrategic neutrality. Nothing less would be expected from a shrewd follower of small State realism who recognises the benefits of hedging between India and China. Gotabaya will thus only seek in Beijing what he is unable to get from New Delhi, just as during the final phase of the civil war.
This does not mean that India will have it easy. To make Sri Lanka pursue an India-first policy, both in letter and spirit, New Delhi will have to deliver even more on economic and security cooperation. At the same time, beyond this positive agenda, India must also draw clear red lines and enforce them, even through coercion, if needed, as a last resort. Four critical challenges emerge on the immediate horizon.
India’s first challenge is to deepen economic interdependence with Sri Lanka, and expand its connectivity initiatives. As with so many of India’s other neighbours, Sri Lanka will continue to welcome China’s enthusiastic, generous, and reliable financing for critical infrastructure and developmental goals. In 2016, China became the largest source of Sri Lankan imports, and its foreign investment stock now surpasses India’s. Beijing is also the island’s largest lender, with a variety of loans to develop road, air, and port infrastructure. India will have to focus on its connectivity strategy, and keep the positive momentum, including the new airline link with Jaffna, the Colombo port project with Japan, and more investments in the railway, energy and housing sectors. Most important, for long-term interdependence, India must urgently finalise the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement, which has been delayed repeatedly.
Second, India will have to deepen security cooperation with Sri Lanka without further escalating geostrategic competition in the Indian Ocean. Despite its continued military capabilities, for example in Diego Garcia, the United States is still seen as an extra-regional power, which may explain New Delhi’s apprehensions about a recent defence cooperation agreement between Washington and Colombo. But winning over Sri Lanka will require India to invest in greater security and defence cooperation with like-minded Indo-Pacific powers, including Japan, Australia, France and the European Union. At the same time, India will also have to open communication channels with China to reduce Sri Lankan temptations to play off New Delhi and Beijing against each other.
Third, in a remake of the 2011-14 period, India will be torn between the normative approach of the West and the win-win focus of China. The United States and Europe are expected to increase pressure and make assistance conditional on the Rajapaksas’ willingness to deliver on transitional justice, reconciliation, and human rights. This will, once again, embolden Beijing to come to the Rajapaksas’ rescue with new investments to bolster the regime’s economic modernisation agenda. As with the Madhesi issue after the communists consolidated power in Nepal, New Delhi is thus expected to put the Tamil issue and constitutional issues on the backburner to keep Colombo satisfied. Such pragmatism is understandable in the short-run, but may come at the cost of the “democratic values and the constitutional process”, which India appealed to during Sri Lanka’s 2018 constitutional crisis.
Finally, India will also have to incentivise Sri Lanka to play a more proactive role in regional institutions. Colombo currently holds the chair of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) and is also a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). In the interest of expediency, New Delhi is often tempted to engage Sri Lanka bilaterally and bypass the slow, complex, and technical dialogues of multilateral settings. As emphasised in PM Modi’s tweet greeting the new Sri Lankan president, New Delhi and Colombo will have to work together to ensure “peace, prosperity as well as security in our region”. While it is uncertain whether Modi was referring specifically to South Asia, the Bay of Bengal or the Indian Ocean, one thing is clear: China is not part of this common region shared by India and Sri Lanka.
Constantino Xavier is a fellow at Brookings India, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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