U.S. and Indian engagement in Sri Lanka, as in the other smaller South Asian states, is increasingly shaped by the fear of losing ground to China. In the past decade and a half China’s footprint in Sri Lanka has rapidly expanded through infrastructure projects, financial aid, as well as growing Chinese tourism. In the shadow of these changes, U.S. and Indian engagement has become increasingly wary of antagonizing the often intolerant Sinhala Buddhist sentiment that dominates the island’s politics and institutions.
In an effort to counter Chinese influence, and establish a strategic and economic foothold on the island, the United States and India have at times worked to appease Sinhala Buddhist sentiment by soft-pedaling on contentious issues such as accountability for mass atrocities and the rights of the island’s Tamil and Muslim communities. The problem with this approach is that the principal obstacle to U.S. and Indian interests on the island is not China per se but rather Sinhala Buddhist nationalism itself and the political as well as economic outcomes it seeks.
Although the U.S. and India were key allies in Sri Lanka’s ultimately successful efforts to militarily crush the Tamil separatist insurgency, Sinhala leaders always resented international insistence on a political solution to the ethnic conflict. From the mid-2000s, they turned to China as an alternative source of financial and military assistance to push back on U.S. and Indian influence. This intensified with the end of the war and the growing momentum of U.S.-led demands on accountability for wartime atrocities against Tamil civilians.
Yet attempting to counter Chinese influence by appeasing Sinhala nationalist sentiment and soft-pedalling on demands for accountability and political reform comes with considerable costs and uncertain gains. Sri Lanka’s primary strategic focus remains on securing Sinhala dominance over the Tamils and increasingly also the Muslims. This explains its otherwise puzzling insistence on using scarce financial resources to maintain a vast military presence in the Tamil speaking areas. Its extensive surveillance infrastructure also remains trained on monitoring and harassing Tamil civil society activists on the island and in the increasingly politically active and assertive diaspora scattered across Western states.
To really outdo China’s offer, the United States and India will have to more than soft-pedal criticism on these issues; they will have to actively support Sri Lanka in its efforts to crack down on Tamil civil society on the island and in the diaspora. The U.S. and other Western states will be asked, as they have already been, to criminalize and proscribe Tamil diaspora advocacy, censor Tamil political expression, and share information that could be used to intimidate family members on the island. India will have to abandon its earlier recognition, through the Indo-Lanka accord, of a historic Tamil speaking presence on the island.
These are tall political asks, but ones that are unlikely to deliver any clear strategic or military gain. Appeasing Sinhala nationalist sentiment will only fuel Sinhala leaders’ somewhat delusional belief that they can leverage the island’s strategic position to incite a cold-war style bidding war between the U.S., India, and China that will not only secure Sinhala Buddhist political domination over the minorities but also the financial resources to sustain this. Sri Lanka’s erratic approach to Indian and U.S. investments – seeking them out and then backsliding for nationalist reasons – are emblematic of this effort to hold out for maximal political and economic gains.
It is, of course, impossible for any of these international actors to provide the type of blank check financial and political backing that Colombo seeks; economic, aid, and investment priorities simply do not work this way. Yet the enthusiasm with which Western states and India have pursued military and economic ties in the absence of any progress on accountability or political reform has understandably encouraged Sinhala leaders’ belief that strategic concerns are primary and that a bidding war is possible.
Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, rather than China, is also the principal obstacle to greater economic and infrastructure connectivity with India. In Sinhala Buddhist mythology, India is a persistent cultural threat and source of alleged invasions that destroyed the island’s once pristine Buddhist civilization. While actual history is very different from this mythology, it is the mythology that is politically important and cited as an obstacle to Indo-Lanka relations even by normally Indophile political leaders such as Chandrika Bandaranaike.
Sri Lanka also remains wracked by political and economic instability, conditions that make it difficult if not impossible, to build the long-term and reliable relationships that the United States and India seek. Although it has been over 10 years since the end of the civil war, the country remains mired in an escalating debt crisis, made worse by the pandemic, persistent ethnic tensions that sometimes turn violent, and creeping militarization already at acute proportions in the Tamil areas. The ultimate source of this instability, however, is not China per se or its “debt trap diplomacy” but rather the powerful and intolerant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that dominates Sri Lanka’s politics and public institutions. These forces have been unchecked since the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is himself accused of overseeing atrocities.
The United States and India do, however, have tools at their disposal that can be used to advance strategic ties without trading off advances on accountability and political reform. The long histories that link the island to the West and India, and which cannot be replicated by China, can and should be used to pressure Sinhala leaders into adopting necessary but unpopular measures to advance the political rights of Tamils and Muslims.
The English language, cricket, Hollywood, Bollywood, as well as the Tamil music and film industry all have deep cultural and social imprints across the island and are important to even the most hard-line Sinhala nationalist politicians. Several members of the ruling Rajapaksa family are U.S. green card holders, and the previous Rajapaksa administration invested heavily in U.S.-based lobbying and public relations firms to counter Tamil diaspora lobbying. They have also invested in the south Indian Tamil film industry to change negative perceptions of the island.
Targeted sanctions, further travel bans on officials and family members, such as those already imposed on the head of the army Shavendra Silva, and the threat of cricket and other cultural boycotts can all have a persuasive effect, especially if they are linked to concrete expectations of progress on accountability and political reform. The fears that such measures would tip Sri Lanka even further into China’s camp should not be overstated. The ties between China and Sri Lanka remain at the state-to-state level and do not have the same resonance in popular culture as those to Western states and India.
Sri Lanka’s turn to China has not fixed its economic problems and only made them worse by piling up even more public debt for infrastructure projects that have yet to deliver any noticeable benefit to the public purse or social welfare. Furthermore, China has also not offered to simply bail Sri Lanka out of its current debt crisis, suggesting that whatever the long-term objectives, for the time being Sri Lanka remains primarily important to Beijing as a site for excess Chinese capital and infrastructure capacity.
For the United States and India however, Sri Lanka cannot remain merely a site of extraction or recycling excess capital but has to be a long-term partner in new regional and international architectures. The principal obstacle to this is not China but the dominance of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the economic and political outcomes it seeks. To build reliable strategic ties in Sri Lanka, the U.S. and India must use the “soft” leverage they have to give Sinhala leaders a reality check and push for measures that are crucial to securing stability and preventing conflict recurrence.