Eyeing China, India Strains Relations with Sri Lanka

India’s condemnation of Sri Lankan human rights abuses must be seen as part of a regional game.

India’s support for an American-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that condemned the government of Sri Lanka signifies a complete reversal of a decades-old policy.

As irrelevant as Sri Lanka may seem strategically and in terms of resources, geopolitical stakes are playing out on what what would seem to be but a mild rebuke of Sri Lanka with little by way of actual consequence for the perpetrators of war crimes.

China’s calculus is straight. Hemmed in by overwhelming American naval superiority and the fleets of Japan and Korea, its efforts at acquiring power projection capabilities have set off the same kind of opposing dynamic that German and Russian admirals Alfred von Tirpitz and Sergei Gorshkov triggered, reinforcing the offshore balancer.

The Malacca Straits are a vital energy jugular of China’s economy and hence its rise. India’s emerging naval strategy seems, gauged both from procurement plans as well as the strengthening of Andaman’s joint air-naval command, directed at choking this jugular. China’s trump card, Pakistan, is now in the throes of disintegration moreover, its strategic utility seems lost, while Burma, due to a significant overdose of Chinese “soft power,” has run into India’s arms.

Thus Sri Lanka emerges as China’s new strategic pawn more out of necessity than choice. Analogically, it is India’s Cuba, a mere irritant without nuclear weapons. Insufficient in national power and having no nuclear ambitions, its usefulness as an ally — at least the “crazy” independent kind which the Chinese seem to prefer — is limited. It does not posses a disproportionate ability to wreak havoc or tie down regional powers.

What is more, the Sri Lankan economy is too dependent on Indian goodwill and supply routes to deal with a American style trade embargo. At best, it can be China’s “Albania” to draw in another analogy; strategically inutile and of dubious rhetorical value but requiring China to expend vast diplomatic resources.

India’s Sri Lanka policies have largely been driven by paranoia surrounding the rise of China, stoked in no small degree by the budget hungry but intellectually deficient armed forces.

This phenomenon has been exploited successfully in the past by Sri Lankan politicians to either extract concessions from or to relieve pressure applied on them by India.

Some Indian commentators have exaggerated this development to suggest that Sri Lanka has somehow “successfully balanced” against India. As a result, New Delhi’s options to help Lankan Tamils have been completely paralyzed by dubious grand strategy analyses — overcompensating for every Chinese move and appeasing the Sinhala majority.

This overcompensation has now produced a furious centripetal reaction from India’s Tamil Nadu state. Here, the state ruling party and opposition have joined hands to blackmail a severely weakened central government into executing a policy U-turn. This reversal is a stark departure from uncritical support of the Sri Lankan government last week to supporting a harsh condemnation of it the following

In the final analysis, all three parties have overplayed their hands.

China overplayed the Sri Lanka card and did so too soon to the point that it now faces being cornered, supporting a country that can provide it no tangible benefits in the foreseeable future.

Sri Lanka in its attempt to thwart Indian support for Tamil rights overplayed the China card and demanded too much from India.

India overplayed the China threat and has now been forced into a humiliating retreat by small regional parties within India’s polity.

Some good may yet come of this forced construct of a China-Sri Lanka axis. As the former prime minster of Nepal Surya Bahadur Thapa used to say, “Nepal is surrounded by dogs, the one to the south barks but does not bite, the one to the north does not bark but bites viciously.”

Sri Lanka is going to learn the Nepal lesson the hard way opting for an ally that can only realistically support it at diplomatic fora. As the lessons of Pakistan and North Korea show, China never pays the bills at the end of the day.

China is now faced with the bloated cost of maintaining an ally that is incapable of realistically bringing synergies to the grouping. India on the other hand learns a good lesson; that China’s abilities must be viewed realistically and analyzed without hysteria.

Sri Lanka has two options. One is to make good on its China threat with all the attendant liabilities. The other is to capitulate to India.

The problem lies with India, which in spite of its delirious view of itself as a benign power was and is an insufferable regional bully. Like a man eating tiger that can never turn back once it has tasted human blood, the taste of victory in Sri Lanka will in all probability lead to triumphalism and the inevitable clumsily overplayed hand — the hallmark of Indian diplomacy, which will in turn set in motion a new round of regional balancing in the subcontinent.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously referenced the United Nations refugee agency instead of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

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