29 May, 2023


India, China And Sri Lanka: The Uneasy Triangle

By R Hariharan

 Col. (retd) R.Hariharan

Col. (retd) R.Hariharan

China’s President Xi Jinping has accepted a long-standing invitation from President Mahinda Rajapaksa to visit Sri Lanka sometime this year. The first-ever visit by a Chinese President to Sri Lanka will no doubt be hailed alas a crowning achievement for President Rajapaksa’s foreign policy which had been under siege for some time now.

The Chinese President’s Sri Lanka visit will be an emphatic statement of the growing strategic relationship between the two countries since the two countries signed a “Strategic Cooperative Partnership (SCP)” agreement during President Rajapaksa’s visit to China in May 2013.

The SCP covers a whole range issues including bilateral trade, investment, financial assistance and strategic cooperation providing to benefit both the countries.  Sri Lanka’s recent selection of a Chinese firm a strategically important project for setting up a maintenance workshop for Sri Lankan air force in the vicinity of Trincomalee is an example of such cooperation.

But its progress could be cramped by positive turns in China’s uneasy relations with India. India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasised trade and development in his agenda has whetted the appetite of China. It is probably discovering that its strategic and commercial stakes and expectations from India are much higher than Sri Lanka.

President Xi has been keen to cultivate the Narendra Modi-led BJP government as China is keen to enter India’s huge market for its products and invest in capital-starved infrastructure projects. As a result China’s strategic and commercial stakes and expectations from India now are much higher than from Sri Lanka.  So we can expect President Xi to bear in mind India’s sensitivity to China’s expanding influence in Sri Lanka while planning his visit Colombo.

After Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping met for the first time during the recent BRICS summit meet in Fortaleza, Brazil a positive mood appears to have been created. Xi’s statement after the 80-minute meeting summed up the readiness of both China and India to build on the positive aspects of their troubled relationship.

Terming China and India as “long lasting strategic and cooperative partners, rather than rivals, Xi said he was “willing to work together with Prime Minister Modi to constantly enhance the China-India strategic and cooperative partnership to a higher level, and jointly safeguard our strategic period of opportunities, as well as peace and stability of the region and the world at large.”

Prime Minister Modi within the first month of assuming office has shown his eagerness to use China to kick start India’s development story. Modi conveyed his willingness to “maintain close and good working relationship” with President Xi. The Chinese President accepted Modi’s invitation to visit India. The visit is now scheduled for September 2014.

Indian business and industry are expecting a breakthrough in India-China economic relations during the Chinese President’s visit particularly in manufacturing, infrastructure and tourism industries. It is reasonable to expect China to ease restrictions on Indian business in China as a reciprocal gesture.

If this process is earnestly pursued, it could impact their relations with other South Asian countries also, despite their competing interests. And Sri Lanka will be one of the countries which will have to come to terms with it. Of course, it is probably too early to talk about it because both India and China have many more bridges to cross in their relationship.

President Rajapaksa expectations from Xi’s visit are likely to be manifold. Foremost among them would be an endorsement and assurance of support from the Chinese President for Rajapaksa’s stand against the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) sponsored international investigation on Sri Lanaka’s alleged human rights aberrations and war crimes.

Though China’s support to Sri Lanka is well known, Rajapaksa needs Xi’s reiteration of support as the UNHRC investigation now under way  is gaining more international attention despite Sri Lanka’s vehement objections. Rajapaksa’s diversionary tactics at home to whip up Sinhala nationalist sentiments seems to have ended disastrously after Buddhist fringe elements continued their attacks on Muslim minority. These added further fuel not only to the incompetence of the rulers to protect the minority but also the indifference of Rajapaksa administration to fundamental freedoms.

President Rajapaksa also needs the Chinese dignitary’s appreciation to boost his national image as more and more political leaders are demanding a reduction in executive president’s powers.

China emerged as an “all time friend” of Sri Lanka after it stepped in to provide arms and equipment to Sri Lanka during the Eelam War when India could not do so due to internal political compulsions. Since then both China and Sri Lanka have found increasing convergence in their strategic perceptions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Sri Lanka has positively responded to China’s keenness to promote ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR) through the Indian Ocean as it strengthens Sri Lanka’s strategic identity to emerge as a maritime and finance hub and play pivotal role in the Indian Ocean region.

On the other hand China hopes to improve the economic viability of Chinese investments in ports like Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Gwadar in Pakistan while legitimising its increased strategic role in IOR. Despite both China and Sri Lanka stressing the commercial nature of these developments, there is no doubt MSR would help PLA Navy enhance its strategic reach and sustenance in the Indian Ocean.

In the post war period China attended to Sri Lank’s huge financial needs for desperately needed finances for rebuilding the infrastructure in war torn areas. China liberally extended loans on commercial terms. Though India’s large economic aid was on much better terms, it was China that helped execute grandiose projects close to Rajapaksa’s heart. These include the Hambantota port and industrial complex, Matale airport etc. Colombo port capacity is being improved with a $500 million investment by a Chinese firm and Chinese assistance is on the cards for second phase development of Hambantota.

China is now poised to overtake India as Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner despite Sri Lanka benefitting from the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India which has helped India-Sri Lanka trade to grow to $ 5 billion by 2011. But even without the FTA, China’s bilateral trade figures reached nearly 50 per cent of the Indian figure.

However, trading with India is still advantageous for Sri Lanka as its export to India has grown six fold by 2013 unlike its minuscule share in trade with China. Sri Lanka hopes to rectify its lopsided trade with China when the SCP agreement comes into fully play and the FTA with China is signed.

China had been strictly adhering to its policy of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries. This has enabled it to consistently support Sri Lanka in the UNHRC over the war crimes allegations. As opposed to this India’s support had been hesitant and subject to internal pressures from Tamil Nadu. This has created a mental bias in Sri Lanka in favour of China. In the long term, increase in China’s role in Sri Lanka’s trade and diplomacy could affect India’s strategic prospects well beyond Sri Lanka in the IOR.

India has certain advantages in its complex relations with Sri Lanka. They are conditioned by their shared social, religious and cultural traditions over hundreds of years. Thanks to this, they have developed good understanding of each other’s needs and priorities. Over the years they have evolved large areas of cooperation in strategic security, trade and commerce, development assistance, communication, and in securing the national interests of both nations in the Indian Ocean.

This has enabled Sri Lanka to carefully balance its relations with both India and China. However Rajapaksa’s inability to see the big picture could make Sri Lanka’s balancing act more difficult particularly when India comes up with a holistic response designed to meet the Chinese challenge in IOR.  Sri Lanka would require a greater level of understanding between China and India, for it to successfully continue its balancing act.

With Sri Lanka entering into the SCP Agreement with China and eager to join the MSR, ideally India should take advantage of the increased opportunities for cooperation with them, rather than being overawed by the negative aspects.

To move towards this ideal, in the near term India will have to overcome a number of security and political challenges. These limitations apply to China and Sri Lanka as well.

Prime Minister Modi will have to recalibrate India’s policy in Sri Lanka to protect Indian interests even if he has to concede some space for China. This would require minimising Tamil Nada’s influence in shaping Sri Lanka policy and coming to some amicable arrangement on the Tamil Nadu fishermen’s problem. This may well be on the cards if we go by the recent political indications given by the BJP.

So we can expect the triangular relationship between India, China and Sri Lanka to remain an uneasy one till its angular contours are smoothed with patience and understanding.

*Col R Hariharan is a retired MI officer associated with Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. He served in Sri Lanka as the Head of Intelligence of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (1987 to 90). E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com Blog: http://col.hariharan.info

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 3

    India may soften its approach to Sri Lanka. But Rajapaksas will not trust India for a moment. Sri Lankan forces particularly the Army is fully geared to satisfy the requirements of China. Gotabaya is grooming Major General Prasad Samarasinghe to be the next Army Commander.That will happen before the next Presidential Election. Gen samarasinghe will use the army to frighten Tamil voters in the North and east and prevent them from voting at the next Presidential elections.Thats exactly what Rajapaksas want to happen.
    Gen. Samarasinghe has been sent to China several times in the recent past. China has treated him well with women and various other things knowing General Samarasinghe’s wish list. General Samarasinghe is also the Project Director of a Major Chinese funded in Colombo – Construction of Lotus Tower of the Telecom. General Samarasinghe in addition to his other interests become very talkative after couple of drinks. He says openly that Sri Lanka does not need Indian help.

    • 3

      Ravi Jayasinghe

      “He says openly that Sri Lanka does not need Indian help.”

      Cuba Managed for 55 years with US Help, who loses and who gains?

    • 3


      Which planet are you on mate. The planet of the “Squint eyed yellow men”

  • 5

    “This would require minimising Tamil Nada’s influence in shaping Sri Lanka policy and coming to some amicable arrangement on the Tamil Nadu fishermen’s problem”.
    Shockingly unwarranted remark from former a high ranking Indian official. The only arrangement on the Tamil Nadu fishermen’s problem is that they keep to their side of the International Maritime Boundary and stay away from Sri Lankan waters.
    Sri Lankans will not compromise on the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen stealing Sri Lankan resources. I would expect the retired Colonel understand that and convey the message to recalcitrant leaders in Tamil Nadu. There is no need to embroil China with the rogue fishermen’s issue; it is a matter the recalcitrant leaders of that miserable state to deal with. Simply put: Stay Away!

  • 3

    “China has treated him well with women and various other things “

    So he goes for the flat ones and the massage while Namal likes the booty shaky.

    Give an Indian a Johnny Walker Scotch like Kapil Dev had the night before and the next day he not only looses the match but has his house burnt.

    Alu poratas and sambar don’t mix or match even for life’s unknown chappathi’s.

  • 4

    India has lost its independence to Rajapakse family. Rajapakse tactfully made India as a partner in the massacre of innocent Tamils and they have to obey whatever Rajapakse says. Even Modi did not open his mouth when Rajapakse published an article that damaged the image of the Nation.

  • 2

    First of all India has lost to China in many foulds, including the strong relationship India had with Sri Lanka. India has never been a honest friend to SL. Example, India created LTTE, thereafter India gave its full support (although not openly) to Sri Lankan government to defeat LTTE. Only during the election season Indian central government takes notice of the minority issues in Sri Lanka, all the other times they support Rajapakse. The reason for this is 1) India has lost Sri Lanka to China and its trying very hard to keep Sri Lanka from supporting China in case of a war between India and China 2)the new silk route shipping business bypasses Indian ports 3) India has lost to China in international trade 4)for China Sri Lanka is a good listening post on India. Its only the regional states, that too Southern states, especially Tamil Nadu, is today talking about the minority issues in Sri Lanka. That use to be done only during the election season, but since all the political parties are trying to either retain or grow the voter base they all keep the minority issues of Sri Lanka burning.

    Due to these reasons India has accepted its defeat and does not want its security, trade and its stand as a South Asian power to further deteriorate. There is a strong possibility that India and China will come to an understanding so that China will have its way in East Asia and India will have its way in South Asia. If such an arrangement is made it would benefit both nations and would become a checkmate for US.

  • 3

    “Even Modi did not open his mouth when Rajapakse published an article that damaged the image of the Nation.”

    Gujus are Gujus they always take the lungi wallas for granted like the Harayanians (Sushima) (tamil was made a state language to retort the neighbour Punjab even though there were no tamils)
    Once Guju comes to power he plays for the loud mouth alu but finds it difficult to do the bangada and leans again on the donkey lungi.

    September Modi has a visit with Obama and he is in for shock and awe.
    August – India has once again blocked a World Trade Organization (WTO) deal on global trade,
    The deal would create $1Trillion and millions of jobs but Hindia wants to scrape the pot with `agricultural subsidy` now that it has tasted a bit of it before. The west plans to ignore India and go ahead like it did with Iraq war.
    Obama is in Africa with Billions of private trade to bring in the balance of trade with China and EU investments.- this is going to hurt India and China.

  • 7

    Hariharan “China emerged as an “all time friend” of Sri Lanka after it stepped in to provide arms and equipment to Sri Lanka during the Eelam War when India could not do so due to internal political compulsions”

    what a diabolical lie.The whole world know that India assisted directly and indirectly in the killing of over 40,000 innocent Tamils. Indian army personel were seen on the battlefield giving strategic/tactical advice and directing the war.

    and we all know the part played by the Satish Nambiar in the white flag incident with apparently with the tacit aprroval of India.

  • 1

    “So we can expect the triangular relationship between India, China and Sri Lanka to remain an uneasy one till its angular contours are smoothed with patience and understanding.”


    Come september and chaddi walla will be cavity checked by Obama and his men.

    1. multilateral voting.
    2. 50/50 5th generation stealth with russia.
    3. Rouble payments.

    By this time Russia may have invaded Ukraine so India will either have to go back to the days of Indira with the Russian defence pact and closed doors or do as the master beacons.
    Remember when Infosys Murthi felt the crunch of 2007 (almost all business from the west) he pleaded with China network manufactures for a share of the market since he has set up many a school in china. But the anti social chinese said no. Manmohan refused to help the southern miracle and Murthi did not mince his words about it.
    Mittal was able to purchase Romanian steel by paying in £100k to labour even thought he is NRI.
    lungi wallas seeda dekko!!

  • 10

    What a nonsense sir! If Srilanka wants tomorrow to eleminate TN to support Hindhia instead of China, would you happliy accept? Then why you need fourth largest army in world? For same reason, If pakistan and china aligns would you suggest to give up Kashmir? You people abysmally went wrong in 1987 befriending srilankan government and turned them as monster, had you given a strong kick so that they would never stand for centuries all these problem would not have been in first place.

  • 5


    This Tamil Nadu Brahmin (Hariharan) is not consistent in the articles that he writes. He swings between anti-Rajapakse and pro-Rajapakse. Hariharan is also fairly mediocre in his analysis. Seshadri Chari, Subramanian Swamy and he are opportunists who sing for their supper. You need to do your part in India to expose these political mediocrities.

  • 7


    You have said many things which don’t add up and just to give you an example the following two quotes don’t stand up to scrutiny and let me tell you why.

    1) China emerged as an “all time friend” of Sri Lanka after it stepped in to provide arms and equipment to Sri Lanka during the Eelam War when India could not do so due to internal political compulsions. Since then both China and Sri Lanka have found increasing convergence in their strategic perceptions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

    *** The above is totally wrong and a fallacy when you say that China was the main supplier of arms to Sri Lanka and you are an ex army man and you should know better than this. Every arm shipment to Sri Lanka from China is closely monitored by India as it impacts on her security. I am not sure if you are aware of this but about three years ago soon after the end of the so called Eelam War there was a huge explosion near Trinco of dynamite imported from China going up in flames in which many Chinese were killed and it was the work of RAW. It was a warning to China that its foray into arms procurement by Sri Lanka is limited.
    For your information it was India who supplied Sinhala Lanka with all the offensive weapons including Chemical Weapons.

    2) Sri Lanka has positively responded to China’s keenness to strengthens Sri Lanka’s strategic identity to emerge as a maritime and finance hub and play pivotal role in the Indian Ocean region.

    *** I don’t know how you come up with the above theory as the shipping lines along Indias coast is guarded by both India and USA and your theory that Sinhala Lanka has any say in this is stupid and ignorant.
    What happened when China asked for permission from India to sail into Indian waters to search for the Malaysian Airline. India said no.

    So in future please analyse the facts and give it some thought before you write as otherwise it amounts to Cunningham Recklessness.

    • 1

      The explosaion in Trinco had nothing to do with RAW. India cannot send warnings to China when that over populated, backward country had been given a lesson in 1962 by the Chinese it will never forget. Had RAW killed Chinese nationals in an explosion, then Kundakulam reactor in that squalid TN would have been blasted by the Chinese, without any warning. India may bully smaller neighbours, but knows not to mess around with China.

      • 6

        Lal you are a Lol:

        Whether you like it or not India has total Jurisdiction over Sinhala Lanka. India is a regional Bully Mahintha the THUG is a Hambanthotta Bully and there is no match. You really are an idiot and for your information the following is on the record.

        1) When there was a Chinese Submarine Scare in Sri Lankan waters India sent two warships to Colombo Harbour
        2) After the Malaysian Airline MH370 disappeared China asked for permission to search inside Sri Lankan waters but India refused.
        That tells you how much control India has over Sinhala Lanka.
        GROW UP MAN.

        • 1

          Dumbo: India’s subs and their airforce are in the back pocket of China. Besides they are made to Indian quality standards (lol). Collect your donkey brains and read about the hammering India received at the hands of the Chinese army in 1962. India knows and remembers the bitter taste of that episode. Don’t forget Sri Lanka made India and Tamil Nadu into spectators in 2009 whilst the Sri Lankan army handed a humiliating defeat to racist Tamil Terrorists. Get over that and get a life!

          • 5

            Lal you lol:

            There is no harm you flying the flag for” Cheenavedi”. I am sure you are singing in the rain with a dodgy Chinese umbrella but you twit they only last a few yards in strong winds.
            As for the Chinese coming to your rescue where were the mighty Chinese army when the IPKF arrived. Hiding in the bushes were they.

            • 0

              IPKF looted, raped and killed Tamils by the thousands. Where were you then? Hiding in the bushes, I presume. Get the hatred you have for the Sinhalese, put Get a life! Put the war behind and move on.

              • 2

                lal loo

                “IPKF looted, raped and killed Tamils by the thousands. Where were you then? Hiding in the bushes,”

                Of course the IPKF did all those atrocities and more while the Sri Lankan armed forces were hiding behind their women folks and VP’s fat bum.

                They were supposed to protect their own people. After all the Tamils were not considered to be their people as then and now, that much is clear.

  • 0

    Sri Lanka has since 1961 considered China to be her traditional friend/ally despite words to the contrary by Sri Lankan leaders in recent times conveniently invoking India’s closeness to Sri Lanka often shrouded in mutual suspicion. Xi’s visit will enable him besides other things to assess the degree of Sri Lanka’s “closeness” to China and Rajapaksa’s words of loyalty to China vis- a- vis India not to mention also India’s assessment in this regard. Bensen

  • 0

    PM Modi will have to recalibrate his Intelligence outfit first, to ensure the LTTE moles from JJ’and the Diaspora Turfs don’t slip into his Residence,

    Perhaps Modi should give the Colonel the job to look after it.

    He seems well qualified and experienced dealing with Kittu , Pottu Amman and the House Keeper who took care of our Rainbow Boss’s onetime boss bloke ex President Mr Premadasa..

  • 3

    Hariharan is saying in other words that the Tamil issue will be totally overlooked by India for the sake of a friendly Sri Lanka and a friendlier China! Tamils of Tamilnadu, please wake up!

    Sengodan. M

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.