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South Asia

Mare Nostrum for Indian Ocean and Sri Lanka’s “India First” foreign policy



Authors: Punsara Amarasinghe and Eshan Jayawardane*

Sri Lanka has been often portrayed as being in the crossroads of geopolitical encounters with powerful nations throughout its history and its unique geographic location in Indian ocean closer to the Indian mainland, yet distinct from it has made the island’s destiny extremely intertwined with India. Sri Lanka’s own historical identity is the best testimony proving how crucially India has played its influence in island nation’s destiny. From one side it has been an inexplicable factor that how Sinhalese community who represent the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka perceive India as their stances on India embody a love-hate story. While they worship India as the county that brought Buddhism as a spiritual gift, the antagonism towards Indian among the Sinhalese is deeply rooted in the psyche of the people with the intense nationalist rhetoric which has always portrayed India as an invading force throughout Sri Lankan history. When India became an independent nation-state at the end of the British raj, there was a strong proposition arose from India’s scholar diplomat K.M Panikkar regarding the need of immediate cooperation among India, Burma and Sri Lanka as a pre-requisite for a “realistic policy of Indian defence “. In Panikkar’s fascination on making Indian Ocean “Mare Nostrum “to uphold India’s position, he further stated 

“The first and primary consideration is that both Burma and Ceylon must form with India the basic federation for mutual defence whether they will it or not. It is necessary for their own security”.(K.B Vaidya, The National Defence of India, 1949, p.30 )

 Even Nehru himself had pointed to the ethnic, linguistic and cultural unity of India and Sri Lanka to support the view that later would inevitably be drawn into a closer union with India. Nehru’s approach to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was not a euphoric claim emerged in the eve of India’s independence mixed with mere chauvinist effusions, because many of Indian policymakers and strategists believe that departure of British power from Indian Ocean region has enthroned newly independent India as the natural successor to Britain as the guardian of the Indian Ocean. 

 However, it was evident that Sri Lanka’s attitude to Indian in her foreign policy was sceptical in the first decade after independence with growing fear pervaded among Ceylonese politicians on a possible annexation of Sri Lanka to the Union of India. It was under this tense perception Sri Lanka’s first premier D. S Senanayake was eager to cementing a defence alliance with Great Britain which he considered being a practical necessity for Sri Lanka’s defence. It is a fact beyond any conjecture that India’s interest Indian ocean and Sri Lanka’s unique location in it are been decisive factors on carving the directions of every aspect of Indo- Sri Lanka relations. Indian naval historian Ravi Kaul wrote in the early 1970s about the strategic importance of Sri Lanka to the defence of India. Kaul stated

“Sri Lanka is important strategically to India as Eire to the United Kingdom. As long as Sri Lanka is friendly or neutral, India has nothing to worry about but if there be any danger of the island falling under the domination of a power hostile to India, India cannot tolerate such a situation endangering her territorial integrity “ ( 1974, Indian Ocean Power Rivalry, pp.66 )

These words still echo in New Delhi’s strategists in planning their foreign policy attitude towards Sri Lanka regardless of whatever the political changes taking place in both countries. In particular, the growing rivalry between China and India in the Indian Ocean stands as a crucial factor on the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka. Even decades before China embarked upon their ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, in 1963, China and Sri Lanka entered into a Maritime Agreement giving most favoured nation status to the contracting partied agitated Indian public opinion at that time as Delhi suspected that such an agreement would provide facilities to Chinese warships.

However, the stir created by Sri Lanka’s close ties with China in the aftermath of the Civil War was a notable factor in the recent past.  The visit of the Chinese submarine in 2014 to Colombo harbour reached the climax of India’s tension on Chinese involvement in the island nation and Indian ocean. Given this critical background newly elected government of Sri Lanka’s “India First” policy seems to be a piece of consoling news for the policymakers in New Delhi. The statement made by Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage has affirmed Sri Lanka would adhere to “India First “policy in dealing with strategic security issues which would not undermine the interests of India while dealing with other players for the economic development. This position has given a clear signal to India about a paradigm shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy which was weighing between New Delhi and Beijing for years, but the acceptance of India’s position in Indian ocean by Colombo and her willingness to comply with it is a diplomatic triumph gained by India from the Sri Lankan government under president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

In his statement, the foreign secretary has accepted handing over of the Hambantota Port to China under 99 years lease was one of the biggest blunders made by Sri Lanka paving the path for India’s great anxiety over China’s role in IOR (Indian Ocean Region). A detailed report by Pentagon to the US Congress has clearly shown that today the Chinese navy stands as the largest navy in the world which consists of 350 warships with two aircraft careers and the report issued by Pentagon to the US Congress indicates that China is determined to build another two aircraft careers with the eventual goal of overtaking the US. Yet, India’s unique geopolitical advantage will be a greater setback for China to reach its dominance in the Indian Ocean Region. Taking china biggest geopolitical headache Malacca dilemma into consideration, it is evident that India has the biggest advantage thwart Chinese naval engagements in the high seas of IOR and the closer ties with Sri Lankan government under their newly adopted doctrine “India First” policy would make India’s task easy in its grip over Indian Ocean region. Indeed, it will be the realization of what K.M Panikkar dreamed about the Indian Ocean as Mare Nostrum in the eve of Indian independence.

Nevertheless, it is an indispensable reality to fathom that Sri Lanka is another country that has fallen to China’s debt trap and its long-term consequences can always play a bigger role in the foreign policymaking in the island nation. Even in the statement made by Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka needs to look for other players for economic prosperity while giving first priority to India’s security concerns. In this situation Modi’s government needs to understand that assisting Sri Lanka to spur its investments, reduce its debt burden will Colombo’s affinity with New Delhi harmoniously without pushing Sri Lanka towards China due to economic imperatives.

*Eshan Jayawardane is an independent researcher currently based in New Zealand. He holds BA in Sociology from Delhi University and completed MA in International Relations at JNU in New Delhi. He served as a guest lecturer at Sri Lanka Open University.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD candidate at Institute of Law and Politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa Italy. He held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and obtained his Masters from International Law at South Asian University, New Delhi. He served as a visiting lecturer at Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo Sri Lanka and author can be reached at punsaraprint10[at]

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South Asia

Bhashan Char Relocation: Bangladesh’s Effort Appreciated by UN



Bhashan Char. Image source:

Bhashan Char, situated in the district of Noakhali, is one of the 75 islands of Bangladesh. To ease the pressure on the digested camps in Cox’s Bazar and to maintain law and order, Bangladesh has relocated about 18,500 Rohingya refugees from the overcrowded camps to the island since December last year. The Rohingya relocation plan to Bhashan Char aligns with the Bangladesh government’s all-encompassing efforts towards repatriation. The initial plan was to relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the clogged camps to the island. From the onset of the relocation process, the UN and some other human rights organizations criticized the decision pointing to remoteness and sustainability. UNHCR showed their concern over the island’s susceptibility to seasonal storm and flood. They proposed for a “technical assessment” of the Bhashan Char facilities.

An 18-member UN delegation visited Bhashan Char Island on March 17 this year to have a first-hand assessment of the housing facility for the Rohingya forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). Shortly after the UN’s visit, a team with 10 diplomats including heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands also went to the island on April 3 to appraise the facilities. All the members of the technical team opined that they are ‘satisfied’ with the facilities in Bhashan Char. The experts of the UN told, they will hand over a 10-page report of their annotations and they have already submitted a two-page abridgment. On April 16, they released the two-page synopsis after a month of the visit.  After the three-day study of Bhashan Char by the UN delegates, they recommended the Bangladesh government to continue the relocation process to the island in a ‘phased manner’. The team twigged three points – education for Rohingya children, increasing heights of the embankments and better communication system. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh A. K. Abdul Momen concerted to take the necessary measures to create a safe and secure environment for the Rohingya refugees until the repatriation takes place. The relocation is not the solution of the Rohingya crisis rather the over emphasis of the relocation and facilities inside Bangladesh is protracting the crisis and distracting the attention from the broader emphasis on the repatriation to Myanmar.

The UNHCR and other concerned parties should plan for a long run repatriation process. Repatriation is the only durable solution, not the relocation of the Rohingya refugees. For the time being, resettlement under the Asrayan-3 project is an ease for the FDMNs but in the long run the Rohingya crisis is going to turn as a tremendous threat for regional peace and stability. Besides, resentment in the host community in Bangladesh due to the scarce resources may emerge as a critical security and socio-economic concern for Bangladesh.  It is not new that the Rohingyas are repatriated in Myanmar during the Military rule. Around 20,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated to Myanmar in the 2000s. The focus of the world community should be creating favourable conditions for the Rohingyas to return safely regardless who is in the power seat of Myanmar-civilian or military government. The UN should largely focus on repatriating the Rohingya refugees in a “phased manner”, let alone deciding their concern in the camps and the Bhashan Char. After the praiseworthy relocation plan, they should now concentrate on implementing speedy and durable repatriation. Proactive initiatives are essential from all walks for a safe and dignified return of the FDMNs. To be specific, the relocation is a part of the repatriation, not the solution of the problem. 

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South Asia

Afghan peace options



President Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally all foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will leave behind an uncertain and genuine security concerns that ramifications will be born by Afghanistan as well as the region.

The Taliban seems least interested in peace talks with the Afghan government and appear determined to take control of the entire afghan government territory by force during post-withdrawal of American forces. Short of the total surrender, Afghan government has no possible influence to force the Taliban to prefer talks over violence. Resultantly, the apprehensions that Afghanistan could plunge into another civil war runs very high.

The consequences of yet another civil war will be deadly for Afghanistan and the whole region as well. Among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the severe burnt of an escalation of violence in particular. A civil war or possible Taliban takeover will surely upsurge and reinvigorate the Islamic militancy in Pakistan, thus threatening to lose the hard won gains made against militancy over the past decade.

The afghan and Pakistani Taliban, nevertheless, are the two sides of the same coin. Coming back to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is surely emboldened and revives Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, spread of violence not only reduce all chances of repatriation of refugees but possibly increase the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Furthermore, worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan will jeopardize the prospects of  trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives such as china-Pakistan economic corridor. The chances of Gawadar and Karachi port to become a transit trade route for the region and link the energy rich region of central asia will become bleak until a sustainable peace and stability is achieved in Afghanistan.

It is against this background that the successful end of the intra-afghan talk is highly required for Pakistan, for its own sake.  Officially, Islamabad stated policy is to ensure the afghan-led and afghan-owned peace solution of the afghan conflict. It helped in bringing the Taliban on the negotiation table, which finally resulted in the signing of the Doha deal between US and Taliban. Further, Pakistan has time and again pressurized the Taliban to resume the dialogue. Moreover, Islamabad holds that, unlike in the past when it wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, it aims to develop a friendly and diplomatic relation whoever is on the power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding the stated policy and position of the Islamabad, the afghan government and the many in the US remains dubious of Pakistan’s commitment. Against these concerns, Islamabad categorically stated that it does not have complete control over the Taliban.

The success of the peace process will require coordination and cooperation among the all regional actors and the US and afghan government. Pakistan’s role is of an immense significance because of its past relation with the Taliban. There is no denying of the fact that Pakistan has not complete control over the Taliban. Despite, it has more leverage than the other actors in the region.

The Islamabad’s willingness to use its influence over the Taliban is her real test in the achievement of peace process. However, Pakistan has successfully used its leverage and brought the Taliban on negotiations table. Although, history is the testimony of the fact that mere cajoling won’t dissuade the Taliban from unleashing violence.

The prospects of intra-afghan talks will develop in success when the cajoling strategy is backed up by with credible threats of crackdown which may involve denial of safe heaven to militant leaders and their families, stopping medical treatment, and disruption of finance etc. on the other hand, strong arm tactics fail to bring the Taliban to the table, then Pakistan should make sure that its territory is not used to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

The afghan peace process has an opportunity for Pakistan to bury its hatchets with Afghanistan and start its diplomatic journey with a new vigor. While Kabul every time attach its failure with the Pakistan and shun away from its responsibility of providing peace to people of Afghanistan, it has a fair point about our pro Taliban afghan policy. Now that the US is leaving Afghanistan, it is high time that Pakistan bring forth a shift in its Afghanistan policy. Sustainable peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-fata region is unlikely to achieve without Pakistan contributing to peace in Afghanistan.    

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South Asia

Pakistani Fanatics and their Foreign Policy Overtures



A prudent leader ought to have regard not only for present troubles but also for future ones. They must prepare with every energy because, when foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time. Through not having been foreseen, they have been permitted to grow in a way that everyone can see them, there is no longer a remedy. These words are famously attributed to 16th-century Italian Philosopher Machiavelli, advising the ruler about statecraft, in his Magnus Opus, The Prince.

A similar kind of ignorance and obliviousness against which Machiavelli was warning to the ruler of the state was reflected by the government of Imran Khan when protests by a radical religious organization (TLP) shook the country from 11-20 April. Previous to this latest episode, TLP has also staged various sit-in and violent protests by which they effectively froze all life in twin cities as well as in various cities of Punjab.

2017 Faizabad interchange protest was the zenith of its anarchical behavior. In that protest, TLP demanded the resignation of the law minister altering the oath declaration in the election bill 2017. Preceding, the court heard a plea on the stated matter. Justice Qazi Faiz Essa while hearing a plea on the case, remarked; “The ambitious leadership of a fledgling political party [TLP] projected itself as the defender of the Muslim faith. They provoked religious sentiment, stoked the flames of hatred, abused, resorted to violence, and destroyed property worth Rs.163 million.”  Another takeaway from the ruling of the Supreme Court goes like, “Protestors who obstruct people’s right to use roads and damage or destroy property must be proceeded against by the law and held accountable.”

Qazi Faiz Essa’s observation is enough to make a viewpoint on the organization. It is recommended that steps must be taken to curtail the reach of TLP. But allowing its leaders to further myth-spin bogus and inflammatory narratives, catch the attention of masses, effect normalcy in the country, and take hostage federal and provincial capitals many times after that shows sheer incapability on behalf of the state.

Moreover, the recent episode is also another criticism of religiosity interwoven within Pakistani society that has been exploited by opportunists to gain the support of the masses since its birth. TLP, an amalgamation of religio-political narrative, first appeared on the scene when it demanded the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the person who assassinated Governor Punjab Salman Taseer for criticizing blasphemy laws. After the execution of Qadri, Rizvi laid the foundation of Tehreek-E-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) for the purpose to protect the Blasphemy laws of Pakistan under the banner of protecting Honor for Prophet (PBUH). TLP is the political wing of TLYR which emerged as the 5th most popular political group in the electoral race of 2018. These numbers are a barometer to show that the party has gained considerable support among the masses for its narrative

Though the rise of TLP is attributed to fault lines within the domestic political culture of Pakistan and cultural cleavages that exist in the society. The recent protests were the result of its activeness in international affairs relevant to its narrative. The group tried to dictate the foreign relations of Pakistan. In the latest episode, TLP took on the streets again and demanded severing diplomatic ties with France. In the short aftermaths of TLP protests, European Parliament has adopted a resolution calling the review of the GSP+ status of Pakistan for abuse of blasphemy laws and expressed deep concerns over prevailing anti-French sentiments.

To add insult to injury, all of this is happening at a time when Pakistan is looking to create a soft image for herself, seeking an effective role in regional and international organizations for political and economic benefits, lobbying to move out of FATF grey list, and initiating an international campaign to unmask Indian state-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir, etcetera. Unfortunately, this has seriously jeopardized our pursuit of national interests and can nullify progress.

Disrespect for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is an issue sensitive to all Muslims but there is always a better way of doing things. The goal should be to stop disrespect and blasphemy and not forging further cause of hatred. On the other hand, the French president defended the acts as Freedom of Expression – a value so dear to the west – so even if Pakistan sends the French Ambassador back and suffers all the losses, is there any assurance for improvement in a situation regarding blasphemous content? What will be the next step of TLP if this continues? What will be the alternatives for Pakistan after that? Surely, this calls for some reflection on self-proclaimed defenders of religion. Government, on its part, must opt for softer and diplomatic ways in reaching out to France and making them realize the severity of the issue for Muslims.

To sum up, State ought not to be bogged down by religious pressure groups and fanatics like TLP for the reason being that they have not understood long-term national interests. Pledging to Khadim Rizvi on moving the parliament about French ambassador was never a wise act. One should have been vigilant enough to access the Omens. Furthermore, the government must impart this to such groups that they must not test the nerves of the state. It is in the interest of the state as well as government to not let things slip out of hand and go this further hereafter where one more episode similar to this makes international isolation inevitable.

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