Indian Decade

India Looks to Sri Lanka

China’s growing strategic assertiveness is encouraging Indian policymakers to boost ties with the neighbours.

China has forced India out of its slumber, and this country’s policymakers are fast realizing that they’ll have to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts with close neighbours or risk China filling in strategic space in their own backyard.

India has recently extended its first-ever $1 billion line of credit to Bangladesh and invested $1.2 billion in development projects in Afghanistan. In addition, projects worth over $1 billion are in the pipeline that are aimed at improving infrastructure for the Afghan people. India has also upgraded its aid projects in Burma, Nepal and Bhutan. Next, it’ll be Sri Lanka’s turn, with External Affairs Minister S M Krishna visiting the island nation this week.

One of the highlights of Krishna’s trip will be his inaugurating the new Consulate General of India office in Hambantota, a city where Phase 1 of a Chinese-built port was inaugurated earlier this month. China’s port projects in Hambantota, along with Gwadar in Pakistan and Sittwe in Burma, form a formidable strategic triangle that allows Beijing to ‘encircle’ India. An Indian consulate general in Hambantota is therefore India’s way of reclaiming the strategic space it ceded to China when the Chinese took advantage of India’s dilly-dallying over constructing the Hambantota project. The new consulate should allow New Delhi to keep a close eye on Chinese activities tied to the Hambantota project.

India has also built a consulate in Sri Lanka, in Jaffna, which Krishna will be inaugurating on November 27. In addition, he’ll be opening a 100-kilometre Talaimannar-Medawachchiya-Madhu railway line. This follows the state visit of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse to India in June 2010, during which India agreed to provide an $800-million credit line for upgrading railway infrastructure including to cover the costs of construction, rolling stock, signalling and telecoms equipment. India has also made available to Sri Lanka another $167 million credit line for rehabilitating the Southern Colombo-Matara railway line, which was damaged by a tsunami.

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India had already reached out to Sri Lanka after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Back then, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a significant relief and reconstruction package aimed primarily at assisting some 300,000 internally displaced persons who had taken refuge in temporary shelters. 

Other Indian infrastructure development projects in Sri Lanka include a range of initiatives like the KKS Harbour, the Palaly Airport, a cultural centre in Jaffna and a 150-bed hospital in Dikoya. Meanwhile, air connectivity between India and Sri Lanka is quite robust, with 35 flights between the two countries every week.

Clearly, China’s increasing presence in India’s backyard is spurring some action , India is intently looking south—and it’s next point of focus will be Sri Lanka.