India v. China in Sri Lanka: Lessons for Rising Powers


John Kerry’s visit to Sri Lanka, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in 11 years, recognizes country’s geopolitical importance. It also highlights the outcome of the recent tussle over the island state by two emerging global powers. This is a contest in which India has now gained the upper hand over China, offering important lessons for rising powers as they begin a “Great Game” in Asia.

Sri Lanka sits at the heart of the Indian Ocean, adjacent to major shipping routes, within the world’s most strategically and economically dynamic region – the Indo-Pacific. Long described as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean,” Sri Lanka was, until the January election defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, drifting out of India’s orbit and increasingly seen as part of China’s “string of pearls.” But while increasingly solid economic links correlating with China’s rise will change little regardless of who leads Sri Lanka, politically, the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was able to snatch back this pearl from Beijing’s string.

While Sri Lanka’s people voted out a government that happened to be Beijing-friendly, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that its successor should be this pro-Delhi. Of course, this outcome does not necessarily mean that New Delhi is the more astute strategist – India has inherent geographical advantages regarding Sri Lanka – nonetheless the Modi government’s deft diplomacy provides important lessons for budding global powers. These are the same lessons that a century ago, the then rising U.S. learned from incumbent superpower Britain. The Modi government demonstrated the importance of sharpening the two main items in one’s foreign policy toolkit – insight and influence. This is particularly relevant for Beijing: While it has vastly superior foreign policy resources to India, China’s blunt instruments of the trade/investment carrot and the military force stick cannot succeed alone.

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PR Defeat

Sri Lanka’s slide back toward New Delhi began during the 2014 election campaign. The opposition often claimed that it would revoke allegedly corrupt deals made between Rajapaksa and Beijing. The fact that relations with China could be used as a campaign tool by the opposition already suggests a PR defeat for the PRC.

Following its election win in January, the new Sri Lankan government widely touted its strengthening of ties with India, and made little effort to conceal the shift away from China.

This is a particularly acute failure of image management, given that Beijing had a powerful story it could have told the Sri Lankan public. This was namely that China was there when no-one else was. The civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels was Asia’s longest. Governments came and went. The pivotal factor in Colombo’s ultimate victory over the LTTE was not domestic (though the 2004 tsunami played a role). It was external. It was the rise of China.

Even hawkish Sri Lankan governments had been hamstrung in pursuing a definitive victory, due to fear of upsetting the West, which insisted upon adherence to human rights and international law in the conduct of the war. If not, trade and aid levers might be pulled, harming Sri Lanka’s economy and a government’s chance of re-election.

When China emerged as a major economic power willing and able to step into any void left by the West, it allowed Rajapaksa greater freedom in prosecuting the war. Beijing provided the lethal military equipment and the postwar diplomatic support that Delhi would not. The ending of the war remains a major issue in the national psyche, in the eyes of the majority of Sri Lankans, it is the former president’s greatest achievement.

In contrast, India’s reputation in Sri Lanka ranges from mixed to negative: from those Tamils who have painful memories of the Indian Peace Keeping Force fighting the LTTE, to Sinhalese who blame India for training the Tigers in the first place, preventing their defeat in 1991, and curtailing the war effort subsequently.

Given all this, how did India rehabilitate its image, such that it was seen in a similar or better to China? It may be partly due to Delhi’s cultural diplomacy underpinned by “in-country insight,” particularly ancient Indo-Lankan ties. This was expressed very publicly post-election in Modi’s visit. The Indian PM garnered favor with Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority by visiting and worshipping at Buddhist holy sites. This continued the “Buddhism diplomacy” employed in his “Act East” approach, reaching out to neighbors with large Buddhist populations and histories.

Publicly emphasizing India’s Buddhist history and positioning himself as a representative of “all of Indian culture” is not unexpected from this devoutly Hindu prime minister. The Hindutva movement, from which Modi arose, has long described itself as the vanguard of all that they consider Indian heritage, including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

Modi also visited the island’s Tamil cultural heartland. Showing his commitment to Tamil welfare has helped him to endear himself to both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils.

Knowing that Sri Lankans often suspect that India’s Tamil Nadu state controls Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy, Modi has tried to reclaim the narrative of Indo-Lankan relations; to show that the two countries’ ties stretch further and deeper than the civil war. This is in addition to actually clawing back control of Sri Lanka policy.

If Beijing seeks to win influence in smaller states, it needs to develop deep insight into these states within its foreign policy institutions. In Sri Lanka, China could have tapped into its own cultural connections through Buddhism. Beijing could also have considered the words of ancient India’s Machiavelli, Kautilya, whose analyses seem to have played out in modern South Asia. Kautilya stated that a state’s immediate neighbors are usually enemies, making its neighbors’ neighbors natural allies. Consequently many small states surrounding India would welcome a greater Chinese role, just as China’s small neighbors like ASEAN welcome Indian engagement.

Beijing also should have been aware of Sri Lanka’s long history of civil society and the risks of pursuing deals perceived as corrupt. To mitigate the corruption accusations, Beijing could have helped the Rajapaksa government emphasize that China invested in projects which India declined, and promoted the evidence of investments in infrastructure, which were visible to ordinary Sri Lankans.

Delhi’s ability to attract Colombo was also a result of its ability to influence, beyond overt public diplomacy. There are claims by Rajapaksa that India’s spy agency helped organize opposition groups at the last election. Delhi has denied this. Whether true or not, India seems to have trumped China in cultivating stronger ties with key power nodes within Sri Lankan society. Interfering in domestic politics, though unethical, is something that Great Powers have always done. Beijing could have used its investments to strengthen links with the business elite in Colombo. It could have supported rural nationalists in leveraging suspicion of India to paint the opposition as “traitors”  – a tag that was pivotal in earlier opposition defeats.

Both tools of insight and influence require tapping into a diverse domestic foreign policy community. India and China have growing pools of expertise across government departments, think tanks and universities. To take full advantage however, leaders must use the best advice that the pool provides, not just advice from those most loyal. There should be a competitive environment where the best evidence-based analyses and predictive capabilities are rewarded. In the past, this meritocracy was utilized more effectively by the country that is the only remaining superpower than by its now vanquished opponent. This is something that should be noted by the rising powers.

Dr. Kadira Pethiyagoda is a former diplomat whose PhD and upcoming book investigated Indian foreign policy. He was a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford and is currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. A shorter version of this piece was originally published in the Brookings Institution’s Order from Chaos blog.

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