Are India-Sri Lanka relations on the mend?

India and Sri Lanka have been close neighbours with more than 2500 years of shared history. The interaction between the two countries ranges across political, economic, strategic, intellectual, cultural, religious, and linguistic ties. Nonetheless, India-Sri Lanka relations have been anything but smooth and linear. To understand the current standing of the two countries, it is necessary to understand the context in which the two states conduct their relations. 

A brief roundup of India-Sri Lanka’s recent relations

Traditionally, since the independence of the two countries, India and Sri Lanka’s bilateral ties have revolved around four major issues. 

First, security. The bilateral relationship on the security issue has seen much improvement from the open antagonism of Sri Lanka’s civil war years. Several defence partnerships have been forged by the two states in the form of the Military exercise called Mitra Shakthi and the Naval exercise called “Slinex.” The defence teams from the two nations recently also met at the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) meet in Kochi, India to further their defence ties.

Second, the fishers’ dispute. While four Maritime Boundary Agreements have been signed by the two states between 1974-76 regarding the 12 nautical miles of international waters in the Palk Strait, the terms of the agreement are hardly followed diligently. The Sri Lankan Navy continues to accuse India’s fishers of violating the decided lines and poaching in their territorial water. There is another conflict wherein, Sri Lanka criticizes India’s bottom trawler usage in the Palk Strait, which has been a recurring issue for the countries. 

Third, the ethnic issue. Till date, the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, following the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed on 29 July 1987 has not been honoured. India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s issue with its Tamil minority took a backseat since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, but India has always advocated a unified Sri Lanka, which however grants equal rights to the Tamil population. 

And fourth, the investment atmosphere. Costly investment agreements had been signed with India, under the Rajapaksa regime, amidst heavy criticism from the political opposition. Here, India’s contention with China over investments in Sri Lanka affects its foreign policy decisions significantly. Moreover, Sri Lanka’s balancing act with India, under the shadow of China’s BRI investments in the island to keep both India and China interested has affected Sri Lanka’s relations with India, given the latter’s antithetical relations with China. 

These issues have carved the path of diplomacy between India and Sri Lanka for ages. Even with the current situation in Sri Lanka, these issues continue to shape the bilateral relations between the two countries, with each gaining relative importance once in a while.

India-Sri Lanka relations in light of the current crisis

The inklings of the current crisis began in April 2021, when Sri Lanka’s then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued an order for the country’s farmers to switch to organic farming completely. Aiming to cut down on the import bill to tackle the country’s foreign exchange crisis, the move backfired and protests against Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa intensified. Plunging the country into further economic and political crisis, the Rajapaksas were forced to resign and flee the country, after appointing Ranil Wickremesinghe as the prime minister who later got elected as the President. Under Wickremesinghe, India-Sri Lanka relations stand a chance to develop further. The areas which point to more stable and strong Indo-Sri Lanka relations are the following: 

First, India’s ready assistance during the Sri Lankan financial crisis has helped improve India-Sri Lanka relations. India became Sri Lanka’s top lender in 2022, surpassing China and the Asian Development Bank. It provided USD 4 billion in total credit support, including a USD 377 million as loans from January 2022 to April 2022, a USD 700 million credit line for fuel imports, and a credit facility of USD 1 billion for the procurement of food, medicines, and other essential items from India. This shift away from a fair-weather friendship, which has been China’s policy instead has cultivated renewed goodwill amongst Sri Lankans for India.

Second, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s vision for his neighbourhood. Ranil Wickremesinghe has hinted that his governance is likely to steer Sri Lanka away from China’s debt trap diplomacy and integrate with India’s economy further. Even though his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa was closer to India, his support base at the pro-China SLPP had prevented him from cultivating stronger bilateral ties. However, now under Wickremesinghe’s tenure, the relations between the two countries are expected to improve, the starting point for which can be the development of the long-gestating Trincomalee Port Agreement. In January, Sri Lanka signed a deal with the Indian Oil Corporation to refurbish and develop the Trincomalee oil farm, an 850-acre storage facility with a capacity of almost one million tonnes. 

Third, correcting India’s strategic mistake with regard to Hambantota port. Given its strategic importance, refusing to develop the Hambantota port, when offered has been one of India’s biggest foreign policy blunders with regard to Sri Lanka. Though on paper, there is nothing to suggest that China’s commercial investments in the country have an ulterior military motive, the docking of China’s Yuan Wang 5 ship at the Hambantota port in August has renewed India’s suspicions of Chinese spying. The Tamil Nadu Government has also flagged the increased presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army in Sri Lanka and called for increased security arrangements. However, with Trincomalee, India might be looking at a similar foothold in Sri Lanka as the Chinese.

Thus to conclude, it can be said that India-Sri Lanka relations have been tumultuous over the years. However, the change in the regime in Colombo, and the role of India as the “first responder” in light of the recent financial and political crises, can bolster better relations between the neighbours. 

Rishma Banerjee
Rishma Banerjee
Rishma Banerjee completed her Master’s in International Relations from Jadapur University, India and is Research Assistant in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, India. Her research focus is on the geopolitics of Eastern Europe.