India and Sri Lanka recently concluded the latest edition of the joint naval exercises, also known as the ‘Indian Navy (IN) Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) Bilateral Maritime Exercise SLINEX-20’. The exercise is aimed at enhancing interoperability, improving mutual understanding and exchanging best practices and procedures for multi-faceted maritime operations between the two navies. However, this exercise and India’s increasing cooperation with the Indian Ocean Island Nation, fall in line with Mr.Modi’s policy of ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region’. India in recent times has expanded its ambit of maritime security by involving itself majorly with the Quad counties and carrying out independent rescue and assistance operations in the Indian Ocean.
The country however cannot expect to simply expand naval operations in the Indo-Pacifc and parts of the Indian Ocean without ruffling a few of Chinese feathers. China, for the last six decades has acted as a constant thorn in the flesh for India, in terms of its geographical security. The strategic war between the two nations that started with major escalations in 1962 and has continued over the years with sporadic exchanges of fire between the two sides, has effectively spread from the border regions of the two counties into a maritime disagreement in the Indo-Pacific and parts of the Indian Ocean.
India enjoys a historical connection with Sri Lanka. In the years following the Sri Lankan independence, officers of the Sri Lankan armed forces were trained in Indian Military Academies, and assistance was provided by the government of India to put down a rebellion. In the past few years, India has moved further than its previous role of solely providing defensive technology, to a new role that aims at establishing lasting strategic ties with the island nation. This includes being involved in a number of joint naval exercises, grouped under three different kinds. The first being the ‘Mita Shakti’, founded in 2013, with an emphasis on counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and increasing the use of modern communication, reconnaissance and weapon technology. The second of these exercises being the ‘SLINEX’, which is a series of naval exercises between the two countries first conducted in 2005. The main aim of the exercise is to
enable the two navies to understand each other's procedures. The 2017 edition of the exercises was held near Visakhapatnam and focused mainly on anti-piracy, fleet-work and communication. The third and the last in the series of naval exercises is ‘Dosti'. The following exercise is slightly different from the ones covered earlier, as this is a trilateral naval exercise, owing to the involvement of Maldives. The exercise strives to provide a platform to the three navies to establish mechanisms for safety and security in the Indian Ocean region, keeping its geo-strategic importance in mind. It is through these confidence building measures and joint military and naval exercises that India enjoys a strong diplomatic relationship with Sri Lanka.
Despite India’s historical relationship with the island nation, India has been wary of the exponential growth that the Chinese economy has been recording and how this has led the country to develop ambitious military and diplomatic plans that they aim to achieve by piggybacking on the strong winds of economic development.
A basic example of this is the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, which has led Xi Jinping’s government to invest trillions of dollars in countries like Sri Lanka. Indian policymakers have been wary of China's assertiveness in the region, and the country’s future plans to encircle India by gaining complete access to the waters of the Indian Ocean and surrounding regions. This is evident from the strategic places that China has chosen to invest in. These include Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. India’s perception of the Chinese threat has only worsened following the establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti.
In regards to Sri lanka, both countries have been vying for maximum influence for years. China has been the largest supplier of arms to Sri Lanka. China and Sri Lanka’s strategic partnership in the realms of defence cooperation go back to the years of the Sri Lankan Civil War. In more recent times China has imparted military training to the Sri Lankan armed forces. Training which was traditionally provided by the Indian armed forces. Indian concerns became a reality when the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa permitted two Chinese submarines and a war ship to
dock at its ports. Although not necessary that this was a provocative move by either the Chinese or the Sri Lankan government, increasing Chinese presence has been a cause for concern in recent years, along with the speculation regarding the development of an aircraft maintenance facility in the Eastern port city of Trincomalee.
In regards to the threat posed by the Chinese dragon, on India’s relationship with Sri Lanka. New Delhi has a number of tools at its disposal, These options include, military power, potential partnership with other countries, multilateral diplomacy and international economic integration. In our analysis we exclude the military option and focus on the remaining three. The second option seems to be by far the most rational approach which New Delhi can adopt. It is an established fact that India cannot compete with the Chinese giant based on its sole economic strength. This makes it necessary for New Delhi to invest in strategic relationships with those countries which hold important the same values and have a well founded international standing to support India’s claims and interests.
The second strategy at India’s disposal is the use of Multi- lateral diplomacy, which essentially involves the use of trans-governmental organisations such as the United Nations. Even though the Indian Republic is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it commands enough sway in the chamber to influence other prominent members of the council. India’s presence in the council has further been reinforced by its partnerships with the United States and its recent elections for the 2020-21 term. Finally, the last strategy that India can employ, in countering Chinese presence is International Economic Cooperation and Trade. Trade and economic cooperation are useful tools for growing the Indian economy, generating greater wealth, and developing India’s technological capacities. Greater wealth and technological capacities are essential building blocks of military power and greater international influence, both of which are necessary for meeting the challenge China poses.
It is evident from recent trends that India must keep an eye out for the red dragon, that has invested highly in the island nation, and can in the future
use the investment card to bolster its presence in the region. As mentioned earlier one option for India would be to create a zone of socio economic and defence cooperation, that includes Sri Lanka and other regional actors. Lastly, drawing in countries like Sri Lanka into the Indian Sphere of influence is important for New Delhi as this would mean ensuring India’s place on the seas, as India like China relies heavily on sea-borne commerce.
1. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2153246/sri-lanka-base-navys southern-command-chinese-run
2. https://www.reuters.com/article/sri-lanka-china-submarine/chinese-submarine-docks-in-sri lanka-despite-indian-concerns-idINKBN0IM0LU20141102
3. https://carnegieindia.org/2017/09/14/india-s-strategic-choices-china-and-balance-of-power-in asia-pub-73108