Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (left) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on November 29, 2019. Photo: AFP / Money Sharma

Sri Lanka is a role model for the dictum of diplomacy being the extension of a country’s national policies.

Sri Lanka’s performance must be commended, since it also grapples with an unresolved nationality question in which its big neighbor India has historically staked a claim as stakeholder, a claim that Sri Lanka cannot brusquely repudiate because of the huge asymmetry in the two countries’ comprehensive national power.

That being said, Sri Lanka also cannot do without India’s goodwill and cooperation, considering that its big neighbor has so much to offer in political and economic terms, and, conversely, also has the capacity to cause serious injury if it so chooses. Therefore, the game narrows down to keeping India engaged “constructively” while keeping the wolves at bay to ensure that Sri Lanka retains its strategic autonomy.

There have been good times and bad times in the relationship – and some very bad times, too, when India felt provoked and hit out, such as in the 1980s by fueling the Tamil insurgency. But on the whole, Sri Lankan diplomacy managed to string the north Indian ruling elite along.

A top Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry official in the capital, Colombo, in the early 1980s once told me that where Sri Lanka had an advantage over India was in its tenacity and perseverance, since its diplomacy almost single-mindedly worked on variations on a fundamental theme – the Indian conundrum.

The result is plain to see in the one-sided bilateral pacts – the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact (1964), Katchatheevu accord (1974) and, indeed, the disastrous Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord (1987).

As a strong leadership (re)emerges in Colombo under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after the disarray of the past four years, the wheel seems to have come full circle. In a historical perspective, Rajapaksa draws comparison with the late Sri Lankan leader J R Jayewardene – robustly nationalistic while a pragmatist, too, who is open to “win-win” cooperation.

Indira Gandhi spurned Jayewardene’s overtures for a modus vivendi despite her overarching friendship with Sirima Bandaranaike, and all the signs are that despite New Delhi’s warm, close ties with Ranil Wickremesinghe, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is open to a fresh start. There is an eerie similarity in the self-confidence exuded by Jayewardene and Rajapaksa in their search for an equal relationship with India.

Both Jayewardene and Rajapaksa can be regarded as “patriarchal” in their political style – austere and result-oriented. Compared with the previous Sri Lankan government under Maithripala Sirisena, Rajapaksa has slashed the strength of his cabinet by half.

New Delhi laid out a red-carpet welcome for Rajapaksa’s state visit on November 28, but he came by a commercial flight, accompanied by just a handful of aides.

But Rajapaksa is no doubt as tough as nails, every bit like Jayewardene used to be. While in New Delhi, Rajapaksa didn’t bother to contradict the Indian media’s unilateral interpretation that he proposed to “renegotiate” with Beijing the deal granting Hambantota Port to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease.

But Xinhua news agency has reported that in the meetings in Colombo through December 1 and 2 between the Sri Lankan leadership and the visiting Chinese special envoy Wu Jianghao, the two countries have, as NewsIn.Asia reported, “agreed to speed up the implementation of cooperation on big economic projects, including the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port, ‘under the existing consensus.’”

NewsIn.Asia also reported:

“[Xinhua added that] on the basis of the existing consensus, the two countries will ‘draw up and promote a new blueprint for future cooperation.’

“Wu Jianghao and the Lankan leaders also agreed to ‘further strengthen robust political trust between the two countries and upgrade their pragmatic cooperation.’”

Wu, by the way, used to be China’s ambassador in Colombo during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s elder brother.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s remarks while in New Delhi will need to be deconstructed carefully. They formed two big interconnected clusters: the Sri Lankan Tamil problem and the India-Lanka relationship and Sino-Lankan cooperation.

Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told Parliament after his hurried visit to Colombo that he expected Rajapaksa to keep his word that he’d be president of “all Sri Lankans” – implying apparently that the Tamil community would get a fair deal. But, arguably, what else could Rajapaksa have said? Didn’t Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also say much the same thing in 2014?

From Rajapaksa’s remarks, it is apparent that the search for a political settlement of the Tamil question as such (within a federal set-up and so on) will remain on the back burner for the conceivable future. He believes in the Chinese dictum that solutions to nationality questions are to be found through development – and development is a continuous process, and no timeline can be put on it.

Rajapaksa added that the bottom line is that any solution to the Tamil problem will have to be based on the consensus within the Sinhala majority community. He didn’t draw the analogy of the Kashmir problem, but he made a compelling point.

In retrospect, Delhi made a diplomatic faux pas with Jaishankar rushing to Colombo to broach the Tamil issue upfront on Day 1 with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka hasn’t wasted that opportunity to draw the red line for New Delhi. The Indian government should have learned from the rebuff it received once over the drafting of Nepal’s new constitution.

Rajapaksa will expect India to observe the red line. He even dispensed with any gesture welcoming India as an interlocutor on the Tamil issue. To borrow the words of the Modi government, Rajapaksa regards the Tamil issue as Sri Lanka’s “internal matter.”

The big picture, certainly, is that Rajapaksa has nipped in the bud any US-Indian game plan to pressure Sri Lanka on the human-rights front to force it to get on board the Indo-Pacific bandwagon.

On the other hand, Rajapaksa seeks constructive engagement with India. He welcomes big investments from India (and its Quad partners) – but only to match and not to replace Chinese investments.

Rajapaksa turned the table around by forewarning New Delhi that if it remains tight-fisted, “the Chinese will take the Belt and Road Initiative all over.” He underscored thereby that Sino-Lankan economic cooperation is not a topic of discussion. To be sure, he has no agenda to threaten India’s vital interests and concerns.

From present indications, it is unlikely that Colombo will countenance Indian presence in any project of strategic significance such as the Trincomalee oil farm or Mattala airport. Aside from the resistance in Sinhala public opinion, there is the lingering trust deficit resulting from the conspiratorial manner in which Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted from power in 2015.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer including postings as India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan. This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

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