Sri Lanka as Indian Ocean pivot

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena during an agreement signing ceremony in Colombo.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena during an agreement signing ceremony in Colombo. Photo courtesy PTI

Prime Minister Modi should be congratulated for his bold decision to visit Sri Lanka for a bilateral visit, after Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. Perhaps, Modi has no internal political pressures or coalition objections that had prevented earlier bilateral visits to Sri Lanka.

Having made a breakthrough, Modi should now build a strong partnership with Sri Lanka in achieving long-term national interests of India. Such an approach will have to accommodate the voices and sentiments of its federating units, but not get blackmailed by the latter. In this context, both his visit to Sri Lanka and the earlier visit of the new Sri Lankan President to India a few weeks back, provide a breakthrough, but not a substantial base to erect a bilateral superstructure.

India needs big-ticket items; openings such as visa and custom relaxation, constructing a university stadium and a rail link are important but not grandiose. Both capitals require a strategic edifice that would chart the course. In cricket parlance, both countries should look for a Virat Kohli or Kumara Sangakkara and not a Ravindra Jadeja or Thisara Perera. The latter form a useful contribution in bits and pieces, but do not become a platform for the course of a match.

New Delhi for long has allowed bilateral relations as the primary vehicle of interaction between India and Sri Lanka -both at political and economic levels. Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian fishermen had become New Delhi’s pivot towards Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, the previous governments also allowed the bilateral issues and domestic opposition to dictate in not building a larger partnership with Sri Lanka.

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Today, the rise of the Indian Ocean provides an opportunity for New Delhi to build such a strategic partnership, outside bilateral relations. Geographically the Indian Ocean has become strategic; concepts and issues such as the Indo-Pacific, maritime security and safety of sea lanes of communication, along with new groupings, exercises and dialogues such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, Milan, Indian Ocean Regional Association and the Indian Ocean Dialogue highlight the new reality and potential.

Not just the Indian Ocean, but the entire maritime Asia is an important geography today. US, China, Japan, Australia and the EU – all are extremely interested in the Indian Ocean for economic and security reasons. India has a natural advantage in this region, and with a partnership, should not only aim to exploit the Indian Ocean, but the entire “Maritime Asia”.

India can play a major role in the Indian Ocean, with Sri Lanka as its pivot. Situated a few miles away from the major shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka and its ports, especially Colombo and Hambantota, are strategically located. Perhaps, the Chinese understood this and invested billions of dollars in two projects in the Hambantota deep sea port and the now controversial Colombo Port City.

While India pursues Afghanistan and Myanmar as its gateway to Central Asia and Southeast Asia respectively, and made substantial investments, there has been no similar approach in the South. On the maritime side, Sri Lanka does occupy a crucial position in the Indian Ocean and could become New Delhi’s pivot and gateway.

Elsewhere, in the late 1990s, a few countries came together to establish an “Arctic Council” to discuss issues relating to sustainable development and environmental protection, along with studying climate change, shipping and exploration of oil and gas. Since Modi has renewed India’s approach towards SAARC emphasizing on regional cooperation with “all or some” of the countries, and has already established a BBIN network involving Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, similar sub-regional cooperation can be pursued in the Indian Ocean.

With Sri Lanka and Maldives, India can lead a “SIM Council on the Indian Ocean” focusing on similar issues relating to the Arctic Council such as maritime economy, shipping, climate change etc, and leading to sustainable and inclusive development of the Indian Ocean. While we have made enormous leaps in the space research, our investments and outputs on marine research remain primitive.

Narendra Modi during his address in the Sri Lankan Parliament highlighted the importance of the “ocean economy” holding “enormous promise for both” the countries. The Joint Task Force on Ocean Economy is an important measure in this context, but both countries have to move forward and expand substantially. From marine economy to maritime tourism, the Indian Ocean remains absolutely untapped.

While there have been numerous proposals to link India and Sri Lanka through tourism circuits, linking the port cities for maritime tourism would reap rich dividends. Imagine Cruise Liners linking Goa and Kochi in the western coast of India with Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh through the port cities in Sri Lanka and the eastern coast of India!

Maritime disaster management in the Indian Ocean is another subject, where the proposed SIM Council could undertake substantial research and share experiences in managing it. Marine biology and the biodiversity of the Indian Ocean can become a part of a scientific agenda for the SIM Council.

As the initiative expands, other countries could be brought in. It could expand beyond South Asia and link with West Asia and Southeast Asia. In fact, such an initiative could go well up to East Asia and Australia, with the Indian Ocean becoming the Centre of action.

Outside the SIM Council idea, with a few countries in the Indian Ocean such as Sri Lanka and Maldives, New Delhi can project an “Asian Sea Lane” with support from the World Bank and/or Asian Development Bank.

There have been two similar projects at the Asian level – the Asian Highway and the Asian Railway, supported by the international institutions. Asian Sea Lane can be projected as a maritime extension of the above two projects. India cannot pursue such a big project on its own or along with Colombo and Male. It needs huge financial support; while China may have the ability to build its own Maritime Silk Road, India will need the support of financial institutions and partner countries. From Japan to the EU, and from ADB to WB, such support can be sought for building infrastructure.

Let there be a “Colombo Dialogue” that would bring countries for an initial discussion and provide a platform to discuss the larger idea. In fact, such a democratic platform leading to the creation of an Asian Sea Lane will even help address larger issues and make the process transparent. This will also help India devise its own strategy on the models of the Chinese Maritime Silk Road.

Finally, India will have to move away from a strategy of “do this and don’t do this” vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamil situation and the presence of China undermining India’s position certainly are substantial for New Delhi; but both the issues should not be allowed to overwhelm the bilateral relations.

Modi has started off well with Sri Lanka. He has addressed the bilateral issues without undermining the interest of any particular party. He has signed a few agreements on what could be considered as harmless small-ticket items. Now he has to build large partnerships and establish a few big-ticket items. New Delhi has to be seen as an equal partner by Colombo and a constructive neighbor by the Sri Lankans; that will provide a larger leverage for India in addressing its own bilateral concerns.

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