By Dr. Nazir hussain & Sannia Abdullah

Feb 26, 2015

indo-sirilanka copyThe newly-elected President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirsisena, in his first visit abroad has chosen India to show his preference and future direction of foreign policy approach. He and Premier Narindara Modi signed an agreement on nuclear safety aiming to provide Sri Lanka with nuclear energy infrastructure, heralding a strategic understanding to forge closer ties between the two states. This is an important development in the South Asian security calculus depicting a new look of Sri Lankan regional approach and Indian growing influence in South Asia undermining Pakistani and Chinese role in the region. Therefore, this article endeavours to discuss the new-found Indo-Sri Lanka relations, especially the nuclear agreement, and its implications on regional security.

Historical Context

The relations between India and Sri Lanka date back to the period of Emperor Ashoka in the 4th Century BC, when Buddhism was introduced in this Island. India and Sri Lanka are connected by sea through the Palk Strait in the Bay of Bengal. The bilateral relations remained cordial until the initiation of Indira Doctrine, which envisaged Indian dominant role in the resolution of disputes in South Asia countries. In this context, the Indian role remained controversial in the Sri Lankan civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese; Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Lankan central government. India supported the Tamil Tigers whole-heartedly and, ultimately, through the 1987 Accord, directly intervened in Sri Lanka under the pretext of controlling the Sri Lankan civil war. Though the situation stabilized, the Indian role became controversial and, ultimately, soared after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, which was blamed on the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE was labeled terrorist entity by India in 1992. The role of China and Pakistan during the civil war was crucial as both these countries supplied weapons, trained the Islanders in counter-insurgency operations, and helped the country rebuild and stabilize politically. Consequently, Sri Lanka became close to China and Pakistan and Indian role was marginalized.

Sri Lanka is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia. In 2013, the bilateral trade reached up to U.S. $3.7 billion. The major areas of investment by India include petroleum, telecom, IT, copper, real estate, hospital, tourism, banking and food industries and food processing products. India proactively participated in the rehabilitation and relief programme, particularly after the tsunami disaster. Thus, Sri Lanka became the recipient of $167.4 million development credit given by India. In development sector, India is instrumental in assisting Sri Lankan government in both mega and micro projects, including renovation of Palaly Airport, Kankesanthurai Harbour, construction of a Cultural Centre in Jaffna, interconnection of electricity grids between the two countries, construction of a 150-bed hospital in Dickoya and setting up a coal power plant in Sampur as a joint venture between National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). The total Indian investment is $1.3 billion in Sri Lanka. However, despite the growing economic and trade relations, Sri Lanka remained closer to China and Pakistan than India under the government of President Rajparkash.

New-Found Relations

With the trip of the new Sri Lankan President, Maithripala Sirisena, to India in February 2015, the bilateral cooperation between the two countries has moved forward consolidating into ‘strategic partnership’. On February 16, 2015, President Sirsisena and PM Modi signed a joint agreement on nuclear safety aiming to provide Sri Lanka with nuclear energy infrastructure. It is expected that India will also supply Sri Lanka with small nuclear reactor of 600MW capacity to be established by 2030. The agreement’s initial step is to fulfill energy requirement, which is likely to expand further to involve security and strategic needs. This bilateral cooperative agreement would assist Sri Lanka through exchange of knowledge, resources, capacity-building and providing expertise in the realm of peaceful uses of nuclear energy (including radioisotopes, nuclear safety, radiation safety and nuclear security), and cooperation in radioactive waste management and nuclear and radiological disaster mitigation.

Regional Implications

From the standpoint of IAEA safeguards, the deal is congruous to international standards and practices. Even though the deal does not amount much, it carries political significance. The incumbent political leadership in Sri Lanka has asked for a review of $1.5 billion project of creating a port city near the Colombo port. The agreement of creating of dubbed port city was signed between the previous government of (Sri Lanka) and Chinese government. Chinese President Xi Jinping inaugurated the construction work in September 2014, in an attempt to strengthen China’s maritime strategy and connect South East Asia and South Asia through the Silk Route. According to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, “All the activities of the Port City deal were done without transparency and without following many legal procedures. The agreement was signed without cabinet approval.” China hopes that the new government overcomes this controversy; nonetheless, expects to respect the state-level agreement signed between the two governments; as China has investments of about $6 billion in Sri Lanka and the bilateral trade of $3.14 billion (2011) that may be jeopardized after the decision of new Lankan government to review the project.

The strategic cooperation at the onset of new political governments on both sides carries strategic implications for regional politics. To offset the Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy, India has straddled fast through economic and military inroads in the Indian Ocean Rim states through the islands of Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles and Madagascar and the rim states of South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique. The blue water navy of India is also seeking to train, equip and provide assistance, including hydrographic support to the island nations to secure and advance its naval interests in the Ocean.

The Sri Lanka-India nuclear deal aims to highlight Indian interests to maintain its political influence over other South Asian states as a regional hegemon; while, at the same time, it guards Indian Ocean from China’s over-stretching naval wing. As already stated by a Chinese official, the Indian Ocean is not confined to India, China is likely to assert its economic influence through enhancing developmental projects. The construction of offshore port city close to Colombo is another pearl in its string.

The realpolitik assumptions demand that the Sri Lankan government strikes a balance between the two regional economic giants, China and India, and continue to seek financial benefits from

each one of them. That is challenging as Modi government is interested to finish off the Chinese influence from Sri Lanka as it attempts to outshine Indian hegemony in the region.


The India-Sri Lankan nuclear deals symbolizes the growing Indian assertiveness in the South Asian security calculations; as both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh now have pro-India governments and are being courted to undermine the growing Chinese and Pakistani roles. The Deal also signifies Indian confidence as a supplier state after being given the status of a de facto ‘Nuclear State’ in the backdrop of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and NSG wavier. India, under the BJP, is re-crafting the ‘Indira Doctrine’ of becoming a regional hegemon in South Asia. This episode may result in a conflictual security architecture in South Asia, rather than developing a cooperative mechanism for regional peace, progress and development.

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