Through a combination of bad luck and poor calculation Sri Lanka has emerged as a point of contention between India and China. It is not a source of military confrontation, for all the noises about submarines that may or may not be docking in Colombo. It is not even a source of diplomatic sparring. Sri Lanka made itself a geopolitical concern, it did two things that small countries should avoid. One, it sought to play a China card to fend off Indian pressure over a political settlement with the country’s Tamil minority.
Two, part of the Lankan political leadership decided it could guarantee its domestic dominance by accepting billions from Beijing. Either one of these policies would have led India to take countermeasures. The consequences of Sri Lanka of all this manoeuvering: A mountain of high-interest Chinese debt, a number of economically questionable infrastructure projects and far too much attention from the world’s major powers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- in keeping with his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy -- has now sensibly visited Sri Lanka twice in as many years. Under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka came to see China as a solution to all its problems. While all this went down poorly with New Delhi, it helped precipitate the coalition that brought Maithripala Sirisena to office and left Sri Lanka saddled with huge debts, there can be no getting away from a permanent China presence on the island.
India’s response has been suitably measured. New Delhi has declined to help Sri Lanka reduce its debts but has signed up for a number of projects and investments to help the country grow itself out of its debt problems. Fortunately, Beijing’s extortionist interest rates and its attempts to convert the debt into land holdings have resulted in strong civil protests in Sri Lanka and led even Mr Rajapaksa to criticise China’s plans. Sri Lanka’s problems are acute enough that they have raised alarm bells in other countries who have signed up to China’s Belt Road Initiative.
The other side to all this is a broader hearts and minds issue. Mr Modi spoke at a Buddhist conference and then to the Indian-origin plantation workers, earning points with both communities. The island nation is deeply polarised thanks to the bitterness of the civil war, even within the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. This makes its public overly suspicious of the designs of external players and prone to judging third countries on the basis of ethnic biases rather than the merits of actual policies. Many more visits and considerable attention will be required by India to bring true serendipity to the bilateral relationship.