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India and Sri Lanka re-injects pragmatism into bilateral relations

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    15th Mar, 2021

With the participation of the Indian Air Force Chief and 23 aircraft in the three-day event in Colombo to mark the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), India sought to reaffirm its strong defence cooperation with Sri Lanka.


With the participation of the Indian Air Force Chief and 23 aircraft in the three-day event in Colombo to mark the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), India sought to reaffirm its strong defence cooperation with Sri Lanka.


  • In recent months there have been escalating tensions between India and Sri Lanka, with New Delhi on the receiving end of a series of diplomatic blows from its smaller neighbour.
  • Despite Indian efforts at appeasing the island state’s government, the straggling relationship across the Palk Strait has suffered new setbacks-
    • The Eastern Container Terminal at Colombo’s port saw almost 70% of its traffic come from India and was a key outpost for New Delhi’s export economy.
      • After years of painstaking negotiations, a $700 million deal, a tri-nation MoC (memorandum of cooperation), for developing the Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), was settled between Sri Lanka, Japan and India.
      • But Colombo withdrew its consent from the deal.
  • Sri Lanka has since announced that its Cabinet has cleared a proposal from the Adani Group — the Indian partner identified by New Delhi — and a Japanese firm — to be proposed by Tokyo — for trilateral development of the Western Container Terminal (WCT) in the same port-front.
  • The recent participation of the Indian Air Force Chief and 23 aircraft is a positive development.


What is ‘Priority One’ assurance?

  • By reciprocating Sri Lanka’s past declaration of following an ‘India First’ foreign policy, India has now said that the southern neighbour is the nation’s Priority One’ defence partner.
  • India also reiterated the assurance of fullest cooperation in the field of defence and security.
  • The statement underlined that the participation of the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy aircraft and personnel in the 70th Anniversary celebration of the SLAF is indicative of the growing cooperation, camaraderie and friendship between the Armed Forces of the two nations.
    • A total of 23 Indian Air force (IAF) and Indian Navy aircraft will also partake in the event.
      • The Indian aircraft participated in these events include Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Sarang which will perform an aerobatic display, Surya Kiran planes, Tejas fighter jet, Tejas trainer jet, and Dornier maritime patrol aircraft.

Why Sri Lanka assumes significance for India?

  • Strategic geopolitical relevance: Sri Lanka’s strategic location makes it a crucial partner for all countries in the region. 
  • Sri Lanka has a list of highly strategic ports located among busiest sea lanes of communication.
    • The Lloyds list state Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port is the 25th busiest container port in the world.

Colombo Port is the largest and busiest port in Sri Lanka. Located on the southwestern shores on the Kelani River, it serves as an important terminal in Asia due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean.

  • The island nation is also strategically important to India in terms of its Indian Ocean strategy and in terms of networking of partners for her aims of establishing an Indian Ocean Rim Community.
  • For the Indian Navy, it is important as the switching of naval fleets from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea and vice versa the fleets have to take a round of Sri Lanka.

The Beijing factor

Sri Lanka’s growing Chinese influence has swayed the Indo-Lanka relationship significantly. 

  • Infrastructure projects: In the last 15 years, China has invested heavily in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure projects, triggering panic in New Delhi. China has its footprints everywhere. Hambantota port in the deep-south to Colombo International Financial City (CIFC) is being built on the land reclaimed from Indian Ocean.
  • Tagging the island state on BRI: Geostrategic significance of Sri Lanka is determined by its ports, the entry points to the island. China strategically carved its path years ago, tagging Sri Lanka along with its larger strategic mental map, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 
  • Building modern ports: China is building state of the art gigantic modern ports all along the Indian Ocean to the south of it, in Gwadar, in Pakistan, in Chittagong, in Bangladesh, in Kyauk Phru, in Burma, in Hambantota, in Sri Lanka. Post 2015, Sri Lanka still relies heavily on China for Port city project and for continuation of Chinese funded infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.

What India needs to do?

  • India needs to pay attention towards improving relations with regional power centers and leverage its economic and soft power strengths to optimise diplomatic output even as its global grandstanding is on.
  • Additional involvement of the corporate and business sector, education and information technology are some potential areas of greater interaction.
  • India’s foreign policy goals need to be motivated by realism rather than ideals such as democracy promotion. At last, India must remain a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean.


To conclude, India and Sri Lanka have injected pragmatism into bilateral relations, which began disappearing after China’s entry through the Hambantota port deal a decade ago. Now, there is greater understanding of India’s strategic concerns and what Sri Lanka seems to perceive as ‘commercial transaction’. This could mean that after a brief hiccup, if it came to that, the two nations would be able to take forward bilateral relations, independent of the Indian decision on the UNHRC vote, and Sri Lanka’s greater reliance on China for the purpose.


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