Home » Sri Lanka’s Strategic Ambiguity Won’t Hold

Sri Lanka’s Strategic Ambiguity Won’t Hold

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In his inaugural speech, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe showered the Indian government with praise, asserting that they had given Sri Lanka “the breath of life.” In addition to the glowing appraisal of Indian aid to the island, he slammed previous administrations for “baseless” decisions to cancel Indian investment projects on the island. And yet, speaking at an economic forum, the president maintained his opposition to trade integration with India, asserting that “there is too much politics involved.”

Sri Lanka’s refusal to codify trade relations with India speaks to its consistent policy of strategic ambiguity. Despite Sri Lankan diplomats insisting that they “don’t want to be caught up in this power game” in the Asia-Pacific, a glance at the island’s history shows a calculated foreign policy that keeps India at arm’s length while simultaneously entertaining adversarial powers.

Throughout the Cold War, Colombo consistently welcomed rival powers, which included Pakistan, the United States (during the Cold War), and China, despite receiving support from India.

During the early 1970s, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike broke from his stated policy of “non-alignment” to offer aid to Pakistan during its war with India. Bandaranaike Airport became a safe haven for the Pakistan Air Force, which used it to refuel on transit to the theater of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Ironically, during this same period, Bandaranaike relied heavily on India to crush the Marxist insurgency of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, also known as the People’s Liberation Front). India’s navy would guard the coast, its air force would support the counter-offensive, and Indian soldiers would guard the same airport used by Pakistan’s air force. Despite repeated protests and counter-offers from Delhi, Sri Lanka’s military relationship with Pakistan continued to grow.

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Last week saw Colombo’s southern port welcome Pakistan’s Chinese-built frigate, PNS Taimur, to conduct naval exercises with Sri Lanka’s navy. This week, despite protests from New Delhi and Washington, Sri Lanka welcomed what Indian officials suspect to be a Chinese “spy vessel” in the Chinese-owned harbor of Hambantota. India’s apparent success in blocking the naval exercise is fleeting. While Sri Lanka gestures toward more cordial relations, the underlying impetus to reject Indian engagement remains unchallenged.

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The ideology of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism rebukes India as an imperial power attempting to colonize the island. “We are not a province of India. We are a sovereign nation and we do not need to dance to their tunes,” claimed union leader Shyamal Sumanaratne as he opposed the Indian-backed East Container Terminal agreement. He was supported in this rebuke of India by Sinhala nationalist monks who warned of an Indian invasion.

The ECT agreement is just one example of how Sinhala nationalist opposition jeopardizes Indian investment opportunities and Sri Lanka’s own growth. Writing in The Hindu, Meera Srinivasan noted that over 70 percent of the transshipment business is linked with India while domestic cargo for the port only accounted for 19 percent. The decision was described as an act of self-harm that “gives potential investors here mixed signals” due to the volatility of the government.

In part, this fervent opposition is rooted in historic anti-Tamil sentiment. Sinhala mythology is rife with allegories that present Tamils as a threat to Buddhist hegemony across the island. It’s a fear furthered by decades of armed conflict against Tamil separatists. For many Sinhala nationalists, they look across the straits to see Tamil Nadu, a population of almost 70 million with deep cultural and linguistic ties to Tamils on their island.

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This ideological opposition has led to decades of underdevelopment of the northeastern, Tamil-majority regions, and the propping up of the Sinhala South through “white elephant” projects, which squandered the public finances and produced little in return, as Rajesh Venugopal outlines in “Nationalism, Development and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka.”  This disparate treatment of the Tamil Northeast and Sinhala South can be traced throughout the island’s history but became a focal point during the war, when the state engineered economic hardship by imposing strict embargoes, which included a wide range of medical supplies. Much of the devastation wrought by the conflict was focused in the Northeast.

The aftermath of the conflict has seen the militarization of the Tamil homeland, which has acted as both a means of suppressing Tamil aspirations and a means of pilfering the land. A 2017 report from the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research details not only continued military land grabs but also how the military “obstructs free trade by selling its products at below-market rates, stifling livelihood opportunities for an already impoverished population.”

This apartheid model of governance poses a problem not just for Tamils on the island but also for U.S. and Indian interests seeking a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The parochial mindset has led Sri Lankan leaders to block integration of the North and East, as exemplified by the lengthy delays in opening Jaffna airport and chronic underdevelopment of Trincomalee port. In addition, it continues to present India as an existential threat that needs a counterbalancing force, i.e through China and Pakistan.

Sri Lankan ties to China strengthened under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the country became the primary source of military aid, alongside Pakistan. As Sri Lanka’s military launched a merciless offensive that saw the continued shelling of hospitals, food lines, and no-fire zones, China worked to keep the island off the United Nations’ agenda. It is China’s unflinching resolve to defend Sri Lankan war crimes, which killed an estimated 169,796 people, that has made it an attractive partner for Sri Lanka’s political elite. In October 2020, top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi met with then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, where he reaffirmed China’s commitment to defend Sri Lanka at “international fora including United Nations Human Rights Council.”

Unlike other partners, China remained unperturbed by Sri Lanka’s nascent authoritarianism and actively supported the rule of the Rajapaksa clan. During the 2015 presidential campaign, China’s ambassador openly lobbied for Mahinda Rajapaksa, while an estimated $7.6 million went directly from a majority state-owned Chinese corporation to Rajapaksa’s campaign expenditures. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were allegedly used to pay for “gifts” to supporters of Rajapaksa. 

Upon his election to the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke directly to Chinese leader Xi Jinping to praise his leadership and claimed to want to learn from his authoritarian style of governance. Power was centralized within the presidency through the 20th amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution, and the dominance of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism was further bolstered. Rajapaksa appointed an all-Sinhala Buddhist committee to promote archaeological heritage, which has been seen as a front to pursue further landgrabs and the imposition of Buddhist monuments on Tamil and Muslim regions. This centralization of state power within the hands of Sinhala chauvinists saw a simultaneous distancing from India as agreements such as the ECT were scrapped.

For India’s part, it has attempted to restructure the state on the model of the 1987 Indo-Lanka accords, which introduced the 13th amendment and the introduction of provincial councils. Proponents of the 13th amendment maintain that it enables greater devolution. However, Tamil political leaders on the island have consistently questioned this claim by pointing out that the councils serve at the behest of the president and can be easily overruled. Instead, Tamils have demanded a federal structure that will meet Tamil aspirations and a secular constitution that no longer privileges Buddhism at the expense of other religions.

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Regardless of the merits of the 13th amendment, Sri Lankan leaders have consistently opposed any attempt at devolution, with Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India attacking the system of provincial councils as “superfluous, expensive, divisive.” India has done little to incentivize the implementation of this amendment other than pay lip service. 

While Wickremesinghe has voiced support for devolution and greater engagement with India, one must recognize that his grip on power is tenuous. Less than three years ago, the public outright rejected his party at the parliament elections. His party, the United National Party (UNP), secured only a single seat and Wickremesinghe lost his own seat. His convoluted ascent to the presidency has relied on Machiavellian instincts and violent repression of dissent. Yet without popular approval, it is an open question as to how long his reign may last. 

Rather than a continued policy of appeasement, Indian officials must soberly reflect on their relationship with Sri Lanka. While the island has been happy to lean on India when it is backed into a corner, an underlying chauvinist ethos prohibits integration. For as long as it remains unchallenged, India will continue to engage with a Janus-faced administration in Colombo. Continued appeasement comes at India’s own peril.

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