An Exploration of Sri Lankan Strategy in the Aftermath of LTTE
D. Gnanagurunathan

Sri Lanka offering Pakistan and China a greater role to end the ethnic conflict perhaps can be explained through India’s reluctance to intervene in the conflict. But in the post-LTTE Sri Lanka, the increasing frequency of Pakistani high-ranking officials and leaders’ visit to Sri Lanka and the rising level of Sri Lanka’s engagement with Pakistan, including the defence sector, requires a renewed look at Sri Lankan strategy. Sri Lanka’s continued engagement of India’s strategic adversaries after having secured its territorial integrity from LTTE’s secessionist threat raises concern for Indian security. Pakistani Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was on a three day official visit to Sri Lanka from 19 to 21 January 2011. Pakistan Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari visited Sri Lanka at the end of November and the beginning of December 2010.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan President's dictum according to his 'Mahinda Chintana' was to pursue a non-aligned, free and progressive foreign policy, which would give priority to Asian countries including India, Japan, China and Pakistan. As Sri Lanka continues to strengthen its relationship with Pakistan and China as well as India ranging from economic to military exchanges, it raises questions pertaining to the factors that drive them. To what extent Sri Lanka is pursuing a non-aligned policy or it is following a refined realpolitik playing one against another exploiting its growing geo-strategic importance. The prevailing Indian predicament of negotiating its strategic adversaries – China and Pakistan – not only on its Eastern and Western borders but also on its Southern flank through their increasing presence in Sri Lanka warrants attention.

A cursory view of Sri Lankan strategic behaviour since its independence has pointed in the direction of a classic small state behaviour. As a newly independent nation emerging from its colonial past, Sri Lanka was mindful of the emerging bipolar world order and its place as a weak player in the international system. As Sri Lanka was striving to find its place in the system, soon after its post-independent years, Sri Lanka moved closer to the communist bloc, but the seventies witnessed Sri Lanka tilting towards the West. Nonetheless, geographical proximity and dominant power of India influenced Sri Lankan behaviour to a greater extent, although Sri Lanka figured less prominently in Indian strategic map.

However, the relationship between India and Sri Lanka though remained amicable in general, it had ruptures too, for instance Sri Lankan air fuelling of Pakistani planes during 1971 Bangladesh War or IPKF debacle. The increased geo-strategic importance of Sri Lanka (read China factor) in the new millennium as a major transit point between West Asia and South-east Asia for oil transportation has changed the security dynamics of South Asia as well as Sri Lankan strategy. Further, Sri Lanka procured armaments extensively from Pakistan and China in its effort to end the decades old civil war, when India confined itself to training, intelligence, and provision of surveillance and reconnaissance equipments – mainly defensive systems. Moreover, the increased involvement of Pakistan and China in economic and infrastructural activities in post-conflict Sri Lanka have strategic implications for India. But the explanation that China is pursuing its commercial and economic interests as Sri Lanka strives to rebuild its war torn country has limited resonance as the profitability of many of the projects could be questionable. Further, although Sri Lanka restrained itself from engaging in a military partnership with China, it has decided to hold annual defence dialogue and increase high-level military exchanges with China. These pose if not immediate but long-term security challenges to India, especially in the Indian Ocean region.

Therefore, although Sri Lanka has been sensitive to India's security and strategic concerns to a certain extent, it has always found new directions in its strategic calculus to attract other powers -- even if they are inimical to India's interests at times -- to attain its strategic objectives, mostly internal, especially war against Tamil separatism. India’s reluctance, foreign policy analysts attribute to domestic political pressure, to facilitate Sri Lanka to obtain its strategic and security goals forced it to look for other powers for assistance towards that end. Both China and Pakistan found Sri Lanka attractive for attaining one of their strategic goals of limiting India’s power and influence in the region. But Sri Lanka’s continuation of the same strategy despite ending the militant separatism demonstrates its realist policy orientation than non-aligned. Besides, Sri Lanka also finds China more attractive as an emerging great power. Nonetheless, India has taken certain initiatives to reorient its policy measures to lessen the impact during the visit of Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar: India has held its first defence dialouge with Sri Lanka; both the sides have decided to hold naval exercises and India has agreed to accommodate additional Sri Lankan soldiers in its defence training colleges despite shortage of seats. But they pale in comparison to what China has recently offered to Sri Lanka: the Chinese made JF-17 fighter air craft (also known as FC-1). Perhaps, India can offer incentives that are more attractive than China and Pakistan in terms of military hardware, economic packages and trade concessions to assuage Sri Lanka’s new strategic goals so as to gain advantage over its adversaries if it were to secure its southern flank. Nonetheless, policy experts argue that such a step is politically unviable as it would affect electoral outcome in Tamil Nadu, where the coalition partner of incumbent goverment is facing a crucial election. Even though the Eelam War IV had created a debate during the last general election in Tamil Nadu, the electoral outcome belied its significance.

However, India has to continue its long-held policy of protecting the rights of Tamil citizens until an amicable settlement is reached within unified Sri Lanka without jeopardising its security. Further, India needs to take steps to accelerate the yet to start 50, 000 housing scheme in the North. In addition, India can also assist Sri Lanka through exporting low priced commodities and loans with lower interest rates to overcome its present economic crisis. Moreover, Indian expertise in technical education and english language training can be extened to Sri Lanka as it is revamping its educational system in a major way. Therefore, it is imperative that any 'reluctant realism' on India’s part can squander its geo-strategic advantage vis-à-vis other powers in the South Asian region.

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Published date 25 February, 2011

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