Limitations to India’s Sri Lanka Outreach

Amidst the war of words between China and India and the ongoing economic crisis, Sri Lanka may be forced to make tough choice

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

In what could be termed as unprecedented, India has locked horns with another nation over a third host nation. In a series of tweets, the Indian High Commission (IHC) in Colombo rebutted China’s Sri Lanka envoy Qi Zhenhong’s ‘insinuations’ against the host’s ‘northern neighbour’ and asserted that the nation “needs support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies to serve another country’s agenda.”

“We have noted the remarks of the Chinese Ambassador. His violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait or reflecting a larger national attitude,” the IHC tweet said, adding a personal angle, again possibly for the first time. “His view of Sri Lanka‘s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. India, we assure him, is very different,” the tweets continued. Likewise, “his imputing a geo-political context to the visit of a purported scientific research vessel is a giveaway,” the IHC added, referring to the recent visit of Chinese research/spy ballistic-missile vessel ‘Yuan Wang-5’, which docked at the southern Hambantota Port that is in 99-year-long Chinese possession.

The IHC was responding to what can be described as the Chinese ambassador’s less-than-veiled attack on India, wherein he spoke about ‘external obstruction’ based on so-called security concerns without any evidence, and called it a ‘thorough interference’ in Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence. In his statement, Qi imputed motives to India’s objection to the docking of ‘Yuan Wang 5’ and said that Beijing and Colombo jointly safeguarded each other’s ‘sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity’.

Truth be told, New Delhi rarely discusses its security concerns vis a vis Sri Lanka or other neighbours with third nations or even another South Asian nation. New Delhi has always made sure not to make public statements on its diplomatic discussions on sensitive matters. In the past few years, there has been little or no access for the domestic or international media to bilateral goings-on other than what is visible and in the public domain.

Proto-colonialist phase

In a bid to open what he might have considered old wounds in Sri Lanka’s historic relations with the Indian neighbour, Qi mentioned ‘17 invasions’ from the north, without listing them. Obviously, his masters in Beijing too seem extremely perturbed about the increasing pro-India street opinion across Sri Lanka, after the northern neighbour provided a ‘breath of life’ to Sri Lanka with New Delhi supplying food, fuel, and medicines at the height of the continuing economic crisis.

In a way, the Yuan Wang-5 episode must be seen as a trial run for China to assess India’s reaction as well as Sri Lanka’s accommodation for its dual-purpose vessels. According to reports, the Chinese ship, which left Hambantota on August 22, is currently mapping the ocean-bed 400 nautical miles (740 km) south-southeast of Dondra Head, the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. The vessel is, thus, located in the general area of the United States’ (US) military base in Diego Garcia than anywhere close to the Indian coast, if not mapped already from Hambantota.

This apart, it is anybody’s guess if Qi included Emperor Ashoka’s children, Mahinda and Sangamitta, taking Buddhism from eastern India to Sri Lanka as ‘cultural invasion from the north’,  pre-Christendom, in his list of 17; or the earlier arrival of Prince Vijaya, again from eastern India, who founded the Sinhala race, as one.

About the subsequent involvement of the father-son Chola duo, Rajaraja and Rajendra in the 12th century, there is an Indian-Tamil version of the invasion-and-plunder theory that is perceived as being popular among Sri Lanka’s southern Sinhala majority. In effect, a series of Indian arrivals were mostly a part of waves of migration between the two South Asian neighbours, spread over millennia, where trade became the main motive after a time and cultural and linguistic exchanges became unavoidable even without being forced.

If Qi was insinuating India on the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) (1987-89) issue without again naming it, it is pertinent to note that India sent its troops at the written request of the Sri Lankan government to ‘secure’ the nation from the twin dangers of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency in the South and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorism in the North. More significantly, New Delhi withdrew the IPKF at first indication for withdrawal when flagged by the host government. That it was all smooth and fair, unlike anticipated by third-nations, became clear when India dispatched its Navy and Air Force within hours for rescue and rehabilitation operation post the 2004 tsunami.

For all this, however, Sri Lanka needs to remember that the Xi Jinping regime in Beijing is being viewed as a continuation of China’s medieval Ming dynasty mindset which refuses to go away. Scholars have debunked the ‘Zheng He myth’ on the 14th century Chinese Ming dynasty eunuch-admiral as a ‘proto-colonialist’ who captured Sri Lanka and then Ceylon, ‘all the while travelling with tens of thousands of personnel and magazines holding ample stores of gunpowder’, after capturing the strategic military ports of Malacca and installing an ally as the ruler of Java, after fighting his civil war for him.

Historians have recorded how Sri Lanka faced repeated aggression from faraway China, especially under the Ming dynasty. The Ming-Kotte War (1410-11), between the expeditionary forces of the Chinese emperor and Sri Lanka’s Kotte King Alakeshwara of the Alagakkonara’s feudatory, ended with Chinese ally Parakramabahu VI from predecessor royalty being named the ruler. The colonisation of Sri Lanka by Zheng He’s hordes, imprisonment and incarceration of the king, including his abduction and banishment to China for a few years, and repeated raids from the sea is a lesson that modern Sri Lankans should learn from the past and contextualise it to their own Hambantota experiences.

Ball in Colombo’s court

There is a need to acknowledge India’s limits and limitations in helping Sri Lanka amid the unprecedented political and economic crisis. India has inherent limitations on the food, fuel, and medicines front, going beyond what it has already done and what it may be able to sustain for a shorter period. Recently, in Bangkok, the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reiterated New Delhi’s position that India would ‘support’ and help Sri Lanka in obtaining aid and assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), following which the West is expected to chip in. In April this year, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met with IMF officials in Washington in a special session to argue Sri Lanka’s case, long before Colombo had taken effective initiatives in the matter.

The government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe is also expected to take up credit-rescheduling with India, as a part of the IMF conditionalities. Indications are that Japan would host a meeting of Sri Lanka’s creditors, on request, with a total pending due of US$ 51 billion. It remains to be seen if China, as possibly the single largest creditor, would participate and cooperate, but then a friendlier India hosting the meet for Sri Lanka could have meant an outright Chinese rejection.

For now, however, the Chinese Embassy has claimed that Beijing had expressed willingness to negotiate debt with Colombo even three months back, but the latter had not responded. ‘The ball is in Colombo’s court,’ a Sri Lankan English Language daily quoted an embassy official as saying. At the same time, a Chinese firm which was contracted to supply ‘organic fertilizer’, that turned sub-standard, under a hugely unpopular hare-brain scheme of predecessor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has refused to convert it into a deal for chemical fertilizer. Considering that the Chinese embassy had gone to town over the earlier issue, Beijing’s official line on it now could strain bilateral relations further.

Incidentally, the unusual Indian ‘travel advisory’ for its nationals planning to visit Sri Lanka to exercise caution, and especially to consider factors like currency convertibility and the fuel situation in that country before undertaking any essential travel, has not gone down well in the southern neighbourhood. Locals inadvertently or otherwise link New Delhi’s directive to the ‘Yuan Wang-5’ episode, though the Indian traveller’s response to the advisory remains to be studied.  The Indian advisory has come out at a time when the situation in Sri Lanka has been relatively stabilizing on all fronts than any time in the past ‘crises-ridden months’ and when the United Kingdom has withdrawn a travel advisory of the kind.

‘Bullying’ Sri Lanka

India has equally inherent limitations on backing Sri Lanka on the human rights front, especially in influencing the ‘international community’. Whether a compromise is possible on the lines of the ‘co-authored resolution’ when Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister (2014-19) remains to be seen, and if India’s perceived back-channel diplomacy can be effective this time too.

From China, Ambassador Qi in an article in the Sri Lanka Guardian has pledged continued support for Colombo at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session this time too. He was critical of countries ‘far and near’ for ‘bullying’ the island-nation. In the past, China openly canvassed support for Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, which did not however produce adequate results.

From a Sri Lankan perspective, China, along with Russia, could be counted upon to use their ‘veto’ in the UN Security Council, which is the final arbiter. India, on the other hand, is not a P-5 member. The Sri Lankan state’s decisions, strategic community’s thinking, and public opinion to a certain extent are conditioned by this geo-political reality.

That way, India’s Quad friend, the US, and the latter’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and non-NATO allies should be willing to step back and acknowledge South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region as ‘India’s traditional sphere of influence’, whatever be the domestic electoral compulsions, driven by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in some of those nations. That was how India managed affairs with the erstwhile Soviet Union, whose residual influence on Delhi-Moscow ties is still there for the whole world to see and feel.

-N. Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based policy analyst & commentator and this article was originally featured on Moorthy can be contacted on


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