What Still Ails Security Ties With India?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 19 2021
Columns What Still Ails Security Ties With India?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy 

The recent visit of Indian Army Chief, Gen. M. M. Naravane, has triggered as much speculation as hopes in improved security/military relations between the two Indian Ocean neighbours in South Asia. With that raises the question why this periodic tension, even if the speculative Media kind, that too, when the two nations, along with common neighbour, Maldives, had elevated the trilateral Maritime Security Agreement into Maritime and Security Agreement, less than a year back – in November 2020. The upgraded NSA-level agreement was concluded at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in all three nations. 

The choice of Colombo for the meeting was rotational, yes, but the same cannot be said about the decision to locate the common secretariat for the agreement-related activities in Colombo was by choice – and with India’s full consent. A decade or so ago, when India and Maldives expanded their decades-old Dhosti Coast Guard exercises to invite and include Sri Lanka, Maldives was said to have been considered for locating such a secretariat, if and when it came to that. Yet, there are clear indications that avoidable hiccups remain in India-Sri Lanka bilateral security ties. In particular, the sense of mutual trust that should be the dominating factor in guiding the relationship is conspicuous by its absence. 

It is very much present and acknowledged in bilateral military-level contacts and operations, but is lacking elsewhere. The Armed Forces of the two nations, especially the suspicion-triggering partner, namely, Sri Lanka, cannot at all be blamed for it. If anything, the Navies of the two nations especially get along like the old friends that they are, committed to securing their respective sovereign territories and together, ensuring the safety and security of the shared seas. 

They have not got any occasion similar to the LTTE’s ‘Sea Tigers’ attempts to dominate those waters, and they showed their shared prowess, starting with intelligence-sharing, but not stopping there. The story of the SLN leaving its waters bare to tackle the multi-vessel Sea Tigers’ weapons flotilla far away from the Sri Lankan shores and its Indian counterparts covering those waters in its absence is a folklore celebrating mutual understanding and cooperation. 

‘Priority One’ partner 

In this background, the Indian High Commission’s declaration in Colombo that Gen Naravane’s visit underscores Sri Lanka being ‘priority one’ partner of New Delhi, needs to be understood in every which way. To begin with, the two Armies do not have a foreseeable shared role as their naval counterparts, and yet for the Indian side to use such phraseology clearly indicates that it is a wholesome military-level security cooperation that New Delhi is looking at. “The visit symbolises strong relations and close cooperation shared between the two countries,” IHC said on the eve of the visit. 

Gen Navarane is not new to Sri Lanka, he having served the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), during its stay between 1987 and 1989. “During the visit, areas of mutual interest and avenues of enhancing existing bilateral defence cooperation will be discussed, with Sri Lanka being ‘Priority One’ partner of India,” the statement from the High Commission further said. The ‘Priority One’ phrase acquired more meaning when Gen Navarane during his official visit to Sri Lanka, Gen Naravane witnessed Mitra Shakti Army-to-Army exercise, one of the largest bilateral military exercises in the region. 

He would also participated in ‘Gajaba Day’ celebrations of the SLA’s prestigious Gajaba Regiment as chief guest. The General also delivered a talk at the Defence Services Command and Staff College (DSCSC), Batalanda, and interacted with students and faculty. All this, apart from his interacting with counterpart, Gen Shavendra Silva, and calling on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary, Gen Kamal Gunaratne and Foreign Secretary, Adm Jayanth Colombage (retd), apart from other Service Chiefs. 

The visit of the Indian Army chief is significant for Sri Lanka in more than formal and informal ways, too. With the visit, New Delhi was also silently sending out a message to the West that its ban on those that the latter has been keeping out as alleged war criminals did not work with India. That the visit coincided with the 47th session of the UNHRC, where again High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, was referring to accountability issues in Sri Lanka, both old and new, too should be of interest to those watching bilateral relations between the two South Asian, Indian Ocean neighbours with a magnifying glass. 

Pakistan’s part 

Bilateral defence/military cooperation between Sri Lanka and India has always been good to great – as long as there was/is no thirdnation intervention that was often political and non-military in nature. The only exception was that of Colombo’s decision to offer refuelling facilities to Pakistan Air Force (PAF) ahead of and through the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971). New Delhi did not possibly anticipate such a turn, not that it influenced the war or its finality in any which way. Only six months before the Bangladesh War, Sri Lanka had sought and obtained assistance from and of Indian Air Force (IAF) to halt and tackle the infamous ‘First JVP insurgency’ that sought to challenge the nation’s being as a constitutional State. 

Other nations that Colombo had approached at the time were either reluctant or at best unavailable to help out Sri Lanka in its hour of crises. To cut it short, India did not expect Sri Lanka to ‘side with’ Pakistan when the ensuing war was all about freedom and rights for the brutalised people of what was then East Pakistan. It was more so because before war actually broke out, PAF was utilising the Sri Lankan facilitation to send troops to Dhaka, where they were already murdering and maiming East Pakistanis by their hundreds and thousands. 

The war that followed only brought a quick end to the untold sufferings of Bangladeshis. It is anybody’s guess why Colombo took the decision it took at the time. If it was over fears that what happened to East Pakistan could happen to Sri Lanka on another occasion, it was wide off the mark. At least concerns and fears could have been discussed with New Delhi before jumping to conclusions. 

Nothing proves this better than the fact that India readily agreed to the bilateral IMBL agreement on notifying the international maritime border line between the two countries under UNCLOS-I. The agreement and subsequent notification meant that the disputed Katchchativu fell on the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL, drawn in a crooked way to facilitate the same. Till date, despite multiple provocation, New Delhi has stuck to the 1974 agreement, enhanced with the inclusion of Maldivian part two years later, in 1976. 

China conundrum 

India has had cross-border Pakistani ISI problem emanating from Sri Lanka, too, but the hosts now seem to have concluded that religious terrorism, like ethnic terrorism of the LTTE way, has cut both ways. The fact that India had ‘actionable intelligence’ to alert Colombo on the 2019 Easter serial-blasts (which was not acted upon) should have helped Colombo divine the possibilities in the future. 

Whatever that be, it is in the case of China, India’s other and more powerful adversary, that New Delhi has greater problems with Sri Lanka. India did feel upset about Colombo granting berthing rights for two Chinese subs in the past. More than that was the reason proffered by China, which Colombo accepted meekly. It was the unbelievable first instance when any nation had deployed subs in anti-piracy operations, and that was too much to stomach! It is the continued Indian perception of Sri Lanka’s double-speak and double-act on even on the aid front that has peeved New Delhi continuously since giving away Hambantota when offered. 

At the end of it, Hambantota proved to be the white elephant for Sri Lanka that India had perceived in non-strategic, economic way – as a friend and neighbour. China had no such compunction or compulsion. There went Hambantota real estate, nay, Sri Lankan territory, on long-term lease to the lender, as if it were a piece of real estate and nothing more. Rather than realising the strategic folly of letting China adopt a nearsimilar pattern in the development of the Colombo Port City (CPC), the Government has gone ahead also with delaying, and then denying even a part of such facility for India-funded projects, citing reasons that were obviously extraneous and unconvincing. 

It included the forgotten Sampur power project, the Indian pharma SEZ, both in the East, and the mutually-beneficial CEPA/ETCA trade pact in between. More recently, there was the threenation ECT issue, when the so-called labour protest was cited for the Government to go back on an institutional commitment over the three-nation container terminal in Colombo Port, involving Japan, as well. Clearly, the weak justification for delays and cancellations of the kind has not impressed India, as it sees the hidden hand of China behind Colombo’s decisions – independent of the party and leadership in power. 

To India, it’s ‘war by other means’ that China has launched, even while keeping the pot boiling through Doklam, Galwan and Arunachal kind of incursions and cruel killings. It is not that the Government is unaware of the possibilities flowing out of such a dragon embrace for its own future, but from a purely Indian perspective, Colombo cannot continue hunting with the hound and running with the hare – and all the time, only in one direction. 

If not otherwise, the Sri Lankan conduct has proved for India that New Delhi’s security concerns flowing out of China in the Indian Ocean waters that it shares with the Southern neighbour cannot be separated from the nation’s dragon embrace with all its potential and possibilities – which is also proving true. 

This, in turn, has the potential to weaken even the threenation Maritime and Security Agreement, also involving common neighbour Maldives, and from within. Colombo cannot continue to look the other way, nor can it plead innocence or ignorance. Terms like ‘Priority One Partner’ can cover up India’s anguish and frustration in a positive way. But they cannot cover up the truth, which is out in the open already! 

The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected] nsathiyamoorthy.com 

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 19 2021

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