The slew of pacts signed between Sri Lanka and India during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent visit to India marks the changed contours of the nations’ bilateral ties. The cooperation pledged by India in security matters, power and rail linkages, oil exploration and cultural exchange is expected and designed to deepen India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s economy and development. The focus on furthering mutual economic and strategic interests is what has kept the interaction going between the two nations since the 1990s, when India consciously rolled back its self-destructive policy of intrusion. The seven pacts signed in New Delhi reaffirm India’s self-conscious stand of allowing Sri Lanka to handle its internal politics and concentrating on areas of mutual concern that would invite the least discord between the two neighbours.
The limiting of discord with Sri Lanka is important to India. That is one way of countering China’s ever-growing influence in the Indian Ocean region and restraining Pakistan’s strategic ambitions. Sri Lanka, which has bought the support of both China and Pakistan, besides a host of other countries, for its war against the Tamil rebels in exchange of promoting the strategic interests of its backers, is aware of India’s concern. It is not without reason that Mr Rajapaksa found himself in a bargaining position with India during his recent trip, which came after Sri Lanka’s crucial break with its past and his own stupendous victory in both the presidential and parliamentary elections. While India re-stated its commitment to the welfare of the Sri Lankan Tamils by pledging Rs 500 crore and assistance in the construction of 50,000 homes, it could not get Mr Rajapaksa to commit to the implementation of the 13th amendment, although he did promise to create the “necessary conditions” for the resolution of the country’s ethnic problems. It goes without saying that Sri Lanka has only begun discovering the benefits that may accrue to it if it is able to balance the strategic interests of its neighbours in the region. Its assent to India to set up a consulate in Hambantota, where China is building a port, is perhaps an indication of this effort. Once the pressure from the West on human rights violations builds up and begins to hurt its economy, Sri Lanka may find this balancing act to be a saving grace as well.