With increasing Indo-Chinese competition in the Indian Ocean, their respective military relationships with Sri Lanka play an important part in this maritime great game. This article will examine this relationship from an Indian perspective, looking at the current scenario and what this means for the future geopolitical scenario in the region.
China has been the largest supplier of arms to Sri Lanka since the 1950s. These transactions have included small arms, ammunition, landmines, naval vessels, and aircraft. China and Sri Lanka’s defense and security cooperation intensified during the Sri Lankan civil war, where China’s support came in several forms. In 2007, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to China led to a $37.6 million deal to purchase Chinese Jian-7 fighter jets, anti-aircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radar, armoured personnel carriers, and other weaponry.
In the more recent past, high-level visits between Chinese and Sri Lankan military officials have also furthered ties. In 2012 during the Chinese defense minister’s visit to Sri Lanka, a grant of a $100 million was given for the construction of army camps. China has also provided military training to Sri Lankan officers. Last year, a senior colonel at the Chinese Embassy in Colombo stated that “China wishes to boost the development of the Belt and Road Initiative to strengthen the pragmatic cooperation between the two countries and the two militaries.”
From an Indian perspective, the growing transfer of arms and cooperation between China and Sri Lanka is a cause for concern. Such concerns became a reality in 2014 when Sri Lanka allowed two Chinese submarines and a warship to dock at its port in Colombo. This rang alarm bells — while China’s counterpiracy contingents have been a regular presence in the Indian Ocean region for over a decade, sightings of Chinese submarines in the region were until recently a relatively uncommon occurrence. Although India did not protest aggressively, this was seen as a major breach of trust between New Delhi and Colombo and also heightened tensions with Beijing.
Although this does not imply that Chinese submarine deployments are provocative in nature, they do cause anxiety and can be viewed as diminishing India’s naval superiority in the region. The frequency of Chinese visits has become a concern, along with speculation that an aircraft maintenance facility could be built by the Chinese in the eastern port city of Trincomalee, which India considers a strategic location in terms of national security. This has also led to a greater security dilemma between the two countries, pushing India to strengthen its position in the Indian Ocean as further explained below. The prospect of Chinese arms being used against India is yet another factor that tests India’s relationship not only with Sri Lanka but also with China in the Indian Ocean, where the battle for influence between two of Asia’s most powerful countries is taking place.
India has not been left in the dust when it comes to Sri Lankan security cooperation, however. For the first two decades after independence, Sri Lankan military officers trained in Indian military academies, and in 1971, India helped Sri Lanka put down a countrywide rebellion when the government asked for external assistance.
Although India was politically constrained from selling offensive weapons to Sri Lanka, it facilitated arms deals, sold defensive weapons, and provided critical naval and intelligence support to help Sri Lanka target the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
More recently, New Delhi has particularly provided support in the maritime realm. Last year, the Indian Coast Guard gifted an offshore patrol vessel (OPV) to the Sri Lankan Coast Guard for training and surveillance purposes. The Indian Coast Guard also handed over two OPVs to Sri Lanka in 2006 and 2008. Prior to handing over the OPVs to Sri Lanka, training was imparted by the Indian Coast Guard on ship handling, bridge navigation, and engine room controls.
Sri Lanka ordered two advanced offshore patrol vessels (AOPVs) from India in 2014 for $74 million each, the country’s first-ever purchase of a new AOPV from a foreign builder. Custom-made for the Sri Lankan Navy by Goa Shipyard Limited, the vessels were commissioned in 2017 and 2018, resistively, becoming “the largest vessel of its kind to be acquired by the [Sri Lankan] Navy.” India providing these ships to Sri Lanka can be perceived as strengthening Sri Lanka’s maritime security, which is in India’s own national security interest.
India has also held numerous joint military exercises with Sri Lanka, grouped under three different types. The “Mitra Shakti” bilateral exercises, conducted between the two armies, started in 2013. The 2017 exercise focused on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, with an emphasis on increasing the use of modern communication, reconnaissance and weapon technologies.
“SLINEX” is a series of naval exercises between the two navies. First conducted in 2005, these exercises help the two navies understand each other’s procedures. The goal is to enable the navies of both countries to rehearse and improve their own capabilities and enhance operational effectiveness, which is imperative for maintaining maritime security in the region. The 2017 edition of SLINEX, held near Vishakhapatnam, focused on anti-piracy, fleet work, seamanship, communication, and helicopter operations. SLINEX 2018 took place in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka and saw a significant boost in its scope, with the Sri Lankan Air Force participating for the first time.
The third joint exercise, called “Dosti,” is a trilateral coast guard exercise that includes the Maldives. Originally started in 1991 between India and the Maldives, it expanded in 2012 to include Sri Lanka and is aimed at achieving interoperability. Due to the geostrategic importance of the area, it is important for the coast guards of the three countries to establish the safety and security of the Indian Ocean region. Apart from these, India and Sri Lanka have also participated in larger joint military drills with other countries.
India has also successfully imparted training to the Sri Lankan military across the three branches of the armed forces for years. Although there has occasionally been opposition to such ties from India’s Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka has asserted that it is committed to training its defense personnel in India and prioritized India over sending officers to other countries. Between 2011 and 2013, almost 1,700 Sri Lankan officers trained in India, and around 80 percent of Sri Lankan naval officers received training from India.
In 2012, an agreement between the Indian and Sri Lankan prime ministers led to the inauguration of the Annual Defense Dialogue between the two countries. This dialogue, attended by high ranking officials, evaluates a range of defense cooperation initiatives, including maritime security, to further bilateral defense ties.
Thus, through these various confidence-building measures, the Indian military currently enjoys a level of cooperation with Sri Lanka that China most likely never will.
Therefore, India is still an important player with reference to Sri Lanka’s defense and security and in the recent past has significantly stepped up its defense cooperation with Colombo. Although China is increasing its defense ties with Sri Lanka mainly through military sales at the moment, Beijing could potentially strengthen ties further if the Sri Lankan Navy’s Southern Command base is indeed shifted to the Chinese-run Hambantota port. However, the prime minister’s office has stated that China will not use the facility for military purposes.
India on the other hand, although with limited military sales and exports, is still the top training destination for Sri Lankan officers. Furthermore, ties between the two militaries remain strong and continue to grow through annual joint military exercises covering all three services. With government assurance that Sri Lankan soil will not be used by anyone against India, it is imperative that the government in New Delhi continues to foster this relationship.
Looking at the situation from the Sri Lankan perspective, Colombo needs to tread carefully on how it manages its defense relations. Growing too close to China could create problems with India while leaning too much in favor of India could affect Chinese military sales to the country and other aspects of their bilateral relationship. For Colombo, it is therefore imperative to try and maximize its own gains while not antagonizing either of the large powers.
Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College who specialises in international relations of South Asia.