Modi’s Sri Lanka visit and security of two nations


by Hemantha Dayaratne

Generally, a visit by a state leader to another state is always significant and it is news. So is the news of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Sri Lanka and it has deeper meanings beyond the customary diplomatic show off particularly connecting to national security concerns of the two states. The visit took place after Modi’s inauguration as the leader of India for the second consecutive term. The Indian premier is also the first international leader to visit the island nation following disastrous Easter attacks.

The visit is significant for two reasons. First, it provided a positive image to the world on Sri Lanka’s current security level. Second, President Maithripala Sirisena despite backstabbing from sections of his national unity government has been able to handle diplomatic relations with other nations in an adroit manner. President Sirisena therefore, deserves credit for achievements on the diplomatic front.

Being neighbours, Sri Lanka and India should strengthen their bonds for strategic as well as security reasons. It is simply because geography cannot be altered by any of either of the two nations or any other which has already made significant inroads into the Indian Ocean region which is considered India’s domain. Global powers rise, project their power beyond their territories and waters over a period of time and then fall. No powerful nation has been in dominance forever in this world. However, in contrast the geography of countries is permanent and not time bound. Thus, Sri Lanka and India will have to remain as two neighouring states in the Indian Ocean region.

India would have been better off, if there had been no country located off her southern tip. The reason is that such a geographical picture offers India unhindered opportunities to dominate and exploit the Indian Ocean region, not only within any level of an imagined exclusive economic zone in such a setting but, deep down to the edge of the Antarctic. However, we are there!

There are discrepancies in the regional order. India and Sri Lanka, even though they are neighours, the two states haven’t been able to consolidate themselves as really unified modern nation states as yet. Geographical boundaries of the two States are not based ethnicities and thus ethnic tensions transcend their shores, weakening national security of both countries. As evident, India had to contend with the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh on religious lines while Sri Lanka got embroiled in a conflict based on ethnicity after Independence. These two security issues exist at varying levels.

In this context, the reelection of PM Modi offers much promise to Sri Lanka as regards its national security issues. He, in fact, has introduced the concept, ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth of All Regions) for this purpose and it is likely to reinforce India’s ‘neighourhood first policy’ enhancing the security of the region including Sri Lanka as well. Modi’s expression of solidarity during his short trip to Sri Lanka to the government under President Sirisena against ISIS backed Jihadist extremist terrorism, is a clear indication that the two countries are now determined to work together to eradicate the new form of extremism.

It is important to know what influences and shapes India’s Sri Lanka policy. This country is too important not to be left out by India in any of her strategic defence planning. Sri Lanka will be an unsinkable aircraft career for India if the international security situation turns against India. The British colonial empire following the takeover of India considered the annexation of Sri Lanka, which it grabbed from the Dutch republic during Napoleonic wars as it, too, feared that this middle sized island if captured by another power could pose challenges to the security of mainland India. However, physical annexation of countries for defence is now an old, difficult, costly and a belated strategy. The best policy in the present day for any rising power and in this case for India towards Sri Lanka is mutual cooperation. The two democracies have many similarities despite the asymmetry in terms of size, wealth, power etc. between them. This ground reality has been a plus point for Sri Lanka as regards its national security.

In essence, India needs a stable Sri Lanka in her backyard and the latter, too, needs the former for several reasons including its own survival. Both know this geopolitical game and so the mutual understanding has taken root and is discernible if one makes a careful look at the recent Sri Lanka’s conflict history Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE terrorism in 2009, completely on her soil and it would not have been a reality if India had not acted wisely, managing Tamil Nadu. There were other threats to Sri Lanka. For example, the over internationalization of its armed conflict by the Norwegian led peace process had by then allowed world powers to secure a foothold here, endangering the security of both India and Sri Lanka. With the notion of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), sections of the Tamil Diaspora connected to the LTTE, even attempted to bring a United Nations peace keeping force here. There were international plans also to demarcate sea areas for the LTTE arbitrarily. India’s silence at times and unobservable support on many occasions prevented Sri Lanka from being torn apart. In the most recent case, India provided real time intelligence even though Sri Lanka failed to thwart the Easter terrors attacks in the country and these are clear indications that India needs Sri Lanka safe.

Besides, there are some other lessons to be learnt in hindsight by Sri Lankan leaders. Following the election victory, Modi appointed Subrahmanyam Jaishankar a non Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) member but a former veteran foreign secretary cum technocrat to his Cabinet to serve as his powerful Minister of External Affairs. This is a clear indication that India will certainly project her power both soft and hard, and Modi’s journey to Sri Lanka after the Maldives was an instance of soft power project for the benefit of both countries.

Contrary to the notable behaviour of Indian politicians, their equals in Sri Lanka seem unsupportive of the Executive in pursuit of national security even after a national tragedy. This can be seen from the ongoing proceedings of the Parliamentary Select Committee probing the Easter terror attacks. Sri Lanka’s governing politicians should learn this lesson from Modi’s new Cabinet that unity matters in the pursuit of national interest.

In this context, President Maithripala Sirisena’s efforts to safeguard Sri Lanka’s national security with the help of PM Modi’s regional security arrangements deserves assistance from politicians and professionals in the Armed Forces and the diplomatic community.

(The writer is a former Army officer, a lecturer at Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) and Visiting Fellow of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi)

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