The increased demand for natural resources and the need for economic growth combined with growing threat perceptions have attracted major powers into the Indian Ocean, making it a highly contested region. Being strategically located in the ocean, the island state of Sri Lanka is viewed as a strategic asset by powers like India and China as it would enhance their influence in the Indian Ocean Region and South Asia. In this backdrop, a tilt by Sri Lanka towards either of these states raise concerns to the other power in the region.
Significance of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean
From a geostrategic perspective, Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean. The various trade routes passing around the island state carries around two-thirds of the world’s oil . Historical pieces of evidence also affirm the geostrategic importance of Sri Lanka as it was ruled by the Portuguese and the Dutch. The strength from maritime trade strengthened these colonial powers while during the Cold War, the island gained a prominent role in the international system since powers like the USA, USSR and China compete to have an influence on the state. The island is also close to regional markets like India and the security of the Sea Lanes of Communication is crucial in this regard.
Considering the maritime security aspect, Sri Lanka has a vital role in the Indian Ocean and South Asia. In the book “Monsoon” by Robert Kaplan, Sri Lanka is identified as ‘Monsoon Asia’ among other countries like India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh etc to explain their importance to the United States. Further, the potential of Sri Lanka to ensure maritime security and trade and in securing the strategic Sea Lanes of Communication adds to its significance in the region thereby attracting external powers like China into the island.
The China-India-Sri Lanka Triangle
The foreign policy of China in recent times have been extremely focused on South Asia due to India and the significance of the Indian Ocean. As a countermeasure to hinder India’s emerging power status and to secure its Sea Lanes of Communication, China is now aggressively engaging itself in South Asian states and in Indian Ocean littorals. The strategic interest of China towards Sri Lanka gained momentum in this context. The island state is centrally located between West Asia and South-East Asia and possesses abundant natural resources like coal, iron and hydrocarbons. Along with the utilisation of these aspects, Sri Lanka enables China in its realisation of the Maritime Silk Road initiative thereby enhancing China’s influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The ability to curb India’s rise and placing a check on powers like the United States and Japan further made China to actively acquire Sri Lanka to its side.
On the other hand, the 2500 years old relation between India and Sri Lanka have a legacy of ‘intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic interaction’  and continue to cooperate in areas of development, education, trade and culture. Both the countries remain each other’s largest trading partners and the political, cultural and commercial relations remain intact. Being a major power in South Asia, India proudly projects its Neighbourhood First Policy with pride to bring about mutual growth and development in the region. With the wide-open coastline, securing Sri Lanka is a national security concern for India. Although the bilateral engagements and multilateral forums aid India’s friendly policies in its neighbourhood including Sri Lanka, the increased influence of China into South Asia raises suspicions and concerns for India, which subsequently makes the country adopt countermeasures thereby increasing the threat perception in the already tensed region.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is a non-aligned country and maintains cordial relations with both India and China. This balanced nature provides the island immense possibilities to shift according to its national interests and gain. The narrow gap that arises out of this pivoting nature becomes the platform for power projection for India and China. Sri Lanka is caught in between the India-China strategic rivalry of which the island is reaping benefits by playing the ‘China Card’. The economic benefits that China offer to Sri Lanka through infrastructure, port facilities and the Belt and Road Initiative enhances the island’s shift towards China . The historical, cultural and political ties of India and Sri Lanka is undermined with these deep economic relations causing India to re-evaluate its bilateral strengths and adopting new strategies to curb the Chinese influence.
In the post covid world, China is stepping up to provide assistance to Sri Lanka to tackle the effects of the pandemic . Although the debate over the debt-trap diplomacy of China through the BRI is still continuing, the viable economic benefits have the ability to lure Sri Lanka further into the Chinese hands. Meanwhile, India is facing problems in its ties with Sri Lanka regarding the Indian fisherman issue, the growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, the ECT project at Colombo Port etc . The citizens of Sri Lanka are now increasingly becoming critical of China and its presence in their state  and this sentiment can be advantageous to India if it decides to address the bilateral irritants with Sri Lanka. India has to limit itself from interfering in the internal matters of Sri Lanka and has to prove that its intentions are not hegemonic in nature. A proactive policy in its South Asian neighbourhood with a two-pronged strategy of expressing concerns and strengthening bilateral ties would enable India to regain its status .
With the rising significance of the Indo-Pacific, powers like the US and Japan are also now closely monitoring Sri Lanka. The Indian Ocean which was thought to act as a Zone of Peace thus now became a Zone of Contestation. The stabilising role of Sri Lanka becomes prominent at this juncture. Maintaining a balance in South Asia amidst the India-China rivalry can be made possible if Sri Lanka adopts a more balanced approach where a multilateral order is realised . To enhance the security in the region and to ensure a fast economic recovery from the pandemic, cooperation among powers is vital. Sri Lanka can act as the stabiliser between the powers for the less chaotic region where powers cooperate to have fruitful outcomes and mutual development in the post-covid world.
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2 Brief on India – Sri Lanka Relations. (2021, July). Retrieved from Ministry of External Affairs: https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Brief_on_India_for_website.pdf
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