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Two Main Issues For India Concerning Sri Lanka Are Managing China’s Strategic Power Play in that Country and Containing the Jihadi Terrorist Threat in the Island


Col (retd) R Hariharan

Foreign relations have occupied an important place in Narendra Modi’s vision for India during his just concluded first term as Prime Minister. In fact, ‘Neighbourhood First’ was the central theme when he started off as Prime Minister, inviting the Heads of State of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries for his inaugural function in 2015. However, Pakistan’s continued refusal to give up the use of extremist jihadi outfits operating from its soil to bleed India has prevented SAARC from evolving into a full-fledged effective regional grouping. So, India’s relations with its neighbours have, perforce, been bilateral rather than multilateral.

However, after his resounding victory in the May 2019 general elections, Prime Minister Modi invited the heads of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiativefor Multi-Sectoral Technical Economic Cooperation) countries – Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan – for his swearing inceremony on 30 May 2019. This probably indicates Prime Minister Modi’s shift of focus from ‘Neighbourhood First’ to ‘Act East’ involving the BIMSTEC nations. In fact, Prime Minister Modi is slated to visit the Maldives to address the Majlis (parliament), followed by a visit to Sri Lanka within the first ten days of assuming office for the second term. This seems to indicate that India’s foreign policy priority will now be to build strong relations with its IOR neighbours, particularly Sri Lanka and Maldives.

This will also be in keeping with Prime Minister Modi’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All), launched in 2015, for developing the blue economy of Indian Ocean Rim Countries. The maritime initiative seeks to create a climate of trust and transparency, respect for international maritime rules and increase in maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Bangladesh. Though SAGAR has had moderate success, its importance is increasing more than ever before. The growing strategic power play between China and the USA and its allies in the Indo-Pacific is affecting the strategic interests of India and the BIMSTEC countries.

India-Sri Lanka relations are moving away from traditional concerns and collaborations due to the dynamic changes in the strategic environment in South Asia and the IOR. Sri Lanka has emerged as an important partner of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -its strategic economic infrastructure project. The BRI includes the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), which aims at strengthening maritime infrastructure between China and Asia, Africa and Europe.

China took the risk of making huge investments in economically unviable projects in Sri Lanka at the end of two and half decade long war between Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists represented by LTTE. Sri Lanka now owes China US$ 8 billion and finds it difficult to service the debt. After the US$ 1.6 billion Hambantota port proved a burden, Sri Lanka signed an agreement with the state-owned China Merchants Ports Holdings Company (CMPort) which agreed to pay US$ 1.12 billion for 85 percentshare of Hambantota port for 99 years.

India has been watching with concern China gaining control of Hambantota port as it legitimises its strategic presence within India’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean. The Colombo Port City project (originally conceived as part of Western Region Megapolis) was started in 2014. However, the project – to be built by Chinese contractors at a cost of US$ 1.5 billion on 112 hectares of reclaimed land in Colombo’s Galle Face promenade – courted a lot of controversy.

It went through a series of conceptual changes, and has now been rechristened as Colombo International Financial Centre, a self contained smart city project. It is expected to be completed in October 2019. However, to be profitable, all these projects would need Indian participation. The Chinese are aware of this requirement, and will always factor in this aspect while negotiating with Indian counterparts.

Using Sri Lanka as a takeoff point, China is now gaining not only a military advantage but also a commercial edge in South Asia. When the China- Sri Lanka free trade agreement (FTA) comes through, Chinese business is capable of using India’s FTA with Sri Lanka to gain backdoor entry into Indian markets. In this complex environment, two main issues emerge: managing China’s strategic power play in Sri Lanka, and managing the Jihadi terrorist threat in Sri Lanka.

The first issue is Sri Lanka emerging as a pivot in the IOR as a result of China’s growing strategic assertion in the IOR, and the flexing of its naval power in the Indo-Pacific. China’s show of force to assert its sovereignty over the whole of South China Sea has become a source of international concern not only for India but also for the USA and its East Asian and European allies. India has maintained its strategic autonomy in dealing with this issue, while trying to strengthen its maritime and naval cooperation with the USA, Japan, and France to protect its national interests in the Indo-Pacific. In this environment, how should India build a win-win relationship with Sri Lanka?

China’s maritime assets created in the IOR, including Hambantota, extend now from Djibouti in the west to the South China Sea in the east. This is a challenge to not only to India’s strategic construct but also that of the USA, Japan, and its Pacific allies. They are coming together to build their collective strength to face the challenge posed by an increasingly assertive China. With these moves, the centre of gravity of global strategic power is shifting slowly to the IOR.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abeenjoy a close rapport in shaping India-Japan strategic relationship. “Towards a Free, Open and Prosperous Indo-Pacific” – the title of the joint statement issued during PM Shinzo Abe’s visit to India on 14 September 2017 – eloquently underlines the strategic focus of the relationship between the two countries. The recent example of Sri Lanka, Japan, and India signing an agreement to jointly develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo Port is a very good example of Indo-Japan collaboration taking on China’s economic challenge in Sri Lanka. The project is estimated to cost US$ 500 to 700 million. Unlike Hambantota, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) retains 100 percent ownership of the ECT.

From the Indian point of view, the more sinister issue will be China trying to influence elections in Sri Lanka as it is said to have done in support of Mahinda Rajapaksa during the 2015 presidential election through Chinese companies. An investigative article on the controversial Hambantota port project in the New York Times (25 June 2018) gave details on such Chinese assistance. The article “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough up a Port” by Maria Habi-Abib explained how China dictated terms on utilising Sri Lanka’s need for financing the Hambantota port, not only to benefit Chinese state owned companies, but also to further China’s strategic interests. Mahinda Rajapaksa played an important role in furthering Chinese strategy in Sri Lanka. The report gives details of how China corrupted the electoral process to ensure President Rajapaksa’s election in the 2015 election (of course, it failed).

Internal investigation reports give the details of China Harbor’s bank account, which “dispensed” at least US$ 7.6 million to the affiliates of Rajapaksa. The report says that, ten days before the polls, US$ 3.7 million was distributed in cheques to buy gifts (including saris) for supporters, print campaign promotional material, and the paying of US$ 38000 to a “popular Buddhist monk” and to volunteers. The report said that most of the payments were made from China Harbor’s sub account named “HPDP Phase 2” – an acronym for the Hambantota Port Development Project.

The second issue pertains to the terrorist jehadi threat. Nine members of a local Muslim radical outfit – the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) – carried out in all nine blasts in three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Day (21 April 2019), killing 253 people and injuring over 500. A week later, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack. Although India had passed on information 12 days in advance to Sri Lanka regarding the planned attack (including the names of persons involved) both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said they had no knowledge of the information. Evidently, the schism between the two leaders, which started in October 2018 after the President made a vain bid to sack Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, seems to be affecting government functioning in matters of national security. A further probe has revealed that Zaharan Hashim, the leader of the NTJ, probably had links with IS suspects in Kerala and Karnataka.

Buddhist fringe elements took the opportunity to carry out massive anti-Muslim riots in North-western province, even as the police watched. Intelligence and security personnel from India, the USA, and the UK have reached Sri Lanka to help the investigation into the IS inspired terrorist strike. According to a Daily Mirror columnist, China – perhaps unnerved by the US and UK security agents landing in Sri Lanka in the wake of the blasts – sent “a message” for President Sirisena from Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has said that President Sirisena should come to Beijing, and President Sirisena has confirmed he would. In what is a very significant development, when he arrived in Beijing, President Xi chaired a joint Sri Lanka-China bilateral meeting on security co-operation with Colombo. One of the key decisions taken was on “strengthening co-operation in the defence sector and sharing intelligence between Sri Lanka and China” – an aspect that has been incorporated into the new defence agreement. President Sirisena briefed the meeting on the Easter Sunday massacres carried out by pro-IS Muslim extremist groups.

According to the article, before he left Colombo, President Sirisena explained that Sri Lanka did not have the technological expertise and equipment “to trace persons who were promoting terrorism and spreading false information. President Xi agreed to provide both expertise and equipment. He will also send a technical team to Sri Lanka to train personnel.” President Sirisena also agreed to a government-to-government deal for the hi-tech surveillance of Colombo City on the lines of “smart cities.” The article said this would also cover the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City, both constructed with heavy Chinese funding.

Under these circumstances, India will have to work hard to improve cooperation and coordination of counter terrorism strategies at the operational level. This would include networked real time exchange of information, exchange of data and details, and the tracing of the movement of people and money using electronic surveillance. Some of the specific areas to be addressed include the following:

· Developing a counter narrative against Jihadi terrorists using social media. It has been noticed that the IS uses social media to carry out decentralized control of various affiliates in countries across the continents from Syria to Central Africa to South Asia to the Philippines. Blocking social media is a near impossible method except for short periods. So India and Sri Lanka, along with other like-minded countries, can develop a technology hub to study and train personnel to establish and operate such hubs for real time intelligence collection, identify grey and black propaganda, block fake news.

· Prevent money laundering, the smuggling of arms, drugs and people.

· Exchange identity details to identify suspects transiting between countries on a real time basis using digital technology.

· Specific training for handling terrorist situations, and standardized drillsfor fast response.

· Form joint teams where necessary to carry out follow up action seamlessly across the borders. Carry out periodic reviews and assess developing situations to provide better understanding.

Indo-Sri Lanka relations are heading for an eventful period because Sri Lanka is undergoing a period of political instability due to rival power centres headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Sirisena, and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who are all eyeing the next presidential poll, to be announced towards the end of the year. The draft Constitution – which was to usher in yahapalana (good governance), is still in incubation – like many other ideas. The vexed issues of ethnic reconciliation and the free and fair investigation into the allegations of war crimes against the Sri Lankan army towards the end of the Eelam War 2009 (as required by the UN Human Rights Council) are still hanging fire. The economy is in shambles, with mounting debt restricting the government’s freedom of action. Under these circumstances, Sri Lanka will require a lot of understanding and handholding from India, which is “family,” while China is a “friend” – as former President Rajapaksa once remarked. *

Courtesy: Indian Foreign Affairs Journal