Charting a New Trajectory in Indo-Lanka Relations | Daily News

Charting a New Trajectory in Indo-Lanka Relations

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar

Neighbours India and Sri Lanka have enjoyed a cordial and relatively stable relationship since their independence in 1947 and 1948 respectively. In the post-LTTE era, the neighbours align over key security and economic objectives, which includes maintaining the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), combating the acute threat of terrorism, and working together towards a more prosperous South Asian/SAARC neighbourhood.

Yet the relationship is in need of a fresh impetus. Over the years, Sri Lanka has drifted towards China for economic support and views her as a more reliable partner in enabling domestic economic development. This has generated concern in New Delhi over the state of the bilateral relationship between the two countries, which views Beijing’s proximity to its neighbours as undermining India’s influence in Sri Lanka and beyond.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian Premier Narendra Modi

Attacks on Indian fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy, as well as the cancellation of the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port, a proposed joint project by India and Japan, are lingering issues that have added to these concerns. In addition, the Sri Lankan Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is historically known to be closer to China than India and these developments have made India and her allies worried about China’s growing clout in the Indo-Pacific waters. China, for instance, is set to commence the construction of a US$ 15 billion Port City (also known as the Colombo International Financial City) in Colombo.

Therefore, despite the convergence of many objectives and interests, there is an urgent need for India and Sri Lanka to carefully and deliberately reinvigorate their bilateral relationship.

Over the last few years, the Chinese footprint has increased dramatically in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s embrace of China largely stems from two factors. First, Sri Lankans continue to be suspicious about India’s motives vis-a-vis the Tamil cause. Second, India’s slow bureaucratic processes that delay project and aid approvals incite suspicions of India’s level of commitment to Sri Lanka. Last year, the Indian Government took five months to approve a loan moratorium sought by Colombo while Beijing approved an additional US$ 500 million loan from its Development Bank in no time. China’s quicker decision making, and its far larger assistance makes them a more attractive partner at the moment.

Yet, this economic interaction with China has not been without ramifications for Colombo. Some analysts say Sri Lanka has been forced into a debt trap, and has had to sell its strategic assets though debt-equity swaps leading to the creation of certain Zones where its own sovereignty has been negated. Over time, this is likely to force Sri Lanka to accord a higher priority to diversity and balance in its foreign policy and international relations.

India’s strengths

In education, healthcare, and tourism, India is a far stronger partner than China. Under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Scheme (TECS) and the Colombo Plan, Sri Lankan nationals can benefit from 400 slots for short- and medium-term training courses in a variety of technical and professional disciplines in India. Since 2017, students from Sri Lanka can also appear for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and IIT JEE (Advanced) exams.

India can build on these educational exchanges by establishing an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Sri Lanka’s planned Education Zone. In the country’s North and East, India can set up technical and English language training centres like the Sri Lanka-India Centre for English Language Training (SLICELT) in Kandy. In addition, India and Sri Lanka should look forward to extensive cooperation in pharmaceutical manufacturing, as announced in the joint statement issued during Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar’s visit earlier this year.

India’s Soft Power

In the technology sector, India could create job opportunities by expanding the presence of its Information Technology (IT) companies in Sri Lanka. These organisations can create thousands of direct and indirect jobs and boost Sri Lanka’s service economy – something that was recognised by both sides during Dr. Jaishankar’s short visit. Aside from a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for pharmaceuticals, the two sides could also look into similar provisions for information technology and education, among other sectors.

As Sri Lanka embarks on the arduous project of drafting a new Constitution, India can lend its own experience in managing minority rights and diverse populations. It can help Sri Lanka draft policies ensuring linguistic and cultural freedom, access to grievance redress, and reservation in representative bodies.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa with Indian Premier Narendra Modi

Last, India and Sri Lanka must look for ways to boost people-to-people contact. Sri Lanka’s greatest number of tourists comes from neighbouring India, but the vast scope of religious tourism is yet to be explored. Through Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US$ 15 million grant for the promotion of Buddhist ties with Sri Lanka announced last year, the two countries can look to create a Buddhism knowledge and tourism corridor. Finally, the grandeur and prevalence of the scintillating game of cricket in both countries ought to be leveraged. Expanding the Indian Premiere League (IPL) to Sri Lanka in partnership with the Sri Lanka Premier League (SLPL) will encourage people-to-people contact and boost two-way tourism.

Cooperation in these sectors does not diminish concerns on issues where the two neighbours might not exactly align: Tamil minority rights and China’s importance in Sri Lanka’s economy. However, thousands of years of history, cultural and linguistic closeness and the constraints of geography poise India and Sri Lanka as natural and permanent partners to tide over these issues and explore synergies in new avenues to further their respective economic and developmental aspirations jointly.

(Vijay Sappani is on the Board of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a public policy think tank based in Ottawa, Canada. Sappani is also is a regular contributor to international journals. (Observer Research Foundation)

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