Sirisena is new Sri Lankan president: What it means for ties with India

  • Krittivas Mukherjee, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 10, 2015 08:13 IST

The ouster of President Mahinda Rajapaksa could once again bring the shine back in ties between India and Sri Lanka, whose historically friendly relations have entangled of late in a wider contest for influence between New Delhi and Beijing.

New Delhi and Beijing both have large stakes in the island nation that is still emerging from a bloody war the government forces won against the Tamil Tigers, in part with support from China. In return, a grateful Rajapaksa allowed large strategic investments by China and used its proximity with Beijing to counter-balance its larger neighbour, India.

Since then, India has been keen to get Sri Lanka back in its fold, fearful that failing to do so would mean ceding a strategic spot in the Indian Ocean where China is trying to build up a presence. A Chinese attack submarine was recently stopped off Colombo, setting off alarm bells in New Delhi.

Commercially too Sri Lanka remains vital, sitting next to shipping lanes that feed 80% of China's and 65% of India's oil needs.

Now, strategic analysts expect a bullish change in ties for India.

“What we can expect is a period of better relations,” said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

“Our anxiety with Sri Lanka was two-fold – the treatment of ethnic Tamils there and our anxiety about our security. On both counts the change should be for the better.”

Many Tamils in Sri Lanka have felt abandoned since the war's end in 2009, when Rajapaksa largely ignored their demands to heal the wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions.

For India, the Rajapaksa government’s treatment of Tamils of Indian origin had been a constant source of disagreements and friction. New Delhi could now hope to get clearer understanding and satisfaction on how ethnic Tamils will be treated and on their acceptance as equal citizens alongside ethnic Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.

“We have been asking for a smoother relationship with the Tamil community there,” said SD Muni, professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a winner of the ‘Sri Lanka Ratna’, the island nation’s highest civilian honor for a non-national.

To be sure, Maithripala Sirisena, the new president is a Sinhala nationalist who is yet to come out strongly in support of the integration of ethnic Tamils into the Sri Lankan society. Neither has he come out strongly against Rajapaksa’s pro-China stand.

Indeed, Sirisena told Hindustan Times this week that "we will revert to the old, non-aligned policy" and that "India is our first, main concern. But we are not against Chinese investment either. We will maintain good relations with China too.”

While Sri Lanka under a new government may not entirely disengage China given its surging cash reliance on Beijing to build its infrastructure, New Delhi could look forward to a correction in Colombo’s strategic proximity to Beijing as well as an overall rebalancing of the island nation’s external relations.

“Sri Lanka is likely to be more sensitive to Indian concerns about third-party security presence in that country,” said Mansingh.

Bilateral ties under Sirisena will likely see more focus on the state of Sri Lanka's economy.

Given that a strategic relationship is also governed by trade, India will have a lot of room to manoeuvre in Sri Lanka. India supplies a bulk of Sri Lanka’s oil and much of its investments in the island nation are outright grants. In comparison, some 98% of Chinese investments there are soft loans. The long stalled Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between the two countries could see new momentum.

“Overall, Sirisena could be good news for India,” said Prof Muni.

“Both countries have new government, hence can start fresh.”

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