Sri Lanka: Caught between a rock and a hard place

China carefully watching India’s moves in Sri Lanka will not be amused; it will muscle-in both overtly and covertly to discourage the President from considering the land bridge project.

4 mins read
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) welcomes Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe in New Delhi, India, Friday, July 21, 2023. [AP Photo/Manish Swarup]

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is caught between a rock and a hard place, both externally and internally. Externally, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is getting turbulent with the big power confrontation between the US and its allies on the one hand, and China on the other. It threatens to spill over beyond Asia-Pacific. The sparring between the two global powers is turning bitter every day around Taiwan and accidental triggering of skirmish cannot be ruled out. The four-nation ‘Quad’ – quadrilateral framework of India-the US-Japan-Australia, apparently a non-military alliance, is gaining relevance. It is ushering in close cooperation in manufacturing, logistics and political issues, that will strengthen their military posture. The AUKUS – Australia-US – military alliance is poised to introduce the nuclear triad in the Indo-Pacific theatre. The most unlikely trilateral alliance of the US-Japan- South Korea has come into being it is unabashedly against China and its protégé North Korea, flaunting their military strength in their vicinity.

Chinese economy is five times larger, with a GDP of $17.7 trillion versus India’s GDP of $3.5 trillion China’s economy that went down in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s mishandling of the lock downs during the Covid pandemic disrupting the supply chains is yet to recover. The economic fall out of the Ukraine war has made it worse. The Chinese Yuan has fallen to its lowest level in 16 years. On the other hand, India’s economy is growing at 6.5 percent. Under these circumstances, China’s first option will be to expand its trade in South Asia, particularly with India despite its soured relations. Their two-way trade has grown to a whopping $130 billion in 2022. China’s second priority will be to resuscitate President Xi’s prestigious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects that have become a drag on the Chinese economy, particularly in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. By September 2023, BRI will be celebrating its tenth anniversary and we can expect a slew of Chinese initiatives to ensure the success of ailing BRI projects.

India, the dominant regional power, is poised to strengthen its all-round relations with the US, particularly after President Joe Biden visits New Delhi in September to attend the G20 summit meet. The latest 19th round of talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders in Eastern Ladakh over China’s border transgressions has achieved little progress. China’s speedy construction of military infrastructure in the area shows the border problem is in for a long haul. China’s latest cartographic aggression by publishing maps showing Indian territory of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory only confirms this. After the Galwan clash in May 2020, India has shown it is determined not to allow China a free run in its neighbourhood, particularly in Sri Lanka and Maldives.

India’s overtures to help Sri Lanka recover from bankruptcy, have been reciprocated and the relations between the two are closer than ever before. China will be factoring these developments in analysing President Wickremesinghe’s bid to deepen strategic relations with India to strengthen Sri Lanka’s economy. China probably understands President Wickremesinghe cannot wish away the helping hand extended by India when Sri Lanka is in dire straits. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his tenure, unsuccessfully tried to do so with little success. Besides, President Wickremesinghe needs India’s continued assistance for economic recovery, particularly after China has not helped it to conform to IMF conditions.

During President Wickremesinghe’s two-day visit to New Delhi last month. India and Sri Lanka agreed upon an economic partnership vision to speed up Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. The vision document’s title “Promoting Connectivity, Catalysing Prosperity: India-Sri Lanka Economic Partnership Vision” contains the key elements of the partnership. The plan is to strengthen the maritime, air, energy and people-to-people connectivity between the two countries. They have signed six energy agreements, including an oil pipeline from India to Sri Lanka, electricity grid connectivity and cooperation on renewable energy.

India’s decision to allow the use of Indian rupee for trade settlement between the two countries and allowing the use of UPI based digital payment system is likely to boost trade and tourism. Already there are signs of progress in tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka and we can expect it to grow exponentially when ferry services and air connectivity are beefed up.

With South India becoming an industrial and IT hub, a multipurpose infrastructure link with Sri Lanka would bring a sea change in economic growth of the island nation. With Tamil Nadu becoming the heartland of automobile industry and IT manufacture, such a link would particularly benefit the Northern and Eastern provinces. A land bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait is one of the ideas mooted in the wake of the joint vision statement. Actually, it is not a new idea; it was proposed in 2004 by the then PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. He sought India’s help to build the “Hanuman Bridge”. The proposal for a 23 km long Palk Strait Bridge met with intense opposition in Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms Jayalalithaa was also opposed to the idea on security considerations.

According to Indian Express, in 2015, India’s transport minister Nitin Gadkari proposed to build the ‘Hanuman bridge’. The bridge was proposed to be built with the aid of the Asian Development Bank as a part of the trans Asian road network. However, it was shot down by Sri Lanka’s minister for highways Lakshman Kiriella. He said “We are against it because people of Sri Lanka are opposed to it. We cannot let India build a bridge.” As Sri Lanka had joined the BRI just then, apparently Sri Lanka did not want to upset China It will not be easy for the President to politically sell the idea of a land bridge with India, particularly when his tenure depends upon the support of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) with its strong Sinhala nationalist moorings. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and its cohorts would jump at the proposal and use anti-India rhetoric to rally the people for yet another Aragalaya movement to “topple” the President. It is surprising that even a non- political personality like Colombo Archbishop Malcom Cardinal Ranjith has recently opposed the land bridge proposal from the pulpit.

And of course, China carefully watching India’s moves in Sri Lanka will not be amused; it will muscle-in both overtly and covertly to discourage the President from considering the land bridge project. Already, China is smarting under Sri Lanka discarding a few sanctioned proposals of Chinese companies and opting for India to execute them. China specializes in ‘grey zone warfare’. We can expect in the coming months Sri Lanka becoming the target of China’s propaganda blitz using overt and covert means to discourage, if not disrupt, closer Sri Lanka-India relations. Overall, the President is in an unviable hot seat, likely to get hotter.

R Hariharan

Col. R Hariharan is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

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