Between India and China — Sri Lanka’s survival strategy 

Foreign policy credit for India in its immediate neighbourhood has always been a tough ask. With Hambantota, the Chinese just raised the bar.

September 22, 2022 12:56 pm | Updated 09:25 pm IST

The Yuan Wang 5 vessel. File

The Yuan Wang 5 vessel. File

There are limits to influence. And there is a certain power of asymmetry that big nations can ignore only at their peril. Aid and assistance can enhance a country’s power (and even win it accolades), but money cannot guarantee a veto when the exercise of sovereignty is concerned. 

Only those unfamiliar with Sri Lankan approaches would have believed that $4 billion in Indian assistance to Colombo at a time of economic collapse would have prompted President Ranil Wickremesinghe to deny China a berth for its tracking vessel, Yuan Wang 5, at the port of Hambantota. 

Even as Sri Lanka required (and obtained) immediate financial assistance from India, it needs to keep Beijing happy in order to be able to re-negotiate a debt restructuring arrangement with China. 

Clarity on Hambantota?

In a rare intervention, last week President Wickremesinghe spoke frankly and candidly about the ‘strategic spot’ his country finds itself in as it navigates choppy waters around India and China. 

“The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean has unfortunately made us the punching bag for Hambantota,” said Mr. Wickremesinghe, who assumed office in this latest term in the wake of massive protests triggered by economic crises and has since courted his fair share of controversy and criticism.  

He was at pains to explain that Hambantota was not a “military port” and that the Sri Lankan navy’s southern command was based there. “So though we are a commercial port, it shows our strategic importance that many people sort of come to conclusions which are unwarranted,” he said. “And I hope the next agreement we come to with China will not cause such speculation, and it is only about debt reduction for Sri Lanka.” 

The President’s remarks were addressed at those who argue that the 99-year lease of Hambantota to the Chinese in 2017 allowed Beijing rights of access and use that are not in the public domain and are cause for concern for India.  

Stating that his vision of the Asia-Pacific (or the Indo-Pacific as the Americans now like to call it) was in sync with the perspective of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Mr. Wickremesinghe spoke of two groups: the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the U.S.-led Quad, of which India is a member. 

“But for us, while we don’t participate in military alliances, we certainly do not want the problems of the Pacific coming into the Indian Ocean. So let us look at how we can maintain our stability… we do this because we want the Indian Ocean to be stable and to be open to all,” Mr. Wickremesinghe added. 

The Sri Lankan President was making it known that his country would maintain distance between these two groups and, more importantly, between India and China. If the navies wanted to come, Sri Lanka had no problem. 

So what’s the message for India? The Sri Lankan President has made it clear that Chinese ships – tracking or otherwise – will be welcome in Sri Lanka. This will happen whether India likes it or not. 

One of the most interesting bits of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s speech was this: “First and foremost, in the region, the biggest tension does not come from the sea. It comes from the Himalayas. Where two new nuclear powers face each other.” 

Mr. Wickremesinghe, towards the end of his speech, made a tiny concession to India. When it came to the security of Sri Lanka, Colombo needed to ensure that “nothing adverse” happened to the security of India.  

It is refreshing that the Sri Lankan President has spoken candidly in public. Everyone knows their station now. The Indians, the Chinese, the BRI, the Quad and more. 

History as context

In India’s long and chequered history with Sri Lanka, Colombo’s openness to dealing with China is not new. History can provide context but history cannot be the driver of policy. And India needs to remember that. 

In 1993, Sathasivam Krishnakumar alias “Kittu”, a frontline LTTE leader, along with nine other operatives, chose to ‘cynanide himself’ instead of surrendering to the Indian Navy, which had intercepted their vessel, the M.V. Ahat. There could be no better example of naval assistance being extended to a neighbour. 

Ten years after Kittu and his comrades perished, tiny Bhutan also gave India a lesson in foreign policy. New Delhi had to wait its turn before Bhutan agreed to accept Indian military help in clearing Assamese rebels from its territory. 

The purchase of foreign policy credit for India in its immediate neighbourhood has always been a tough ask. The Chinese just raised the bar. 

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