Colombo, November 20: Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar’s air-dash to Colombo with a friendly message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi within two days of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s stunning victory in the November 16 Sri Lankan Presidential election, has put Indo-Lanka relations on a new trajectory.
India-Sri Lanka relations had deteriorated badly in the final phase of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency (2005-2014) because of the latter’s tilt towards China, India’s rival in the Indian Ocean Region.
New Delhi felt that the tilt had compromised its strategic and economic interests in the geo-strategically located island country. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in the January 8, 2015 election, he blamed India and the West for it, though the actual cause of his defeat was his alienation from the majority of Sri Lankans, including the majority community, the Sinhalese.
With the advent of the “Good Governance” government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015, India expected Colombo to give it the economic and strategic space it deserved. But except for some projects like the Emergency Ambulance Service and the rural housing project, nothing major was given to India while the Rajapaksa-era dalliance with China continued.
Hambantota harbor was controversially given to a state-owned Chinese company for 99-years for just US$ 1.2 billion on the specious ground that the country could not meet its overall debt repayment obligations.
In April 2017, India and Sri Lanka signed a comprehensive MOU covering a number of joint venture projects in the field of energy and infrastructure. India proposed to convert the China-built but empty Mattala Airport into a humming air hub in strategically placed South Sri Lanka. But negotiations on it proved to be long drawn out and fruitless.
India was keen on constructing a container terminal in Colombo given the fact that 70% of the port’ s business was with India. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was for it but the Ports Minister and the President were against. Now, it is to be run by a joint venture between Sri Lanka, Japan and India. India’s plan to economically develop Trincomalee remained on paper and a long pending project to build a 500 MW coal fired power plant in Sampur was called off in the eleventh hour by President Sirisena.
The state of affairs annoyed New Delhi and it was reported that Modi ticked off one of the top leaders visiting India.
However, despite disappointments New Delhi still believed that it is better to have a non-Rajapaksa government in Colombo than a “pro-China” Rajapaksa regime, though all Indian projects under Rajapaksa’s rule, like the project to built 50,000 houses in the war affected North-East and the railway projects, were accepted and completed ahead of time.
Nevertheless, a time progressed, relations with the Rajapaksas were re-established by High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu, an experienced Sri Lanka hand. At the request of Mahinda Rajapaksa, a meeting with Modi was arranged when the latter was on a visit to Colombo. The Rajapaksas had by then realized that antagonizing India would do them no good. They were pleased with the meeting with Modi. They decided to accommodate India’s strategic interests in the island vis-à-vis China. Even then suspicions about the Rajapaksas remained.
But Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s somewhat unexpectedly stunning victory over the ruling party’s Sajith Premadasa by 1.3 million bought home the fact that he has the solid support of the majority of Sri Lankans if not the minority Tamils and Muslims. Therefore it made sense to welcome him and build upon the goodwill generated in the meetings between Modi and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Not surprisingly, Modi was the first foreign head of government to tweet his congratulations to Gotabaya and also to call him up on the phone. The language of the congratulatory message and Modi’s invitation to Gotabaya to visit New Delhi motivated Gotabaya to reply not only warmly but also mention the need for cooperation in the field of development, and more importantly, in the security sphere.
The Rajapaksas had sensed that Indian Ocean Security, now under challenge from emerging China, is of primary concern to New Delhi and that offering cooperation in keeping order in the ocean would be extremely comforting to India.
The exchange of the messages was quickly followed by the visit to Colombo of the Indian Foreign Minister Dr.S.Jaishankar, the trusted Modi-man in the Foreign Ministry with hands-on experience of handling Sri Lanka, as a foreign service officer.
The meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday was described by Jaishankar in his tweet thus: “A warm meeting with Sri Lanka [email protected] [email protected]’s message of a partnership for shared peace, progress, prosperity and security. Confident that under his leadership #IndiaSri Lanka relations would reach greater heights.”
Jaishankar also met former President and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa who will lead the political team when he is appointed Prime Minister shortly. Jaishankar also announced that Gotabaya would be visiting New Delhi on November 29, which will be his first foreign trip as Lankan President.
In his meeting with Modi, the Indian Prime Minister will seek the revival of project proposals gathering dust as a result of the previous government’s indifference. Indian Ocean security and India-Sri Lankan cooperation in ensuring that China does not change the rules of the game as it had done in South China Sea will be discussed. Cooperation will also be sought in keeping track of Islamic radicalism in Sri Lanka and India and taking timely action.
It appears that the Gotabaya regime will give in to reasonable Indian demands in the matter of its security and even agree in principle that India will be Sri Lanka’s primary security provider.
India would be welcome to execute development projects, but China is likely to continue to have a major role in infrastructure development because of its ability to fund ventures and execute them fast.
China, which has a major presence in Sri Lanka through infrastructure projects, is not going to go away. And this was made clear by President Xi Jinping in his congratulatory message to Gotabaya. Xi underlined the fact that Sri Lanka is a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and expressed confidence that the Gotabaya Administration would strengthen cooperation under the BRI.
Tension With US
While ties with China will continue to be smooth and Gotabaya will handle India sensibly and diplomatically, a rough ride is expected vis-à-vis the United States because of its penchant for raising war crimes issues and going back to the unsavoury past, which Gotabaya is opposed to.
The voting pattern in the Presidential election shows that Gotabaya got elected mainly with the support of the majority Sinhalese community and that community is against going back to the alleged war crimes. The issue shows their armed forces, which rid the country of terrorism and separatism, in bad light.
Gotabaya’s voters will never agree to their soldiers to be dragged before any internationalized war crimes judicial mechanism. The majority community will never allow the government to sign the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US which could turn Sri Lanka into an American military base.
In a statement on Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said that the United States wants to work with Sri Lanka in “deepening good governance and promoting justice, reconciliation and human rights.” He also said he wanted the two countries to cooperate in “fostering a free and open Indo-Pacific region where all countries can prosper.”
Although Rajapaksa has publicly stated that he would treat all Lankan communities equally and has appealed to the Tamil and Muslims join his journey towards prosperity, the latter two communities still see him in his war-time avatar of a no-nonsense and tough as nails Defense Secretary with a pledge to destroy the separatist and terrorist LTTE. For the Muslims, Gotabaya is still the spirit behind the Buddhist extremist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
The fears lurking among the minorities could be fanned by communal parties in the coming parliamentary and provincial elections. With the UN Human Rights Commission meeting periodically to discuss Sri Lanka, human rights groups both in Sri Lanka and abroad, would keep ethnic animosities alive.
This could give the US a handle to interfere in Sri Lanka and twist its arm. These possibilities will make Gotabaya wary about the US. US-Lanka relations are unlikely to be a happy in contrast to relations with India and China.
(This piece originally appeared in The Citizen)