Sri Lanka: base for the Asian great game?

Sri Lanka: base for the Asian great game?

Meera Srinivasan,

A recent talk by the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, received wide media coverage in Colombo, with almost all newspapers picking up one point. “Our aid is not to raid or invade,” he had said.

The Indian envoy made the reference to India’s development assistance while delivering a talk on India-Sri Lanka relations in the light of New Delhi’s “neighbourhood-first” policy. In an address that elaborately traced the close historic and cultural ties between the people of the two countries, there was a clear articulation of how India sees itself and its foreign policy, particularly in the neighbourhood, where New Delhi’s preoccupation with China’s growing presence is no secret.

Short of naming the Asian giant, Mr. Sandhu alluded to the concern that many Sri Lankans and international actors — including India, the U.S. and Japan — share about China’s apparent hold on Sri Lankan soil. “Greater connectivity and economic integration are our promise for a better tomorrow. When I say this, let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind, we do not covet your markets, your assets or your land,” Mr. Sandhu emphasised.

Land is a crucial point of concern and contention around large-scale development projects in Sri Lanka. In December last year, Sri Lanka formally handed over its southern port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease, a move that government critics sharply attacked, deeming it a compromise on sovereignty. Hambantota, which has become an obvious site of the India-China geopolitical tussle on the island, has in the past witnessed protests against projects involving both countries. In January 2017, villagers and government supporters clashed when hundreds of people mobilised opposing the 15,000-acre industrial zone adjoining the port, where China will have a major stake. In October, protesters gathered outside the Indian Consulate in Hambantota, raising slogans against Colombo’s decision to privatise the nearby Mattala airport that India is keen on running.

Bread and butter concerns

Though the protests are said to be politically motivated in part, the message from them is not far from the ground reality. Visits to Hambantota revealed that while locals may feel no particular hostility towards China or India, they are mindful of how distant the massive projects are to their everyday lives and bread and butter concerns. That is the Sri Lankan government’s foremost challenge — to convince its people about why these projects are needed in the first place, and what they entail for the local population, many of whom have had to part with their own land — either willingly or by force.

In his speech at the recent event, Mr. Sandhu underscored India’s commitment of nearly $2.9 billion in concessional financing to Sri Lanka, out of which $545 million is grant assistance. The India-Sri Lanka partnership “blends with your priorities”, he assured. His comments come at a time when South Block appears to have become more vocal about its apprehensions about China making significant headway in infrastructure projects in South Asia. In a discussion with a Parliamentary Standing Committee in February, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “The capacity of the Chinese to build those projects is far greater than our capacity, both financially and technically, and this has been a constant concern of the government.”

How New Delhi chooses to address this concern will shape its future dynamic with its partners, and impact its own image in the South Asian region.