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Is Sri Lanka Evolving a Three -Track Policy Towards India?

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N Sathiya Moorthy

The signing of the ‘Outcome Document’ on trilateral maritime security cooperation between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka in Colombo recently is significant for more reasons than one. The overlapping strategic security concerns of the three South Asian nations in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood apart, it may herald the shaping of the post-war India policy of Sri Lanka. To a greater or lesser extent, the same may be true of Maldives, too.

India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, who was in Colombo for signing the Outcome Document, discussed Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue and proposed amendments to, and abrogation of 13-A, with President Mahinda Rajapakasa and various political party leaders, starting with the TNA and the UNP Opposition at the national-level. Before him, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other interlocutors conveyed continuing Indian concerns in this regard to Sri Lanka’s Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa at New Delhi.

The Indian leadership had also met with a visiting TNA delegation a fortnight earlier, as part of the continuing engagement with stake-holders in Sri Lanka, without allowing it to be seen as interfering in the internal affairs of the island-nation. Rightly and rightfully, India, for some time, has delineated the continuing post-war concerns on the ethnic issue, from the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka, and the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’ – particularly for the benefit of Sinhala hard-liners in the island-nation.

By highlighting the fact that commitments on 13-Plus were given at the highest levels, to India and the international community, the UN included, India has taken the ethnic discourse in Sri Lanka to a different level. The latter belonged as much there as in the Sri Lankan domestic scene, particularly after the country had sought and obtained excessive and at times exclusive external support, starting with India’s, to end LTTE terrorism, war and violence.

The ‘international safety-net’ that former UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had talked about – and President Rajapaksa got to implement, thanks to continued LTTE intransigence – was comprehensive, not compartmentalised. Sri Lanka, unlike the LTTE non-State actor, was not expected to renege on part of the commitments while benefitting from the other parts. Or, so has gone the spirit of the arguments that drove the US and the rest to move against Sri Lanka at UNHRC and some multilateral forums, as well. With India, the commitments and consequent understanding was even more clear and comprehensive.

Gota’s call

In the midst of India engaging the island-nation’s stake-holders, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had told an interviewer that bilateral cooperation with India would remain but that does not mean it had to abide by Indian wishes on the ethnic issue and 13-A — or, words to that effect. As with other Gota pronouncements, it remains unclear if the Defence Secretary was speaking for himself, the armed forces or for his brother, the President, too.

Secretary Gota is not alone in holding such a view, either on a political solution to the ethnic issue being ‘home-grown’ and being ’13-Minus’ and not ’13-Plus’, as promised by President Rajapaksa in the past. Others outside this Government also seem to hold near-similar views but they are not always expressed in similar terms and times.

Yet, in the years after the conclusion of the ‘ethnic war’ in Sri Lanka, bilateral defence talks and visits at the highest-levels of the armed forces between India and Sri Lanka have continued without much hitch or let-up.

Though the period has been marked by India having to withdraw some Sri Lankan officers doing specific courses in institutions in southern Tamil Nadu State, owing to political protests linked to the ethnic issue and ‘accountability’, that has stopped precisely there.

It compares well with the war years and the period prior to the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’. On those occasions, bilateral defence talks were mostly confined to specifics, invariably revolving around Sri Lanka’s shopping-list for pursuing the war effort. In more recent times, the talks have been on larger issues of bilateral understanding and cooperation, one early result of which is the ‘Outcome Document’.

Both nations, Sri Lanka in particular, seem to have learnt and managed to address the delineation between India’s strategic concerns and Colombo’s political position on the domestic front, well. Yet, over-lapping and consequent clash of interests between their security concepts and political perceptions cannot be avoided after a point. At times as such, the political acumen and the diplomatic skills would be put to test. If the recent past is any indication, both could move away from their inevitable differences at UNHRC-Geneva, and move on with maritime security cooperation talks, for instance, on a separate track.

Yet, perceptions remain, and no efforts have been made to clarify the position or clear notions flowing from such perceptions. Such perceptions, if it became more noticeable and distinguishable, could lead to assumptions, particularly in and for India, about the possibility of Sri Lanka adopting a three-track approach towards the country and its concerns pertaining to the southern neighbour. It is the kind of perception and assumption that has influenced the Indian strategic community on the ‘Hambantota port issue’. No amount of arguments and assurances by the Sri Lankan strategic community would convince their Indian counterparts beyond a point.

The trilateral maritime cooperation, as it stands, may not mean much in terms of conventional security or geo-strategic concerns of one another, particularly India’s. Yet, it may be the beginning of all-embracing security cooperation with width and depth. In its fullest, such cooperation need not be confined to non-conventional threats as from non-State pirates and non-traditional concerns as with environment. At every turn, regional and geo-strategic elements could be added in a calibrated manner, after testing the efficacy of what has already been agreed upon.

Such a course could satisfy India on the geo-strategic security front, where the strategic community in the country has its eyes exclusively on a rising China with an emerging ‘blue water navy’. Going by experience dating back to decades, India’s concerns will remain, at least as long as both nations had sorted out the border issue to mutual satisfaction, and China also addressed India’s concerns pertaining to Pakistan. But India’s other neighbours are not remaining idle.

Development & domestic politics

Prior to expressed security cooperation addressing India’s concerns and involving Maldives, Sri Lanka had made its position clear on another area of India’s China worry. It pertained to Sri Lanka, and other neighbours, obtaining huge development aid from China, including the Hambantota port project (which was offered to India twice), Norchcholai power-plant and more.

The Indian strategic community continues to harp on these. However, the Indian policy-maker seems to have resigned himself to the reality on two grounds. One, as neighbours point out, Indian economy has not reached a stage for the country to endlessly under-write neighbourhood development projects. Nor could India expect those neighbours to wait and watch until it is in a position to do so.

More importantly, there is an acknowledgement of neighbours of India wanting to choose their friends, but without upsetting India’s security concerns, both over the short and long-terms, with medium-term thrown in between. The realisation flows from the reality that in the post-Cold War era, India too had moved away from the erstwhile Soviet camp to the all-American western bloc, almost at one-go and wholly.

The Indian policy-maker acknowledges the reality in the case of its neighbours, too. It is however discerning that India and most of its neighbours end up giving the impression of being in rival global camps, be it during the Cold War, or in the post-Cold War era. It has more to do with developmental funding and policy options emanating from the ‘world leader’ of the day – the US in the case of Sri Lanka in the past, and China at present. The Indian concerns have mostly security-related, Pakistan-centric in the past and more and more of China-centric at present. Or, so all it seems.

Secretary Gota’s reiteration of his known position, particularly if he is speaking for the armed forces and President Rajapaksa, implies that Sri Lanka would want to proceed with a ‘home-grown solution’ to the ethnic issue, as he too has said. In the past, such expressions of personal/official position by him have been tempered subsequently by President Rajapaksa himself. Alternatively, they have been allowed to die down after a point. It’s no different this time round, what with the upcoming Commonwealth Summit in Colombo, if not the habituated bi-annual global reprimand at the UNHRC, necessitating a cool-off period.

Sri Lanka, not alone?

It may not be intentional or pre-programmed, as an automated three-track Sri Lankan approach has become a part of the post-war evolutionary process of bilateral relations with India. If not in whole, elements of such an evolution is becoming discernible, if not overtly detectable. Indian perceptions of the ethnic issue and other domestic issues and politics in Sri Lanka on the one hand, and India’s existing priorities and emerging realities in terms of the nation’s strategic security concerns in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood could steer the course of the bilateral discourse, and consequent interactions.

Sri Lanka is also not the only South Asian neighbour where a three-track approach towards India may have been in the process of evolving. Independent of the upcoming presidential polls in September, followed Parliament elections in May next, Maldives too seem to be falling into the pattern – of isolating Indian security concerns and addressing them, at the same time adopting an independent approach on overseas developmental aid (read: from China in particular, but also involving others, including the US, but all of them non-territorial nations).

The Maldivian position too had evolved over a period, not overnight, though the controversial ‘GMR airport contract’ involving an India-headquartered infrastructure major, may have swung the domestic angle in bilateral relations – one way at a time, and the other way, with the change of Government in the Indian Ocean archipelago, all in a matter of months. Media reports now have it that India’s relations with Bhutan is also facing tumultuous times, with the withdrawal of fuel subsidy and attendant issues, that too on the very eve of parliamentary polls in the evolving Himalayan democracy. Both Bhutan and Maldives ushered in multi-party democracy in 2008.

Before Bhutan, Nepal, which again has become a Republic, had problems with the larger Indian neighbour in the Eighties when the latter blocked truck-traffic to the land-locked nation, then under a monarchy, in the late Eighties. That was also when Sri Lanka’s relations with India got strained. ‘Eelam War IV’ in Sri Lanka and democratisation of Nepal, again around the same, time helped to put the past behind – but that has not helped the restoration process, wholly as current events and developments indicate.

These apart, India’s relations with Bangladesh, another neighbour that it had helped in a crucial stage in its history – birth, in fact – is measured in terms of the party and leader in power at any given point in time. It is definitely not in terms of bilateral policies or institutional mechanisms that could outlive personalities and their political priorities, influenced by electoral politics nearer home.

Opposition Leader and former Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia’s India visit at the invitation of the latter was expected to help balance equations in Bangladesh and relations with India. Subsequent events, including Begum Zia’s unwillingness to meet visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when an electoral ally was facing local pressures showed that domestic compulsions mattered more.

India’s hands full…

India may thus have its hands full. Having seemingly reverted to improving ties in the neighbourhood after looking beyond them in the first phase of the post-Cold War geo-strategic redefinition of emerging foreign policy, India now finds new strains in old relations. It is one thing to attribute them to the other party, and carry on as such. It is another way to look at individual aspects of bilateral and multilateral relations in the immediate neighbourhood, and treat them all as stand-alone issues, requiring a different approach and understanding.

Prioritising the Indian concerns and institutionalising the Indian thinking and understanding may be one way of resolving inevitable deadlocks. India has mastered the art in its relations with the West after years of unflinching friendship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. It may have to acknowledge the reality and extend the policy in relations with neighbours, without any intended overlapping of any kind.

Yet the temptation on either side could still be to allow individual thinking on individual issues to govern the overall thinking on overall bilateral relationship. It may have become increasingly pronounced in the case of India-Sri Lanka relations, but it had existed prior to this in the case of some other neighbours, and may have emerged later in the case of others – a reality that India too needs to acknowledge and address, one way or the other.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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