Indo-Lanka Cooperation and the South Asian Power Balance

The recent flurry of visits by top Indian delegates to Sri Lanka indicates that New Delhi and Colombo have entered a more wide-ranging phase of Indo-Lanka bilateral relations.  Though the highest level of political visit from the Indian side is hitherto unrealized, the Sri Lankan counterparts have already visited New Delhi twice.  

Cooperation between India and Sri Lanka in several key issues, especially defence and strategic affairs, is pertinent for maintaining peace and stability in South Asia. New Delhi has already taken some significant steps towards that end. Joint naval exercises and establishment of bilateral defence dialogue, strengthening of the coast guard service, extension of military training and assistance towards construction of military infrastructure, all affirm the point that New Delhi would work closely with Colombo to cater to the latter’s defence.

The three-day visit of Colombo by Pradeep Kumar, defence secretary, in December 2010, was crucial in this regard. Decision was taken to empower the naval commander of the emerald island to directly intervene in urgent matters in maritime domain, as misbehaviour of a sole fisherman could snowball into a bilateral issue. There’s hope that the new approach would be particularly effective for tackling human trafficking and illegal entry of drugs and arms via the narrow sea stretch that separates the two countries. Moreover, India’s recognition of the security forces commander, Jaffna, as an honorary general of India and his Tamil Nadu counterpart, vice-versa in Sri Lanka, will be a key confidence building measure.

Strategic experts believe that New Delhi’s defence assistance to Colombo is an effort to balance Beijing’s growing inroads in the island state. China, among other strategic assistance to Colombo, is building the key Hambanthota port in Sri Lanka. Though the port is farther from India, it’s the nearest to major international shipping routes and all Sri Lankan ports have great strategic value give the island nation’s location in the Indian Ocean.  

India, subject to foreign domination of over three centuries, has stated in no uncertain terms, that it has no intention to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. New Delhi doesn’t want to jeopardise China’s involvement in the Hambanthota port. “The relationship between India and Sri Lanka need not to be at the cost of other countries. Our ultimate objective is to see a prosperous, stable Sri Lanka,” said foreign minister SM Krishna, during his visit to Colombo in November, 2010. India’s assistance to build 50,000 houses in the war-torn northern Sri Lanka has also affirmed that New Delhi’s cause in the island state is more humanitarian.

However, building cordial relations with New Delhi is imperative for Colombo as India is its closest neighbour, if not the only one. On India’s side, cooperation with the island state is crucial for maintaining the fragile South Asian power balance. India is surrounded by hostile neighbours on all sides, with the sole exception of Bhutan which is a mere buffer state to India. Under such circumstances, Indo-Lanka cooperation can forge a stable equation in the Indian Ocean and adjoining areas.

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