Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | India has few options in the Sri Lanka crisis

It is operating under structural constraints that narrow its strategic space in South Asia

Two weeks and change is a long time in a crisis such as the one Sri Lanka is undergoing. Much can happen by 16 November when President Maithripala Sirisena reconvenes parliament. But short of a “bloodbath" of the kind speaker of parliament Karu Jayasuriya has warned of, Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa are likely to be able to hold on until then. That would almost certainly mean a Rajapaksa premiership three years after he lost the presidency. New Delhi knows the calculus. Thus, it has now initiated diplomatic and political contact with Rajapaksa. But it has few good choices when it comes to its prime concern: the growth of Beijing’s influence.

In the immediate aftermath of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ouster from the office of prime minister last week, New Delhi issued a cautious statement hoping that “democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected". It has held to this, with officials stating that it is ready to do business with whoever is in power as long as the appointment is in line with the constitution. Constantino Xavier has argued in the Hindustan Times that this interest in the preservation of a democratic political structure underwrites India’s regional strategy for security in the face of Chinese expansionism in South Asia. Stronger democratic institutions serve as a check on Chinese influence, the argument goes.

However, the structural constraints on New Delhi’s strategic space in South Asia go deeper than that. India is in an unenviable position. It is a regional power that is large enough for the asymmetrical nature of its relationship with its neighbours to make them nervous. But it is also a status quo power that lacks the economic and military muscle of the extra-regional revisionist power its neighbours inevitably look to as a balancer. That makes the question of who is in power—or which political systems are in place—subordinate.

History, both recent and otherwise, bears this out; the broad dynamic held true before China’s rise as well. For instance, in 1971, months after India had responded to Sri Lanka’s—then Ceylon’s—call for assistance against the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna revolt, the latter provided refuelling facilities for Pakistani air force planes during the East Pakistan crisis. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) fiasco—aided by New Delhi’s missteps—where fear of becoming a client state, among other things, led President Ranasinghe Premadasa to temporarily ally with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is another example.

Rajapaksa, of course, was perceived as being close to Beijing during his decade in power with good reason. The materiel for his campaign against the LTTE came from China. The Hambantota project went through on his watch, as did a number of other infrastructure projects that were handed over to Chinese companies and funded by loans from Chinese banks. His relationship with New Delhi, meanwhile, alternated between periods of tension and rapprochement.

But for all that Sirisena took office in 2015 on the back of an anti-China campaign—and allegedly with Indian backing—Beijing’s influence has remained considerable. Some Chinese projects have been cancelled, certainly; for example, a $300 million housing deal to build 40,000 houses was taken from a Chinese company and given to an Indian company. However, a combination of Sri Lanka’s infrastructure needs, Chinese leverage in the form of debt, Chinese largesse and the weaponization of the New Delhi relationship in domestic politics meant that Sirisena and the Wickremesinghe government grew more conciliatory towards Beijing. It was Wickremesinghe’s cabinet that cleared the Hambantota 99-year lease in debt-for-equity swap when Beijing called in its marker, for instance. New Delhi, meanwhile, has found itself drawn into the increasing tension between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe—a familiar pattern in the democratic politics of its South Asian neighbours. Its attempts to counter China’s footprint in Sri Lanka with projects such as the Trincomalee oil tank farms, Matala and Palaly airports and an LNG terminal in Kerawalapitiya have become collateral damage.

After his defeat in 2015, Rajapaksa has attempted to improve his equation with New Delhi, including with a visit last month. This is understandable; New Delhi is too close and too consequential to be ignored or heedlessly antagonized. But as the tenures of both Rajapaksa and his successors showed, pushing back against Beijing’s influence is not easy no matter who is in power. And Sri Lanka’s current economic woes—its gross domestic product growth fell to a 16-year-low last year and its high short-term debt, much of it held by China, means that it is at risk of a currency crisis—means more leverage for Beijing. New Delhi is right to play it by ear as of now. The problem is that its structural constraints mean that it has few other options.

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