For that ‘special relationship’ with India

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Presenting his credentials to Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, Sri Lanka’s incoming High Commissioner, Milinda Moragoda, spoke of making bilateral ties a ‘special relationship’ from a Colombo perspective.

A very positive approach, yes, but given the current state of bilateral affairs, it will require all of Moragoda’s scholarly approach as the founder of a leading think-tank back home, and long years in politics and political administration, especially as an economist, to blossom.

“The prime objective of my mission in India would be to further develop the momentum of the existing partnership between our two countries, and to elevate that partnership to the level of a special relationship,” the High Commissioner said on the occasion. “With a view to realising this prime objective, I have developed a road-map in the form of an integrated country strategy for the Sri Lankan diplomatic missions in India for the next two years,” he said further, in an obvious reference to the collective, comprehensive work that he now wants the nation’s diplomatic corps posted in India, to undertake to this end.

Critical importance

Less than a week later, meeting his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar at distant New York, on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Foreign Minister G L Peiris too reflected similar sentiments. According to media reports, both ministers agreed that bilateral relations are of critical importance. They agreed on the need to conclude pending agreements to fast-track relations between the two countries, with Jaishankar emphasising the need for a practical conclusion of the number of projects pending implementation.

Media analysts said that Jaishankar’s statement indicated that it would give more confidence to New Delhi to move forward in enhancing relations. In diplomatic parlance, it meant that Colombo was not doing enough to fast-track India’s developmental proposals for the southern neighbour (say, as fast as adversarial China’s projects were being green-lighted over the past decade and more, independent of the party and leadership in power in Colombo).

It is one area where High Commissioner Moragoda could do a lot, with his own objective and perspective in mind. Unlike his predecessors, he has come armed with a strategy paper, not for nothing. His heart is in his work, and work is what the Indian government says it wants to take up in his country.

Engaging with stake-holders

In what reads like a loaded observation, Jaishankar highlighted the need to engage with all stakeholders, including different political parties. The reference possibly was to the ethnic issue, which has become more complicated since the successful conclusion of the LTTE war over a decade back. The constant inferences drawn by the ‘international community’ (read: West) and the consequent resolutions that they have got passed successively at the UNHRC have only complicated matters for the Colombo government, again, whoever was/is in power.

Prof Peiris, a past-master at the Foreign Ministry from his days under the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, told India’s Jaishankar that his government was ‘working to address post-war ethnic issues. In context, Jaishankar said that bilateral relations should not be centred on a single issue. The implication was that given the complexities attending on the ethnic issue, a single-point bilateral agenda as complex as the ethnic issue has a greater potential to pull all of it all balance – as was witnessed on very many occasions during the past decades.

On specifics in this regard, Peiris said that the government was working to address issues such as freedom for jailed political/LTTE prisoners and also the much controversial anti-terror law, PTA. In context, Jaishankar indicated the need for a fair and just resolution of residual issues in the aftermath of the ethnic issues is in the interest of both countries, thus acknowledging how it was among the hurdles in smoothening bilateral ties.

Economy and democracy

There is no denying the relatively limited role for High Commissioner Moragoda on the ethnic issue, though his host government cannot take its eyes entirely off the same, owing to a variety of reasons. India was the co-signatory to the 1987 Accord that sought to end the years’ old ethnic war at the time. The failure of Sri Lankan stake-holders to play honestly by the book meant that the war got bloodier and lengthier, to disastrous consequences, then and since.

But there is another area where the Sri Lankan missions in India can have a full flow of pro-active presence and participation. What India’s Jaishankar said on the UNGA side-lines, Sri Lanka’s Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in Colombo earlier – no, not in terms of fast-tracking economic cooperation, but economic cooperation between the two nations, per se.

Addressing the All-India Presiding Officers Conference (AIPOC), organised by the Indian Lok Sabha online, the Speaker underlined bilateral economic and democratic cooperation, both in the past and at present. “Parliament of Sri Lanka is the oldest parliament elected by universal adult franchise in Asia. As the largest democracy in the world how India’s legislature functions in a multi- religious, multi-ethnic society offers many valuable lessons for not only us as neighbours, but even to the scholars of democratic governance,” he pointed out.

Geo-strategic competition

There is another area in bilateral cooperation where the Sri Lankan mission in Delhi, that too under a scholar-politician like Moragoda can do a lot about. It relates to the “component of geostrategic competition in the Indian Ocean”, which Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary, Adm Jayanth Colombage, flagged recently.

Though Colombage recently told an interviewer that economic diplomacy has got a prime-place in the nation’s foreign policy, in India relations especially, there is an equal if not a more pronounced role for ‘geo-strategic ties’. Ironically, it owes more and more to the nation’s continuing economic engagement with China, though there is no palpable geo-strategic content to it.

Given India’s historic adversity viz China, revived after a lull and shaking off hands at Doklam and Galwan, far away from the shared Indian Ocean waters with Sri Lanka, New Delhi cannot afford to take chances. New Delhi cannot afford even to blink. The strategic, political and territorial costs for India would be much more than possibly envisaged in Colombo – by the Government in power and also the strategic community.

In turn, all of it impacts on India’s sovereignty. Sri Lanka, which lays much weight by its own sovereignty and territorial integrity should be able to understand and appreciate the Indian concerns in context. For Sri Lanka, it is a chicken-and=egg situation. It is not about what came out first, but what should come up first.

Should Sri Lanka put its developmental agenda and hence economic diplomacy (viz China) at the top, or should it provide equal, if not greater space for India’s strategic concerns, again viz China, but this time, operating on Sri Lankan territory and impinging on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, too.

Fair enough, it should not be India’s excessive concern as to what Sri Lanka should do with its sovereignty and territorial integrity. But the way the Hambantota swap deal with China turned out, for any unbiased observer from within Sri Lanka and outside, it should be a cause for concern.

After all, Sri Lanka’s debt-burden, especially with what seems to be a usurious lender like China – Hambantota is again a prime example – mean a lot more when looked at over the short, medium and long terms. And it is here that High Commissioner Moragoda can do a lot to ease Indian concerns, especially by working consciously with the political leadership back home, to elevate the trilateral ‘Maritime and Security Agreement’ of November last, which also involves common, into something bigger and more credible and self-sustaining – taking it beyond India’s own China concerns, into a common Indian Ocean concern, where China’s impending arrival is already causing more than just ripples.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:


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