The March 13-14 visit of Shri Narendra Modi is the first standalone trip by any Indian PM to Sri Lanka since last 28 years. This is likely to be one of the most watched visits of PM Modi by China, if you look at what China has done in last 10 years to further its ‘String of Pearl’ strategy in Indian Ocean. It is more a luck than a geopolitical maneuver that Sri Lanka is not going all out to woo China’s investments in this small southern neighboring nation of India. With the recent change of government at Sri Lanka, situation is more favorable for India to counter the ‘String of Pearl’ at least in Sri Lanka, the strategy so passionately crafted by China in India Ocean. High interest rates at which China advanced its credit lines and personal favors given by China to erstwhile powers in Sri Lanka ensured that Sri Lankan mood is not very favorable for more Chinese favors especially in its infrastructure sector, more specifically in new ports and current port city development in Colombo. Sri Lanka has now increased its review of most construction projects with China.
This geopolitical opportunity should not be missed by India. It is important that India siege this opportunity by ensuring all cooperation to Sri Lanka to meet its aspiration to become a powerful maritime nation similar to what Singapore is today. It is in the interest of India to have a strong and rich maritime nation in its neighborhood. For one Sri Lanka being a smaller nation, is easy to take to next level of development than India. Secondly Sri Lanka being closer to International Maritime highways and situated at probably more strategic maritime location than even Singapore, India can benefit with maritime progress of Sri Lanka by having strong logistical connectivity with this smaller neighbor. Geographical proximity makes India its natural partner in International Logistics and a large scale third country foreign trade. China’s natural advantages with Sri Lanka are far limited. SAARC platform is already in place for an all out trade cooperation with Sri Lanka, where China is at a disadvantage.
Any regular engagement of the type demonstrated by India in the past such gestures with Sri Lanka can’t ensure full exploitation of this unique geopolitical opportunity India is facing, probably for a very short period to exploit. Sri Lanka is key to the grand plans of China, who is pushing for a permanent establishment of infrastructure in Indian Ocean to benefit from the ‘String of Pearls’, starting from Myanmar port to Chittagong to Hambantota to Gwadar to Kenya and take it further to Atlantic Ocean. Such infrastructure will not only ensure complete Chinese domination of the sea trade highways of the world but also make it possible for China to ‘stock and sale’ most of its ‘manufactured goods’ throughout the Indian Ocean Highways at so called ‘Pearl Ports’. This will ensure making these goods much more price attractive to Western Nations, who will be able to get quick deliveries, severely denting Indian price attractiveness, whatever the outcome of ‘Make in India’ mission. Military and defense consequences are also diverse in such situation.
India has already lost similar opportunities to contain Chinese advances in Indian Ocean by consistently ignoring larger trade cooperation and investments in Bangladesh and Myanmar especially in Maritime sectors. Rather India chose to engage Vietnam in South China Sea, the location which is relatively more difficult to monitor and is perhaps militarily more dangerous place to indulge. India’s major opportunity had been the SAARC platform in order to simultaneously engage most of our strategic neighbors. This opportunity may still be there but for the perception of the SAARC members about the efficacy of the institution now.
Presently, with new government is place, Sri Lanka is looking at its largest and nearest neighbor to come out with more suitable options and ideas to help Sri Lanka emerge as an economically powerful and strategically important South Asian nation. India can really do a lot for Sri Lanka at this juncture to make it happen for it. The situation seems to be similar to creating what today is ‘Singapore – Malaysia’ equation, where a larger Malaysia’s current progress is pegged with that of its smaller neighbor Singapore. No one can deny the contribution of Malaysia in providing general support to Singapore become what it is today. That contribution is now the best economic defense for Malaysia for any future economic recession.
Let is wait and watch how our PM is able to siege the opportunity.