VIF-Pathfinder Foundation Sri Lanka Bilateral Dialogue
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The online bilateral dialogue held on 11 Oct 2022 was co- chaired by Dr Arvind Gupta, Director Vivekananda International Foundation, India and former Amb. Bernard Goonetilleke, Chairman Pathfinder Foundation, Sri Lanka. The dialogue was attended by speaker Amb Ashok Kantha, Admiral Satish Soni (retd), Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney (retd), former Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, and Rear Admiral Dimuthu Gunawardena (retd) and scholars and practitioners from both sides. These are some of the salient points brought out by the Chairs, speakers and ensuing discussion.

India and Sri Lanka have always been close neighbours, remaining engaged through the decades. During the present difficult times India has tried to stand by Sri Lanka through the crises. A prosperous Sri Lank is in India’s interest. Through bilateral and regional initiatives, India and Sri Lanka have undertaken several joint programmes for enhancing connectivity, trade and investment to build greater people to people contact and ensuring deepening of trust and confidence between the two neighbours. The progress is visible in variety of sectors.

Security remains an important aspect of bilateral ties between India and Sri Lanka too. The concept of national security is a broad based, it includes all aspects of land security, maritime, cyber space and environmental security factored in too. Between India and Sri Lanka all these aspects of security are important. India and Sri Lanka discuss maritime security annually. Many joint exercises are undertaken each year including HADR. There are many bilateral and regional mechanisms in place for ensuring peace and development of the Indian Ocean region. What Sri Lankan navy wants India has always delivered.

India has developed the Indian Ocean framework as part of overall Indian security framework and it is also playing an important role in evolution of Quad platform.

It was pointed out that Sri Lanka’s first interaction with China was through land route. Illustrious personalities / monks have visited India and Sri Lanka. Several centuries later the maritime interaction started 4th cent AD. Sri Lanka and China have enjoyed uninterrupted connectivity too. China has played an important role in the region as well as bilaterally with Sri Lanka including developing Belt Road Initiative.

Geographically, Sri Lanka is an extension of Indian sub-continent consequently any development in Sri Lanka affects interest of the other. The strategic location has helped Sri Lanka develop trade and commerce. It has also suffered conquest during war times. Geography comes with specific duties and responsibilities. It must be aware that it is not exploited by others to the detriment of itself as well as the neighbors’ power, small and big. Threat can be real or perceived, traditional and non- traditional. Threat perception in Indian Ocean by India is vastly different from those perceived by Sri Lankans. Indian Ocean is playing a dominant role now in international politics, thus the economy and commerce of the new players has scope for power rivalry and armed confrontation in Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal is real. We have to be cognizant of the changing position and needs to observe development regularly. For India it is important to understand how Sri Lanka views China in the region. The Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean must be made secure and safe and China’s role has led to doubts and apprehensions about its intention. Arguably, Quad is a response to China’s growing assertiveness in in Indian Ocean and East China Sea and South China Sea. China cannot be ignored in security calculus especially in maritime security. Thus it is important that India discuss China with Sri Lanka and examine ways to make Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean safe. India and Sri Lanka both share a broad position on Indian Ocean and India would like to need to gain support of Sri Lanka in Indo-Pacific.

There is need to understand each other’s security concerns with greater clarity. As is known India and Sri Lanka have reiterated that they have special relationship and are mindful of each other’s concerns both security and strategic. India has often been referred to as family by Sri Lankan leaders. Sri Lanka has a tendency to balance India and China and is often reluctant to take side. Also some sections in Sri Lanka have the proclivity to use China as intervening force – such an approach has suboptimal outcome for both. Sri Lanka needs to move out of this situation to balance each out as their positions very different.

So far as the security dynamics are concerned Sri Lanka needs to locate it in the context of the larger regional context and see how it can safeguard its assets abroad? Concern about dual use port facilities remain as China is moving towards developing bases as well as for commercial use. China has largest naval assets with China expanding its footprints in Indian Ocean. China has 100 port terminals in 63 countries including Sri Lanka.

It is important to analyse how the two neighbours can interact in face of challenges? Sri Lanka must take responsibility for lack of clarity of strategy and consistency; and it is difficult to understand Sri Lankan position. Also at the same time demands on Sri Lanka from India, USA and China too has been a problem. Blindly bandwagoning with one power disregarding the other powers has been an insensitive policy by Colombo. Sri Lanka has been following non alignment i.e. ideologically not aligned to any one power. Neutrality has been an important issue for Sri Lanka too. This operationally has often been a problem. It has not been able to engage India through sustainable policies. Sri Lanka has received much help from India. But for Sri Lanka it is rather uncomfortable to face the aggressive push made by India and China or by others. For Colombo making a choice has been difficult.

The issue of Chinese vessel docking in Hambantota was discussed too. The Government of Sri Lanka approved a logistic turnaround of a Chinese surveillance vessel, the Yuan Wang 5 research vessel, capable of satellite control and missile tracking capabilities at the Hambantota Port from 11-17 August. Whilst Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence contended that the visit of the Chinese research vessel was ‘routine’ and was approved by the previous government, there were muted concerns in India.

The quality of Sri Lankan diplomacy in India has undergone a sea change since August 2021 following the appointment of Milinda Morogodaas Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India. Moving ahead, the neighbours need to build on strong foundation of security and defence cooperation. India is a preferred partner for defence training for SL. This is an asset in bilateral ties.

India and Sri Lanka need to identity trigger points and resolve them before they blow up further. It was agreed upon that bilateral dialogues on sensitive issues are necessary to deepen the bilateral ties and have better understanding of each other. Pragmatic mechanism should be put in place to avoid adversarial situations. Forming an empowered group who can talk to each other will go a long way in addressing many of the outstanding issues.

Event Date 
October 11, 2022

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