Diplomatic Quest in Synchrony with India
By Dr Srimal Fernando
The increased interdependence amongst nations and the efforts aimed at bandwagoning has been central to the new foreign policy dynamics of smaller nations in the more recent years. In spite of various statements to the contrary by several interested groups, international advocates have opted to explore other means of promoting good relations amongst each other rather than by the traditional use of hard power has been sidelined though not entirely, and in its place, soft power has characterised the interdependencies and connections between bigger and smaller nations. While in South Asia India and its closest southern small neighbour, Sri Lanka has taken noteworthy steps intended at promoting closer cooperation between them, much still remains to be done. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy as an Island Nation should be to promote its national interest in synchrony with India without compromising its relations with other major nations. For stabilisation of the Indo-pacific region, these small strategically located islands are of manifold importance to major countries.
India’s growing focus on Sri Lanka
In 1927, Mahatma Gandhi during his visit to Sri Lanka referred to the Island Nation as India’s daughter state. This remark emphasises the paramount significance that India has for Sri Lanka since antecedence. The evolving geo-political concerns in the South Asian region has prompted India to forge a deeper commitment with Sri Lanka.
To strengthen this relationship, India has taken a multi- faceted approach with trade and aid diplomacy being an eminent part of it. However, the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka through Belt and Road Initiative has been a challenge for India in the recent times. In order to balance this, India has taken certain solid steps to strengthen this continuing relationship.
For India, Sri Lanka will be a vital island partner that India can easily develop its relationship to maintain the balance of power in this regional orbit. For India to bolster its neighbourly relations, it should take into close consideration the domestic matters when framing its foreign policy agenda on Sri Lanka.
India’s increasing focus on its neighbours has made its ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ and SAGAR Doctrine central to fostering its regional diplomacy. Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean region makes it pivotal for advancing India’s strategic interests. The nature of relations with this southern neighbour will determine India’s future in its quest for regional cohesion. The commonality of interest in terms of trade and maritime security between the countries has been a critical factor that has led the India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Foreign Policy’. The territorial distance between India and Sri Lanka necessitates close relations of the two countries in addressing mutual security necessities. Sri Lanka’s huge ocean resource base and geo-political setting at the juncture of the Indian Ocean region is of profound significance to India. Besides, mainland India and its southern island neighbour need each other in furthering their national interests. The growing power dynamics between this rising global superpower and the Indian Ocean island nation is driven by their foreign policy positioning towards utilising this mutual interdependence for strategic gains.
Trade beyond Aid
From an commercial standpoint, the two way trade relations between the countries is a major aspect that has driven the shaping of foreign policy through reciprocal dependence. The South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) played a pivotal role in outlining the course of Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral trade relations.
Furthermore, the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement specified a stimulus to the commercial diplomacy by providing the island nation with access to 1.3 billion Indian consumer market. Sri Lanka is India’s largest trading partner among the SAARC countries while India is one of Sri Lanka’s largest investors and trading partner.
Therefore Sri Lanka has become the import destination in attracting significant investments from India. The Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC), a subsidiary of the Indian Oil Corporation, caters to Sri Lanka’s widening energy needs by operating 15 oil tanks out of 99 at the China Bay Trincomalee oil storage facility. The LIOC also operates more than hundred pumping stations around the country. ISFTA has been instrumental in making India the focal point for investments from Sri Lanka. Deep commercial linkage has left both countries of paramount significance to each other at an economic front. However, notable improvements in the two-way trade will depend on the ability to balance Sri Lanka’s consumer demands and Indian supply side with minimum tariffs.
Ports and maritime security strategy
The port and shipping industry is alternative sphere of immense potential for both nations. Sri Lanka being an island economy, its regional connectivity is mainly facilitated through its seaports. Sri Lanka’s strategy towards its neighbours has been guided by its interest in gaining regional connectivity through enhanced market access and attracting Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs).
Its proximity to the key international sea routes with substantial sea traffic unravels vast possibilities in improving its maritime and trade economy. Colombo and Mumbai are some of the busiest freight handling ports in Asia. The main advantage both these nations have is that they lie in proximity to the busiest maritime trade route. Colombo alone handles 43 per cent of the transhipment cargo of India which directly benefits the revenues of Sri Lanka. However, the pandemic has affected the maritime supply chains. The complex coronavirus situation has the possibility to disrupt bilateral
Defence and maritime security cooperation between the nations is another significant aspect of this bilateral relationship. The two countries have agreed to build and promote cooperation in the defence sector including regional security and training of Sri Lankan military personnel.
Most significant in defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka is the project for building two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) for Sri Lanka by India’s state-owned shipbuilder Goa Shipyard Ltd. (GSL). Moreover, the two nations conduct bilateral exercises such as ‘SLINEX’, and ‘Mithra Shakti’ to optimise preparedness during counterinsurgency operations.
Strengthening the existing power matrix
Reciprocal trust based on historic and ethno-religious grounds along with political and economic factors forms the basis of this bilateral bond. However, for India safeguarding the territorial integrity in the South Asian region as well as in small island states like Sri Lanka should be of primacy. Maritime security and cooperation between both countries are integral to maintain stability in the region. It is this coincidence of strategic interests that would steer future dynamics between India and Sri Lanka . It is also imperative for policymakers to think beyond and make the trade transaction smoother and business-friendly for both these countries. Prospects of collaboration between India and Sri Lanka in future will depend on how they choose to strengthen the prevailing power base. Historically, India has stood by the island nation during its time of need and today it still abides by this policy by being a reliable partner and by easing the island nation’s economic burden. Thus, Sri Lanka considers India as its most dependable and nearest external partner, which assures it with security and progress.
About the Author:
Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Adviser/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.’