How China’s withdrawal from Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has given India a strategic opportunity

Despite China’s proximity to Sri Lanka, unlike Pakistan, Beijing sat on the sidelines while Colombo’s economy collapsed last year, giving New Delhi an advantageous position. Beijing and Colombo’s longstanding political and economic connections have grown closer in recent years because to China’s remarkable development. Despite its physical separation from the Indian subcontinent, China has been using its vast financial resources to challenge India’s regional dominance. Leaving the door open for New Delhi when Colombo had its first sovereign default in April 2022 was a perplexing decision. Debt relief was another area it avoided. Because of its location and ability to control shipping routes, Sri Lanka was formerly considered a potential “Singapore of the East,” a reference to China’s “Malacca dilemma,” as described by president Hu Jintao in 2009. In order to circumvent this problem, it created two overland routes, one via Pakistan (CPEC) and the other through Myanmar (CMEC). The Sunda Straits, to the south of Malacca, are used by the country’s supertankers.

China’s relations with Sri Lanka go back a long way, and the two countries have worked together to counterbalance India’s influence, along with “iron brother” Pakistan. Sri Lanka has a long history of anti-India feeling due to the danger posed by the Chola monarchs of Tamil Nadu. Sri Lankan Tamils in the north and east, coupled with 70 million Tamils across the 20-kilometer Palk Straits, amplify the foreign danger. This makes the Sinhalese majority act and feel like outsiders. China sent planes, artillery, and tanks to Sri Lanka in order to make the country feel more safe during the civil war with the Tamil Tigers. In the year 2000, India got a military SOS from Sri Lanka after the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) defeated the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) at Elephant Pass and were moving on Jaffna. After President Premadasa forcibly removed IPKF from Sri Lanka, New Delhi declined to help. Instead, India provided Sri Lanka $500 million to go toward the purchase of weapons.

Thanks to an emergency supply of Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers from China and Pakistan, the Sri Lankan Liberation Army (SLA) was able to fend off the Tamil Tigers and prevent them from going on the offensive. After this almost military catastrophe, my old superiors ordered me to Colombo to evaluate the SLA’s capabilities to resist, discourage, and destroy the LTTE. Based on my research, it seems that the highest echelons of the SLA are too politicized, despite the organization’s purely ceremonial origins. The Tamil Nadu factor, in which politicians in Tamil Nadu opposed India’s provision of military aid to the Sinhalese armed forces, allowed China and Pakistan to fill the strategic vacuum. There were 39 Tamil members of parliament who had substantial power in the New Delhi legislature, notably within the coalition administration. New Delhi continued delaying Colombo’s plea for providing necessary armaments during the SLA’s successful onslaught against the Tamil Tigers from 2007 to 2009. The National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan, however, openly criticized Colombo for going to China for weapons.

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