29 November, 2022


Indo-Chinese Aid: Compassionate Reward Or Concealed Warning From Competing Masters?

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

Shiploads of relief supplies coming at first from India immediately followed by China is a much wanted and timely help to the Sri Lankan victims of the latest natural disaster. However, the question must be raised whether the help is entirely altruistically motivated or tinged with a hidden price.

In the geopolitics surrounding the Indian Ocean Sri Lanka is caught in a painful dilemma. Before the 1970s when India and China were not openly engaged in any regional power contest Sri Lanka was able to navigate its diplomatic ship quite smoothly through the turbulent waters of the Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s India’s and Sri Lanka’s diplomatic and economic alignment with the Soviet regime, in spite of Nehruvian non-alignment and widening rift between Moscow and Peking, did not create any special problem.

The 1980s however proved a dramatic turning point. The disappearance of the Soviet super power, Jayawardena’s total surrender to U.S’ economic regimen and global hegemony, the rapid emergence of China and India as the two rivalling regional economic giants, and because of these developments the transformation of the Indian Ocean into the main theatre of geopolitical contest between the U.S-India alliance on the one hand and China on the other have made Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the ocean more crucial than ever. All three contestants who wanted to dominate the Indian Ocean want to have a strong foothold in Sri Lanka. Robert Kaplan, a Washington based security analyst, has delved into this emerging contest* quite perceptively.

Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean provides a golden opportunity to play one power against the other and maximize the pay-off. But such a game also carries a potential danger of antagonising both players and losing everything. Until now, may be because the geopolitical temperature in the Indian Ocean is cool, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime appears to be managing the balancing act fairly successfully. India’s and China’s competitive rush to aid the national effort in healing the wounds inflicted by the natural disaster is a reflection of this success. However, it is a very delicate game. When the temperature gets heated Sri Lanka’s position will be quite problematic.

Sri Lanka’s close proximity to India, the cultural affinity between the two countries, and the presence of a significant naturalized Indian-Tamil enclave in the island are factors that compel a close friendship with India. The covert support that Delhi lent to the Sri Lankan government in the war against LTTE amidst a strong pro-LTTE political lobby in Tamil Nadu further strengthened this friendly relationship.

On the other hand, China is thousands of miles away from Sri Lanka. Although distance is not a significant barrier in today’s world of ultra-rapid transport and communication’ yet, when relations turn from cool to hot between the two rivalling regional powers, India will certainly have an edge over China in reaching the shores of the island. China’s entry into Hambantota as part of its ‘string of pearls’ strategy is partly to offset the disadvantage of distance and partly to protect China’s oceanic trade route that transports her resources and commodities.

Already, China’s flexing of muscle in the Asia Pacific region by creating and militarizing artificial islands together with her muted response to North Korea’s provocative launching of ballistic missiles has alarmed the U.S. and her Western allies. It is to counter the rise of China that U.S. has rushed to strengthen its friendship with India to the open disgust of her long term ally Pakistan. U.S. would wish India to play a crucial role in checkmating China in the Indian Ocean. Even with or without U.S’ friendship India will not surrender its dominance over the Indian Ocean at any cost. K. M. Panikkar, one of that country’s eminent historian and an essayist spelt out with great perspicacity the dictum in 1935 and said: “While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is the vital sea. Her life lines are concentrated in that area. Her future is dependent on the freedom of that vast water surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth, no stable political structure is possible for her unless the Indian Ocean is free and her two shores fully protected. The Indian Ocean must remain fully Indian.”** This fundamental philosophy has been assiduously followed by all successive Indian governments. It was developed later by some Indian nationalists in their imperialist to be part of a program of Indian colonisation of certain parts of Asia, notably Sri Lanka and Malaya***.

One of the critical assets that Sri Lanka possesses is the Trincomalee harbour. Oceanographic engineers have found that anything hidden by anyone beneath its waters whether it is a toy or a nuclear submarine is undetectable by another. This is why there is such a haste to get access to this harbour by rivalling outside powers. The triangular contest among U.S., India and China to have some access to this natural harbour foretells how Sri Lanka would become entangled in a geopolitical rivalry which will eventually jeopardise her national sovereignty. Any deal by any Sri Lankan government with any outside power that would compromise the neutrality of Trincomalee would be suicidal; but to maintain that neutrality under any pressure requires the diplomatic talent and skill of a super Kautilya.

Given these constraints it is legitimate to raise the question whether the current flow of aid from both India and China is a compassionate reward or a concealed warning by both contestants telling Sri Lanka not to get too close towards the other.


*Robert D. Kaplan, “Centre Stage for the Twenty-first Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean”, Foreign Affairs, 88:2, 2009; Monsoon, New York: Random House, 2010.

**Panikkar K. M., India and the Indian Ocean, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1945. Emphasis is mine.

***Keenleyside T. A., “Nationalist Indian Attitudes Towards Asia: A Troublesome Legacy for Post-Independence Indian Foreign Policy”, Pacific Affairs, vol. 55, no. 2, 1982.

Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia

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Latest comments

  • 1

    The importance of Trincomalee is overplayed. It may have been significant at a point of history but given rapid movements of navies, its significance is diminished. So is the significance of the Hambantota port where heavy vessels don’t have deep water. In any event, the Indian ownership of the Nicobar and Andaman Islands makes the significance of Sri Lanka less. Port Blair connects Vishakapatnam and is virtually at the tip of the Malacca Straits. With Diego Garcia, the US is always present in the Indian Ocean. So, this analysis seems somewhat dated.

    Of course, the aid giving pattern is interesting. India, China and Pakistan sent vessels. But, the rapport it had with the people would be interesting to study. The presence of Chinese in Colombo is much resented by local people. This is so in other parts of Asia. The mainland Chinese don’t hit it off with their own kind elsewhere, not even in Hong Kong.

    One has to be realistic that India is close has natural affinities with the Ceylon and Indian Tamils as well as with Buddhists. That closeness, neither China nor Parkistan can aspire to.

    • 1

      Yes, the importance of Trinco is much over-rated, like the greatness of Ceylon tea.
      The Japanese did manage to sink a few British ships in Trinco, and would have done much more damage if the Brits han’t moved the rest to the Maldives. This was 75 years ago, before the age of cruise missiles and nuclear-powered subs.
      Trinco does have a good deep water anchorage. And of course it has the British-built oil tanks, to utilise which we have neither the ships nor the money.
      What we must remember is that both our independence and sovereignty are limited by the presence of this very large northern neighbour. We have to depend on India for everything from helicopters in 1971 to parippu in 1987. So let’s keep our noses clean.

  • 2

    Dr. Ali, there is nothing called a “free dinner”, even in these situations. Look at Sudan, Yemen etc where there is utter starvation, diseases etc etc but neither India nor China has done any relief. As far as I am aware, OXFAM and some other U.N divisions are doing something to keep the name and the status!

    Both India and China are wanting to acquire Sri Lanka and there is no going back on that. We Sri Lanans asked for that because of our own selfishness and back-biting.

    Ceylon loaned England Stg 50 million during the last war. At that tie we were under the “bad” brits.

  • 0

    China can move an artificial Island into the Indian Occian rather than an aircraft carrier. And position it south of Sri lanka. The Size of it can expand to the size of Sri lanka.

  • 2

    Sir, our geographic realities tell us we cannot piss India off. We learnt our lesson no? Sri Lanka has for the most part had a very useful friendly albeit independent foreign policy relationship with India. It was JR who mucked it up first by stupidly thinking he could join ASEAN. We are not SE but S Asia! What a farce. So we all know the history of Indian destabilization and arming terrorists. But reality is under Modi they follow a far more aggressive Hinduvta policy towards even Nepal. Nepal had huge problems a couple of years ago with India Bihari Nepalis invading, blockading the border and trying to carve out a state for political power in the rapidly expanding Bihari Nepali populuation. Nepali Buddhists and even Nepali Hindus(remember it was the only Hindu Kingdom in the world under the Kings?)/ But my Cardiologist who is Nepali also slammed India for their dirty games. But as Lankans say Sir, “what to do men?”</b

    Reality is China has business interests. India has business interests and major security interests; it wants to make Sri Lanka another Nepal or ideally another Bhutan. In short SL loses if it veers towards China too much. As you saw in 1987 in the Parippu drop, No one came to rescue SL and foolish JR thought his Yankee Dicky credentials will see US help. Nope; India and US are on the same page now and strong allies militarily too. US arms sales to India and China-India border disputes are among the top six “sensitivities” senior Chinese officials have listed for the new Donald Trump administration

    • 0

      Mano you were amongst those who, in the early ’80s said categorically that the LTTE cannot be defeated militarily! You serve only yourself and your club.

  • 2

    To continue(CT your 300 word count is aaaaargh)

    The strategic partnership between India and US is spearheaded by Defense deals and agreements. From a mere $200 million in 2009, India’s defense imports from the US increased to $ 2 billion in 2013. The US became the top supplier of defence components and materials to the Indian Armed forces. The US and India have agreed on various defence deals like the sales of c130j Super Hercules transport planes, the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft’s, the C-17 Globemasters.

    So if India invades SL no one will give a shit. As it is Indians are overstaying their visas or as Donald Trump says Illegally staying. SL cannot build a wall. Also Indians are way ahead of us in IT, Investments etc. What I hear is they love living in Sri Lanka because of better living standards, cleaner conditions. But the Hindi Speaking N.Indians apparently are arrogant shitheads at times in Colombo. The Lady I rented the apartment from said she will never rent to Indians again because they ruin the Kitchens and dirty apartments. But as it is, SL is already being dominated and overrun by tacit moves by Modi Sahibs Hinduvtas. Yes it was more than a warning from India. China only has business interests now but India as you know is mortally scared of China since 1962 when they got their asses whupped. Modi is already repressing Muslims in India. People in Gujarat where there is a sizeable Muslim population already imposed absurd laws, cow slaughter is now punishable by life sentencing.. I love my hamburger with onions and spices.

  • 2

    India over Chain has the upper hand today:

    Even though China was with SL when no one was there, (when India declined arms supply, India declined any bigger infrastructure projects and any post-war diplomatic support too) pro-Beijing MR was sent back home with the help of RAW too, and pro-Delhi was replaced. Modi’s dirty play has no limits, he is even making use of Buddhism to his favor, why would he visit at Buddhist holy sites during visits to SL? Why on Vesak days? Just to hood wink the local Sinhalese. India should not be trusted, because they did not trust that we will end the war, and waited till war to end to invest in SL. It was China that invested even before war ended. I guess we SL, should stick to China that has a stronger voice in UN, and not submissive to US

  • 1

    The floods was furious. We need assistance to rehabilitate the victims. Should we be choosy as to from who we accept help? Has Ameer Ali ever wondered as to why the once prosperous and self-esteemed Ceylon has fallen into a slave/master slot? One thought that university academics looked into fundamentals.

  • 1

    I think that we should give preference to India over China in our diplomatic relations?
    Why ?
    It could be many .?.but for me it’s to protect integrity of SL…India can make or break SL…it did try it past.it created LTTE …no secret about it..
    Indra Ghnadi did it ?
    So who says that it would not make it
    Once again….yes…India has learned it’s lesson.
    JR was clear enough to do a deal and protect the integrity of SL ..today India consider SL as part of it ..
    Flood incident tells us how it quickly responged to show off its muscle
    We are sandwiched is between these geopolitics of India and chin a
    How long this honey moon type relationship go on ..
    To appease both countries…

  • 0

    The author should have gone through some details of the history of aid to Sri Lanka over the past sixty years or so. . . . . .To lump all donors together is not learned comment. . . . . .****
    One cannot judge Chinese and Indian intentions in the region without locating them correctly in the bigger picture of US imperialist bid for global domination and strategic isolation of its rivals. . . . . . .****
    That besides, to make ourselves the focus of foreign charity is not a good thing. It is time that the country mobilized its resources not just to face disaster but to prevent disaster and to develop its economy.

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