Nary a soul was surprised when the Indian media spun a mountain of foreign policy predictions from the simple news that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s scheduled speech in the Sri Lankan Parliament was cancelled due to COVID-19 precautions. As the Modi government’s “Neighbourhood Policy” sinks into the waters of the Indian Ocean, its narrative makers are forced to grasp at straws just to keep the dream afloat. Yet straws are just that; straws. Behind the optics of the speeches and state visits lies the realities of foreign policy cast in concrete and steel – those cannot be spun away.
Imran Khan’s visit comes at a time when the new Sri Lankan government under the Rajapaksas brothers is breaking further from Indian influence and welcoming China’s re-entry into Colombo’s power corridors.
On February 1, Sri Lanka abruptly scrapped the Colombo Port East Container Terminal (ECT) project with India and Japan; which was announced with much pomp only a few weeks ago. To add insult to injury, China is developing the Colombo International Container Terminal right next door to ECT unfettered. On January 18, Sri Lanka cleared a Chinese energy project in three islands off the Jaffna peninsula that are barely 50 km from the Tamil Nadu coast, prompting the Indian government to “raise concerns with Colombo” over the proximity of the project to the Indian mainland. Coupled with the Hambantota Port Project – whose strategic significance has rankled even Washington DC – these projects form the backbone of Chinese – Sri Lankan cooperation, and more are expected to follow. All at the expense of Indian influence.
Similarly, Pakistan’s military cooperation with Sri Lanka has only picked up pace from its heyday in the 2000s, when Pakistan supplied arms and training to the Sri Lankan military in its brutal civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). More recently, both navies held the Lion Star-II naval exercise at the culmination of the AMAN-21, while deeper cooperation between the two air forces is also on the cards as both nations employ Chinese technology in their aerial fleets.
In this context, Imran Khan’s visit – with the parliamentary speech or without – is extremely important. It solidifies the Pakistan – China – Sri Lanka connection in the Indian Ocean, expands on cultural and economic tries with the island nation and opens the possibility for further military cooperation.
Sri Lanka can be begrudged their caution as they seek to balance ties with their gargantuan northern neighbor, but that caution extends to the optics on the airwaves only. In real, geopolitical terms, Sri Lanka’s priorities are clear as day.