20/03/2015 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

India's Move to Pre-empt China in Sri Lanka: Too Little, Too Late?

Despite Modi's recent visit to Sri Lanka, did India join the game too late? Is China not already Sri Lanka's premier amour? Has China not acted like Ravana and already stolen India's prized jewel, its big brother status?

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 16: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena during a meeting and delegation-level talks at Hyderabad House on February 16, 2015 in New Delhi, India. Sirisena said,'This is my first visit and it has given very fruitful results.' India sealed a nuclear energy agreement with Sri Lanka, its first breakthrough with the new government. (Photo by Virendra Singh Gossain/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Last November I was on the Southern Expressway in Sri Lanka heading towards the coastal town of Bentota. A compliment about the highway led my driver Prasanna into a eulogy for China. China is doing so much for our country, he said. It is helping push Colombo into the big league. His eyes shone as he added: China is a big brother to Sri Lanka. I replied I thought India was Sri Lanka's big brother. Prasanna smiled and said, India has now become a step-brother.

And so, amid big smiles and koththu roti, the truth was revealed: Sri Lankans hold China in a reverence that is not reserved for India.

This was at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Sri Lanka was being described as a new chapter in Indo-Sri Lanka relations. Modi did accomplish many firsts: he was the first Indian PM to visit Sri Lanka in 28 years, to visit the IPKF Memorial and to set foot in post-war Jaffna. The visit was a thawing of the decade-long freeze created by the UPA and Rajapaksa. It was aimed at strengthening cultural, economic and strategic ties. Most significantly, PM Modi was said to be smartly checkmating China in this massive power push.

That the visit meant something was highlighted by China's childish reaction to it. A Chinese media house took a cheap dig at India stating that thankfully China is not a democracy where 20% of the world's poorest live.

"We can hope that Sirisena prefers not having to deal only with China's totalitarian system of government."

Despite this visit, did India join the game too late? Is China not already Sri Lanka's premier amour? Has China not acted like Ravana and already stolen India's prized jewel, its big brother status?

Sri Lanka got close to China immediately after its armed civil conflict came to an end. This was in 2009. In that time China has invested $5 billion in Sri Lanka. Compare this to India's investment of about $1 billion. China's biggest investment is in critical infrastructure, mainly in the development of the Colombo Port, which is subsequently regarded as a microcosm for Sri Lanka's developmental policy. China is also developing roads, highways, airports and another port, Hambantota, which is on Sri Lanka's south coast.

Why should India care? As India's biggest neighbour in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka occupies a key geostrategic position. It can emerge as a major hub in terms of keeping an eye on India's military activities. Colombo is therefore vital for Delhi. Furthermore, China's assertive dominance in the region is and has been a cause of concern. In the eyes of some experts, Colombo is part of a "string of pearls" that suggests the strategic construction of a network of Chinese built, owned or influenced ports that could threaten India. These include a facility in Gwadar (Pakistan), a port in Karachi (Pakistan), a container facility in Chittagong (Bangladesh) and ports in Myanmar. Colombo is now conveniently serving as a calling port for China. Chinese warships and military vessels stop at Colombo on the way to Pakistan and for anti-pirate operations in the Gulf of Aden. China is aggressively making its presence felt in The South Asian and Indian Ocean regions.

"India has now become a step-brother."

The romance has already begun between Sri Lanka and China, and India may be too late to do anything about it. Also, India may be, in comparison to China, able to give little to Sri Lanka. After all, India cannot match China on a global scale. India's GDP is a quarter of China's. New Delhi cannot give the kind of money that Beijing has given to Colombo. Additionally, Sri Lanka already has many obligations to fulfil with regard to Chinese investments.

This is a flashpoint for diplomatic tensions.

Fortunately for India, Sri Lanka's President Sirisena, who dethroned Rajapaksa, was willing to discuss all bilateral issues. He wants to develop closer relations with India. This was also made evident during his four-day visit to India. India, not China, was his first visit abroad since taking office. There, in addition to three additional pacts, we signed a civil nuclear cooperation treaty, which is the first such agreement that Sri Lanka has signed. Sirisena favours reconciliation with Tamils, he is willing to investigate war crimes and tackle the problem of fishermen between the two countries, including developing a mechanism for the early release of fishermen who cross the IMBL. No wonder then that there are expectations from Sirisena and TNA on many bilateral issues such as the return of one lakh Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka and protecting the rights of 8.5 lakh Indian-origin Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Fiscally also there are some things going in India's favour. After signing the FTA in March 2000, India is Sri Lanka's largest trade partner in the world. Bilateral trade is around $1 billion.

"India, not China, was his first visit abroad since taking office."

More importantly, Sirisena seems to be bringing India and China on an even keel, a balancing act that could win him accolades in India and brickbats in China. This was made evident when work on the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City Project, backed by the Chinese, was stalled.

During Modi visit last week, India signed four pacts with Sri Lanka: agreement on visas, customs, youth development and building of a Rabindranath Tagore memorial. All these show that India is creating new opportunities with Sri Lanka, rather than trying to devolve China's entrenched influence in the country.

Good for us.

India needs to get back on track with Sri Lanka. We need to build a culture of quid pro quo in our own neighbourhood. We need to put money on the table. We can hope that Sirisena prefers not having to deal only with China's totalitarian system of government. This is where India's diplomacy becomes crucial. A change in government has already reaped benefits. We need our new government to continue reorienting its foreign policy. We need to deepen our economic ties and undertake development projects with our southern neighbour. Good Indo-Sri Lanka relations can serve as a role model for SAARC and help both countries make a push in the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA).

As China becomes our Ravana, Modi can act as Hanuman and bring our 'Sita' back to shore.

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