Reorienting India-Sri Lanka Relations Amidst Chinese Expansionism

Authored by: Soumya Singhal

Edited by: Riya Singh Rathore and Kavita Majumdar


India’s location at the crossroads of the Atlantic waters and the Indo-Pacific has historically provided it with a geographical advantage in maritime trade. Such a strategic position enabled India to create a stable zone of influence in the northern Indian Ocean Region [IOR]. IOR is the hub of international trade in the 21st century, especially in energy trade. Two-thirds of the world’s oil and almost half of the world’s coal passes through the IOR (Murlidharan 2018). As of 2018, 90% of India’s foreign trade by volume, i.e. the size of international transactions of goods in terms of monetary value, is transported via ocean waters. In addition, India undertakes various economic activities within its Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ], including offshore petroleum extraction that satisfies 20% of the country’s petroleum needs (ibid). 

Despite India’s strategic geographical advantage, China’s emergence as a major player has become a cause for concern in the IOR. The concerns surround Chinese expansionism in trade, foreign policy, and maritime security, which manifest most prominently in the form of its Wolf Warrior Diplomacy and the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI]. This network of the BRI, coupled with the robust diplomatic approach of the Chinese administration, has facilitated the stationing of Chinese naval forces and commercial facilities to encircle India in a ‘string of pearls’. While India has upgraded its capacity to counter Chinese aggression on land, the maritime threats push Indian security strategy into unknown waters. 

Within this developing context, Sri Lanka is a key player. The island nation lies on an important Sea Lines of Communication [SLOC] stretching from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab. Thus, Sri Lanka exists close to a constant flux of economic activity. The island nation is also in close proximity to India’s EEZ, which employs nearly 15 million people directly or indirectly in fishing activities, including deployment of around 2.5 lakh vessels of various kinds (Murlidharan 2018). This area, however, is also a site of piracy by offshoots of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] (Abeyagoonasekera 2020), a Tamil insurgent group demanding a separate territory for Sri Lankan Tamils.

Additionally, since Sri Lanka lies at the juncture of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, it is close to the zone meant for switching of Indian Naval fleets, i.e., changing the position or formation of warships. The Indian Ocean is a site of critical naval exercises that India undertakes along with fellow Quad members — the USA, Japan, and Australia — and other countries like the UK, France, Russia, and Singapore. The Sri Lankan and the Indian navies have also continued conducting Bilateral Maritime Exercises since 2005. Thus far, the Indian Navy’s military vessels in the Indian Ocean have been crucial in keeping Chinese commercial and naval facilities in check.