Aug 27, 2013 | 10:29 GMT

10 mins read

Sri Lanka's Leverage Against India

Special Series: Sri Lanka

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on the strategically located island nation of Sri Lanka. Click here for Part 1.

After defeating the Tamil Tigers in 2009, the central Sri Lankan government gained control of the entire island for the first time in decades. Colombo plans to use this consolidation to begin capitalizing on Sri Lanka's economic resources, including ports, and build relations with outside patrons. Powerful countries, including China, are interested in partnerships with Sri Lanka — a fact that Colombo can use as leverage in its dealings with India. 

Sri Lanka is geographically and ethnically divided between the Tamil-dominated north and the Sinhalese south, where the seat of the central government, Colombo, is located. After its victory over the Tamil Tigers, Colombo gained the ability to project power throughout the island for the first time since the late 1970s. The central government has a major troop presence in the north, naval control of all the major ports and an extensive intelligence apparatus. Adding to the strength of the Sinhalese core is the consolidation of the government under the family of current President Mahinda Rajapaksa. First elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2010 for another six-year term, Rajapaksa has amended the constitution to eliminate presidential term limits. Three of his brothers currently serve as minister of defense, minister of economic development and speaker of parliament, respectively, along with numerous other relatives in senior posts elsewhere. While unsustainable in the long term, this consolidation has helped the government centralize decision-making at critical moments.

Now that Colombo has fulfilled its imperative to control the island, it will work to bring in external patrons to maintain this hold and to build on its natural position as a trading hub. India will continue to try to influence affairs on the island as before, spurred into action by external competition, but its support will be overshadowed by other players.  

Colombo's victory over the Tamil Tigers was the result of new support from Pakistan, China and Russia, who all gave military and intelligence assistance between 2005 and 2009, the final years of the war. Previously, regime military assistance had come from Canada, the European Union, the United States and Japan — all with heavy restrictions based on human rights concerns. Wanting to avoid the restrictions on military aid from these patrons, Colombo first approached its powerful neighbor, India, for support. India refused because of concerns about a political backlash from ethnic Tamil politicians in the state of Tamil Nadu. In 2005, China provided the Sri Lankan armed forces with $1 billion in aid. India's government did subsequently lend support by cracking down on some of the Tigers' smuggling activities and by providing Colombo with a few troop transports, patrol vessels and basic radar systems.

China remains the key backer of Colombo's armed forces. Beijing announced in 2012 that it would provide $100 million for military facilities in northern and eastern Sri Lanka and would sell Colombo MA-60 aircraft. This is a level of support that India cannot provide because its own ethnic Tamils would oppose the move.

Colombo's Ambitions

With the military maintaining its tight grip on the north of the island, Colombo can now build on Sri Lanka's valuable strategic position. This will also reinforce internal cohesion and strengthen Colombo's power within the country.

The Sinhalese core emerged from the war with a thriving garment sector centered on exports to U.S. and British markets. It will continue to build on this by attracting more investment and expanding infrastructure into the north and east to develop those regions as well. Colombo's major push is for the island to become a maritime hub, capitalizing on the deep-sea ports at Colombo, Hambantota and Trincomalee as well as on regional ports in Jaffna at Kankesanturai and Point Pedro. China is crucial to this plan. Colombo's priority project, Hambantota, will receive 85 percent of its $1.5 billion in funding from the Chinese. China will also support a major new second port at Colombo and a massive expressway project that will ultimately connect Colombo to Jaffna and Trincomalee. This connectivity throughout the island, along with the development of ports in Jaffna in the north, will bring economic development into the Tamil areas with the intention of quieting attempts at regional autonomy. It will also allow the central government to reinforce its security presence more easily should the area experience further instability.

While welcoming China, Sri Lanka is also diversifying its support base. A recent expansion of the port at Colombo was funded by the Asian Development Bank, a body backed by Japan, the United States and China as well as India. Iran is funding a rural electrification program in the north of the island and dominates Sri Lanka's vital imports of oil for transportation and energy generation. The island is currently in talks with Iran to double the capacity of the Sapugaskanda oil refinery, built by Iran in 1961 to process Iranian crude oil. Pakistan still provides military training and has recently begun talks with Sri Lanka about starting up a civilian nuclear power project on the island, a long-term regime goal. The United States and European Union are both supporting businesses in the north through humanitarian aid.

Map - Sri Lanka Shipping Lanes

Investment from these other sources is helping Colombo move toward its goals, but China's help in particular has allowed Sri Lanka to work around New Delhi's grip on the Indian Ocean. Although not monolithic, India is the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean, and its naval bases in the Lakshadweep Islands to the north and the Andaman and Nicobar islands to the east surround Sri Lanka. It has some military agreements with the Maldives to the west as well. This widespread presence gives India a degree of control over Sri Lanka's access to oil from the Persian Gulf and its access to the Straits of Malacca. 

But China's assistance has given Sri Lanka greater latitude. The port at Hambantota is one of three China-backed ports on the Indian Ocean (the other two are Gwadar in Pakistan and Chittagong in Bangladesh). Sri Lanka has a strong central government and sits directly on top of trade routes from the east and west, whereas the governments in Pakistan and Bangladesh are less consolidated and the ports there command traffic in only one direction. China has also recently facilitated bilateral ties between Sri Lanka and East African countries, such as the Seychelles and Tanzania. China has powerful economic interests in these countries and provides them with high levels of investment and assistance. Building Sri Lanka's relationship with East Africa makes the island a part of a trading nexus outside of India's zone of control, as none of India's strategic islands block the sea-lanes running between Sri Lanka and East Africa.

Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka's ports and sea trade have set Sri Lanka up to bargain more effectively with its northern neighbor, although India's economic investment in the country is still overshadowed by China's.

India's Position in the New Sri Lanka

Concessions from India are crucial to Sri Lanka's position, which is why Colombo's maneuvers are sometimes meant to lessen India's influence and are sometimes intended to gain more favorable treatment. The current government in New Delhi has been able to rally domestic political support for assistance to Sri Lanka (outside of Tamil Nadu state), but given the decentralized nature of political authority in India, Tamil interests could again undermine New Delhi's hopes to increase its involvement in Sri Lanka.

New Delhi is still a player in Sri Lanka, but it cannot support Colombo too vigorously. India has provided development assistance, though mostly in Tamil areas, such as helping with dredging projects in Jaffna, a power plant in Trincomalee and railway expansion in the north and south. This rehabilitation is popular in Tamil Nadu and allows India to balance Tamil needs for reconstruction and Sinhalese needs to integrate the region into the national economy. India also allowed the Sri Lankan president to visit Buddhist shrines on the mainland and sent religious relics to the island in 2012. Despite Sri Lanka's involvement with Chinese interests, India invited Sri Lanka's navy to participate in the Dosti-XI joint naval exercises with the Maldives in 2012, and in 2013 India signed a trilateral agreement with the two countries on maritime security and surveillance of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, New Delhi recently ignored calls by Tamil Nadu to intervene more heavily in fishing disputes in the Palk Strait, a perennial point of tension. The effectiveness of this outreach will depend on Sri Lanka's ability to continue to leverage its new patrons against India. 

Although New Delhi can offer some basic concessions to Colombo, Sri Lanka does not want to be swallowed up by India and has shown several times that it can turn to outsiders for support as a means of resisting any pressure India might exert. Port deals with outside powers are only one part of this. When politicians in Tamil Nadu pushed the Indian government to end the training of Sri Lankan military personnel inside Tamil Nadu and India offered the Sri Lankans another training site, Colombo reassigned the troops to training in Pakistan. India also hesitated on giving technical support to a civilian nuclear project in Sri Lanka, so Colombo immediately signed a deal with Islamabad.

Recent controversies over Sri Lanka's treatment of the Tamil north highlight Colombo's options for partnerships with countries other than India. The Tamil north and the Sinhalese core are in a dispute over the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, a law giving greater autonomy to the local governments in the north known as provincial councils, put in place by India under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987. Since the end of the war, Colombo has delayed elections for these local governments in a large portion of the north, but these elections will be held Sept. 21. Currently, the amendment would give Tamils more administrative independence and the ability to regulate land and police matters. This would threaten Colombo's imperative to maintain the unity of the island through its Sinhalese police force and economic control, which hinges on land ownership and use. After scheduling elections, the government announced that it would strip the land and police powers from the councils. India continues to criticize Colombo's treatment of the Tamils but has not been able to convince it to give the population in the north more autonomy. 

Colombo will continue to maintain a troop presence in the north. The armed forces have begun intimidating Tamil politicians. They have also released statements that they plan to continue participating in economic life in the north, something they have done since the end of the war in the form of agricultural and retail ventures. Tamil politicians in India and in Sri Lanka continue pushing for India to intervene. Sri Lanka responded to recent calls for India to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo by inviting China to the Commonwealth Business Council meeting to be held on the sidelines. This is a clear message from Colombo to New Delhi about the former's options.

Since the end of the war, Sri Lanka has been able to fulfill its strategic imperatives and has been able to use its newfound domestic stability and strategic geographic location to its advantage for the first time in decades. With new investment and foreign interest, Colombo has been able to expand its writ over the entire island, which further encourages economic growth and outside interest and enables Sri Lanka to reduce its dependence on India. This has created a dilemma for New Delhi — it cannot openly engage with or fully support Colombo due to domestic political constraints and entanglements with Sri Lanka's ethnic divisions, so it must continue a difficult balancing act. However, India's concern that Sri Lanka will fall under the influence of a power hostile to New Delhi allows Colombo to gain important concessions in a way that other Indian peripheral states cannot.

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