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China-Sri Lanka Relations from Indian Perspective

Background of China-Sri Lanka Relations:

Throughout history, Sri Lanka has held a strategic position in the Indian Ocean, serving as a critical stop on major trade routes connecting the Western world to India, the Far East, and even Australia. Thus, the island has long been a popular destination for sailors and ships, drawing them in with its prime location.

In ancient and medieval eras, the port of Trincomalee, referred to as Gokanna at the time, was utilized as a safe haven for ships, while other smaller bays, anchorages, and road steads throughout the island also offered protection. Sri Lanka, which was familiar to Greek and Arab sailors since the second century, played a crucial role as a stopover and trading centre, bridging the gap between the West and the East.

During this time, early interactions with China can be traced, as evidenced by ambassadors observing the thriving trade between Sri Lanka and China as early as the first century. Accounts from various foreign travellers, including those from China, offer valuable insights into the early connections between Sri Lanka and China, underscoring the historical significance of their relationship despite the vast distance between them.

The longstanding and deep-rooted friendship between Sri Lanka and China dates back centuries to the days of the Maritime Silk Route, with historical accounts showing thriving trade exchanges and extensive cooperation in culture and knowledge dissemination. Notable figures, such as the Chinese Buddhist scholar Fa Xian, who spent significant time in Sri Lanka during the 5th century AD, played a crucial role in fostering people-to-people contacts and translating Buddhist scriptures. Admiral Zheng He, a renowned Chinese navigator during the Ming Dynasty, also made multiple voyages to Sri Lanka between 1405 and 1433, leaving tangible evidence of this historical camaraderie, such as the preserved stone tablet in the National Museum of Sri Lanka.

In January 1950, formal diplomatic relations were established between Sri Lanka and the People's Republic of China, with Sri Lanka being the first country in South Asia to recognize the newly formed Chinese government. A significant milestone in their relations occurred in April 1952 with the signing of the Rubber-Rice Pact, an important agreement in which Sri Lanka supplied rubber to China in exchange for rice, marking one of the earliest pacts between the People's Republic of China and a non-communist country. This pact laid a solid foundation for further diplomatic engagement and cooperation between the two nations.

On February 7th, 1957, Sri Lanka and China further elevated their bilateral ties by establishing full diplomatic relations and opening resident embassies in each other's capitals. Since then, both countries have embarked on a journey of mutual cooperation and collaboration across various sectors, including politics, economics, trade, and culture. This diplomatic milestone paved the way for a series of bilateral initiatives aimed at strengthening the bonds of friendship and enhancing the welfare of both nations.

Strategic Importance of Sri Lanka for India and China:

The placement of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean has significant strategic value in the ongoing competition between India and China. As a crucial point of intersection for maritime trade, shipping routes, and naval operations, Sri Lanka garners the attention of major regional players. For India, the island nation's proximity creates both opportunities and challenges. It is considered an integral part of India's traditional sphere of influence, and maintaining strong relations with Sri Lanka is important for ensuring security and stability in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, India's maritime security strategy is heavily influenced by Sri Lanka's strategic location, as it seeks to counterbalance China's expanding presence in the area.

However, Sri Lanka is viewed by China as a crucial element of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to improve connectivity and safeguard sea routes for its energy imports. Chinese investments and infrastructure development have made Sri Lanka's ports, particularly Hambantota and Colombo, major areas of focus, causing India to worry about encirclement and strategic infringement. China's strategic objectives in Sri Lanka go beyond economic factors, as its investments in ports and infrastructure allow for an expanded naval presence and projection of power in the Indian Ocean, posing a challenge to India's traditional dominance in the area.

The ongoing rivalry between India and China in Sri Lanka exemplifies the larger geopolitical forces at work in the Indian Ocean, as both nations employ diplomatic tactics, infrastructural initiatives, and strategic alliances to further their own agendas. Sri Lanka, in response, manages this intricate geopolitical environment by carefully balancing its ties with India and China, utilizing economic opportunities while safeguarding its independence and strategic independence. As India and China persist in asserting their dominance in the Indian Ocean area, Sri Lanka's strategic significance will likely continue to be a key factor in regional developments and global power struggles.

Current Status of China-Sri Lanka Relations:
The relationship between China and Sri Lanka has undergone significant changes in recent decades, encompassing various aspects such as economic cooperation, strategic partnerships, and cultural exchanges. This dynamic partnership not only has implications for the two countries involved but also has broader geopolitical implications, especially in the Indian Ocean region where both countries hold strategic positions.

China has emerged as a major player in the development landscape of Sri Lanka, providing significant investment and aid for infrastructure projects. The construction of ports, highways, power plants, and other vital infrastructure has been a key aspect of China's involvement in Sri Lanka. Large-scale projects like the Hambantota Port and Colombo Port City demonstrate China's willingness to invest in transformative ventures that have the potential to boost Sri Lanka's economy. However, concerns have been raised about the sustainability of Sri Lanka's debt burden, considering the large sums borrowed from China for these projects.

Strategically, China's engagement in Sri Lanka is part of its broader maritime strategy, aiming to secure crucial sea lanes and increase its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The establishment of facilities such as the Hambantota Port provides China with a strategic foothold in the region and potential dual-use capabilities that could have implications for regional security dynamics. This expansion of China's presence in Sri Lanka has been viewed with apprehension by India, which sees it as a threat to its traditional sphere of influence and a potential challenge to its dominance in the Indian Ocean.

In recent years, China and Sri Lanka have strengthened their military cooperation through increased arms sales, joint exercises, and defence agreements. This has led to a greater frequency of Chinese naval visits to Sri Lankan ports and the procurement of military equipment from China by Sri Lanka. These developments highlight the growing strategic ties between the two countries and add a new layer of complexity to regional security dynamics. They also have implications for India's security considerations and its strategic relations with Sri Lanka.

Beyond military ties, China has also made efforts to bolster its cultural relations with Sri Lanka through educational exchanges, cultural initiatives, and people-to-people diplomacy. By offering scholarships, organizing cultural festivals, and establishing Confucius Institutes, China aims to promote mutual understanding and forge closer bonds between the two nations. However, these initiatives also serve China's broader objectives of expanding its soft power in the region.

Challenges in China-Sri Lanka Relations:

Despite the benefits of China-Sri Lanka relations, there are also challenges and controversies. Sri Lanka's increasing reliance on China for loans, particularly for infrastructure projects, has raised concerns about debt sustainability and sovereignty. The handover of the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease in 2017 is a prime example of the risks associated with excessive borrowing and the potential loss of control over critical infrastructure assets.

Moreover, the involvement of China in Sri Lanka's internal affairs, including its position on human rights matters and its support for the Sri Lankan government during the civil war, has been heavily criticized by the international community. Sri Lanka's delicate balancing act between China and other regional powers, such as India and the United States, presents challenges for its foreign policy and strategic decision-making.

Ultimately, the relationship between China and Sri Lanka is a complex interplay of economic, strategic, and cultural factors that have implications for regional stability and global power dynamics. While both nations may gain from increased cooperation, the changing nature of their relationship raises concerns about sovereignty, debt sustainability, and regional security that must be carefully considered by policymakers and stakeholders alike.

Indian Perspective:

The dynamics of China-Sri Lanka relations hold significant implications for India, given the geopolitical landscape of the region. As China deepens its ties with Sri Lanka, India must navigate both challenges and opportunities in its foreign policy strategy. A major concern for India is the potential encirclement by China through its strategic investments and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.

The development of ports, such as Hambantota, under Chinese influence raises alarms in India about the possibility of Chinese naval presence in close proximity to its southern coast, thereby posing a threat to India's maritime security. Furthermore, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Sri Lanka, including the Colombo Port City, could strengthen China's economic foothold in the Indian Ocean region, jeopardizing India's traditional sphere of influence. Moreover, the increasing ties between China and Sri Lanka may escalate existing tensions between India and China, particularly in their disputed border areas.

Any military cooperation or presence of Chinese assets in Sri Lanka could be viewed as a strategic challenge to India's security interests, potentially leading to further militarization of the Indian Ocean region. However, India also has the opportunity to leverage its relationship with Sri Lanka to counterbalance Chinese influence.

By engaging in deeper economic cooperation and offering alternative investment and development projects that align with Sri Lanka's interests and address its infrastructure needs, India can strengthen its ties with Sri Lanka. Additionally, strengthening people-to-people ties, cultural exchanges, and diplomatic dialogue can help India maintain its influence in Sri Lanka and the broader Indian Ocean region.

The relationship between China and Sri Lanka has a multifaceted impact on India, affecting its economy, strategic positioning, and security dynamics in the region. China's investments in Sri Lanka's infrastructure projects, specifically in ports like Hambantota and Colombo, present both opportunities and challenges for India.

While these investments have the potential to boost Sri Lanka's economic growth, they also raise concerns for India regarding potential debt traps for Sri Lanka and the establishment of Chinese-controlled economic zones near Indian waters. This could potentially undermine India's own economic interests in the region, including its maritime trade routes and initiatives such as the Sagarmala Project.

On a strategic level, China's deepening ties with Sri Lanka have implications for India's geopolitical standing in the Indian Ocean region. The potential establishment of Chinese naval facilities or increased military cooperation with Sri Lanka could challenge India's traditional dominance in the Indian Ocean, resulting in a more assertive Chinese presence near India's southern coast. This could complicate India's maritime security calculations and potentially force it to re-evaluate its strategic priorities, possibly leading to an arms race or militarization of the region.

From a security perspective, India views the growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka with concern. China's involvement in Sri Lanka's infrastructure projects, combined with its strategic investments and military cooperation, could allow Beijing to project power and influence in the Indian Ocean, posing challenges to India's security interests. India is particularly worried about the potential for Chinese naval presence in Sri Lankan ports, which could encircle India and disrupt its maritime trade routes.

Consequences of Strain on India-Sri Lanka Relations:

The potential consequences of a deterioration in India-Sri Lanka relations could have far-reaching effects on bilateral ties, regional dynamics, and broader geopolitical balances. From an economic perspective, strained relations could impede trade and investment between the two countries, disrupting supply chains and hindering economic growth. As one of Sri Lanka's largest trading partners, any decline in relations could have a negative impact on industries reliant on cross-border trade, such as manufacturing and services.

Furthermore, a weakened relationship could create opportunities for increased Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. China has already made significant investments in Sri Lankan infrastructure projects, causing concern in India about Beijing's expanding presence in the region. If India-Sri Lanka relations continue to deteriorate, Sri Lanka may turn to China for support, potentially at the expense of India's strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

In terms of security, a rift between India and Sri Lanka could have detrimental effects on regional stability. Both countries share maritime borders and have worked together on security matters, including counterterrorism efforts and maritime security. If cooperation breaks down, it could leave security vacuums in the Indian Ocean, intensifying existing tensions and potentially allowing non-state actors or hostile powers to operate more freely.

Moreover, a decline in India-Sri Lanka relations could have implications for ethnic and political dynamics within Sri Lanka. India has played a significant role in addressing the grievances of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority and promoting reconciliation. However, if relations continue to weaken, India's leverage and influence in these matters could diminish, potentially exacerbating ethnic tensions and hindering the country's post-war reconciliation process.

In general, the implications of deteriorating India-Sri Lanka relations go beyond just their mutual connection and have an effect on the stability of the region, collaboration in economic matters, the dynamics of security, and the internal political landscape of Sri Lanka. It is imperative to take action in order to resolve and lessen the issues that have caused strained relations, as this is vital for upholding stability and promoting cooperation in South Asia.

To address these challenges, India has taken steps to enhance its economic, strategic, and security connections with Sri Lanka. This includes increased investment, development aid, and defence collaboration. Moreover, India has also formed partnerships at both regional and international levels, such as the Quad alliance with the United States, Japan, and Australia, to counter China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean region. In light of the changing dynamics between China and Sri Lanka, India's actions have significant implications for its economy, strategic positioning, and security strategy.

As a result, India must adopt a carefully calculated and proactive approach to safeguard its interests in the region. A recent report reveals that Sri Lanka has imposed a one-year ban on Chinese 'research vessels' operating in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Sri Lanka has been repeatedly cautioned by India about these vessels, as there are suspicions that they may be monitoring Indian military movements and surveying crucial waters. In July 2023, Prime Minister of India had emphasized to the Sri Lankan President the significance of respecting India's strategic and security concerns in the area.

Written By: Md.Imran Wahab
, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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