Sri Lanka’s Stability Critical to New Delhi’s Indian Ocean Ambitions

22 June 2011 FDI Team


A controversial advisory panel report, published by the United Nations in late March 2011, called for a full investigation into the perceived breaches in the Laws of Armed Conflict during the endgame of Sri Lanka’s civil war. As a result, India continues to face the challenge of balancing its relations with Sri Lanka, while appeasing the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is home to over 72 million Indian Tamils.


The report’s fallout prompted a high-level Indian delegation, consisting of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, National Security Advisor Shivashankar Menon, and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar, to head to Sri Lanka on 10-11 June for crisis talks with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse. While the agenda will obviously focus on Sri Lanka’s post-war stabilisation and reconciliation, and India’s interests generally, the ultimate objective for India is to ensure that Sri Lanka does not drift further towards China. Presently, China is the most dominant and influential foreign power in Sri Lanka, which is of serious concern to India.

Although Sri Lanka’s relations with the US and the European Union have remained strained since the end of the civil war, the same cannot be said about India, a key Western strategic partner. In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that relations between India and Sri Lanka are stronger today than they have been since the 1970s.

A recent meeting in May this year between Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, Professor G.L. Peiris, and India’s External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, saw India reiterate its foreign policy stance towards Sri Lanka: ‘Our relationship with Sri Lanka is of critical importance not only to India but to Sri Lanka also. We have always found that in Sri Lanka we have a reliable partner, a steadfast friend of India and we wish well for Sri Lanka,’ he said.

Sri Lanka also appears to understand the importance of maintaining amicable relations with India, which is critical to its own security and stability. Although China remains a key ally to Sri Lanka, so does India. According to Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative/Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva from 2007 to 2009: ‘We need India’s support to balance off those who are hostile to us or are influenced by the pro-Eelam [secessionist] trend in the Tamil Diaspora.’

Since the end of the civil war in May 2009, salient examples of India’s assistance to Sri Lanka, include: a financial aid package worth US$100 million to give food, clothing and shelter, and also to expedite the process of de-mining and resettlement. In June 2009, India’s UN Ambassador sharply criticised Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for her insistence on pursuing a war crimes investigation against Sri Lanka, after the UN Human Rights Council voted against it.

Similarly,in July 2009, BBC Sinhalareported that M. Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, told the Tamil Nadu State Assembly that a separate country for Sri Lanka’s Tamils was “unrealistic”. He rejected calls for a investigation into the endgame of the civil war on the grounds that it would be counter-productive to reconciliation. In a historic visit to Sri Lanka in October 2009, a senior Tamil Nadu ministerial delegation, which included the Chief Minister’s daughter, Kanimozhi, visited the island to inspect Internally Displaced Persons camps and endorsed Sri Lanka’s resettlement efforts. On two occasions since 2009, the pro-LTTE politician M.K. Sivajilingam, who resides in Sri Lanka, has been denied entry into India. In May 2010 India again extended its ban on the LTTE for another two years.

In June 2010, President Rajapakse visited India to negotiate the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which India is keen on implementing to further expand relations with Sri Lanka in political, economic, developmental, security and cultural spheres. Although, the CEPA is still being negotiated, due to complications about its provisions and its overall benefit to Sri Lanka, India has independently acted on its longstanding interest to obtain the Trincomalee port facility as an exclusive export processing zone, where the Indian Oil Company has leased oil-storage tanks for many years.

India has also offeredconcessional loans for a number of major infrastructure development initiatives, such as: the US$200 million joint-venture project, at Sampur south of Trincomalee harbour, which will see the construction of a 500 megawatt coal power plant; funds for the restoration and expansion of northern Kankesanthurai and Point Pedro ports, and the Palaly airfield; and the provision of a US$1 billion line of credit for the restoration of key areas of Sri Lanka’s national railway system.

On Sri Lanka’s western coastline, an Indian company has secured a block for petroleum exploration in the Mannar Basin. India is also seeking to share its excess power output by building a 285 kilometre long undersea power transmission cable that will link Madurai in Tamil Nadu to Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka. Accordingly, in addition to its High Commission in Colombo and Consulate in Kandy, India has opened two more consulates. One is in Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s north; the other is in Hambantota, in the south of the island, where China has funded the construction of a new world-class port facility.

So far this year, India has also: awarded the contract to build the rail link between Talaimannar and Madhu in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka; completed construction of the Galle-Matara express railway track, with a concessional Indian loan worth US$36 million; recommenced cargo shipping and passenger ferry services between Colombo and Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu in June 2011, after a gap of 30 years; and announced its intention to commence an annual strategic dialogue with Sri Lanka.

The pattern of India’s behaviour is consistent and clear: it wants to decisively settle the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka, which is vital to its own national security, and prevent a scenario that could possibly revive radical Tamil nationalism as espoused by the LTTE. In addition, by securing its interests in Sri Lanka, India has positioned itself to have a greater say in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, thereby enabling it to contest, and possibly limit, the growth of Chinese influence on the island.

Given that Sri Lanka is located just off India’s southern periphery and astride the strategically important east-west shipping route, it will continue to be of concern for Indian strategic planners in what is a vitally important geo-strategic location of the Indian Ocean. As such, India’s foreign policy to Sri Lanka will continue to be at odds with that of the West, and shall continue to focus towards promoting political stability, rather than confrontation.

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

FDI Senior Analyst

[email protected]


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