30th Sep 2019- The Hindu Editorials Notes – Mains Sure Shot
Question – With the growing closeness between China and Sri Lanka, analyse India’s position keeping in mind its strategic interests.(250 words)
Context – the Lotus Tower in Colombo was opened to the public.
The present scenario:
- The ties between Sri Lanka and China grown considerably over the past years despite the argument by some international experts that economic ties with China are driving Sri Lanka into a “debt trap”, their bilateral relationship on the economic front is only becoming stronger.
- Lotus Tower in Colombo, which was opened to the public recently, is considered to be the latest symbol of Sri Lanka-China ties.
- According to the 2018 annual report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, imports from China accounted for 18.5%, just a little less than the 19% from India.
- Sri Lanks is also a part of the Belt and Road initiative of China.
- India on the other hand has failed to achieve much in this regard despite our neighbourhood first policy.
- Apart from clinching a joint venture deal in May with Japan and Sri Lanka to develop the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, India cannot boast of having taken up any major infrastructure project in Sri Lanka.
- Also not much is known about the project to renovate the Kankesanthurai harbour in the Northern Province, for which India provided over $45 million in early 2018.
- There is also little progress in India’s proposals to develop the Palaly airport in the North, (where commercial flight services in a limited way are expected to be launched shortly) and acquire a controlling stake in the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport.
- At present, only a couple of social sector projects of the Indian government like building 60,000 homes for Tamils of the civil war-torn Northern and Eastern Provinces, and the provision of ambulance services all over the island has gathered momentum.
- In July, an agreement was signed to upgrade a key railway segment, connecting the north and the south, at $91 million.
- But given India’s interests and potential in Sri Lanka these are far less than satisfactory.
Why is Sri Lanka important?
- Sri Lanka is an island country located in the Indian Ocean.
- Today there is growing importance of oceans for trade and commerce. The Indian Ocean is the world’s third-largest body of water with 50% of trade transversing the region.
- Due to the existence of power rivalries and wars, the oceans are now prone to conflict. Some examples are: the conflict over the Suez Canal, Strait of Hormuz, Pirate and terrorist activity, South China Sea disputes etc.
- Sri Lanka in this context is strategically located among the most important sea lanes of communication.
- It was right from the colonial times that the ports of Sri Lanka have been used by countries for docking and refuelling their ships which were navigating their vast empires.
- But recently, it was the massive Chinese involvement during the Rajapaksa (pro-Chinese) tenure that garnered the deepest controversies.
- According to Robert Kaplan, the author of ‘Asia’s Caldron’, China is building state of the art gigantic modern ports all along the Indian Ocean to the south of it, in Gwadar, in Pakistan, in Chittagong, in Bangladesh, in Kyauk Phru, in Burma, in Hambantota in Sri Lanka under its string of pearls strategy. China’s string of pearl’s strategy is aimed at encircling India to establish dominance in the Indian Ocean.
- Sri Lanka has a list of highly strategic ports located among busiest sea lanes of communication. Also, the natural deep water harbor at Trincomalee is the fifth largest natural harbour in the world. Nissanka states port city of Trincomalee was the main base for Eastern Fleet and British Royal Navy during the Second World War. Sri Lanka’s location can thus serve both commercial and industrial purposes and be used as a military base.
A brief background:
- China-funded infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka may look great, but India-Sri Lanka ties are deeper and more complex.
- As Mr. Modi said, “In good times and bad, India has been and will always be the first responder for Sri Lanka.” India’s assistance during the 2004 tsunami and Mr. Modi’s visit to Colombo in June (the first foreign dignitary to do so) in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks show India’s sincerity of approach.
- 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.
- 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.
- India’s consistent position has been in favour of a negotiated political settlement, which is acceptable to all communities within the framework of a united Sri Lanka and is consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights.
What India further needs to do?
- India has been for long Sri Lanka’s biggest trade partner and has played a significant role in rebuilding Sri Lanka.
- Since India cannot match China’s economic power at present, India needs to focus on its traditional values and cultural ties to improve relations with Sri Lanka.
- There is a need to build goodwill. At the same time, India can supply electricity to Sri Lanka and further improve its trade and economic relations by introducing easier visa norms etc.
- India can start ferry service to improve people to people linkages. Both the countries should work on a permanent framework on the issue of fishermen through bilateral engagements.
- A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) must be signed to improve economic cooperation.
- Finally, India needs Sri Lanka strategically as well, to ensure security in her neighborhood.