On the Shoulders of Giants: Sri Lanka as a Bridge Between India and ASEAN

President Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, by Ministério da Defesa is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Indo-Pacific is evolving to be the locus of global political, economic, and military events. It hosts two major economic powers, India, and ASEAN. While COVID-19 has dimmed the region’s economic prospects, India’s economy is projected to be strong enough to pick up real GDP in the second half of 2020, and full-year 2021 to end next year above pre-coronavirus levels. While individual countries in ASEAN are struggling to contain the pandemic, most ASEAN economies are still projected to grow, but economic recovery will depend on each member states’ pandemic response.

As Sri Lanka has a strategic location in the Indian Ocean between India and ASEAN, it can be a major maritime hub,  a bridge that connects both. Also, Sri Lanka can be the fulcrum of a security community from India to Southeast Asia. This can be like the relationship between the U.S., UK, and Europe, where the UK is a Euro-Atlantic bridge, connecting European interests, policies, and values to the U.S. and vice-versa. Sri Lanka can connect India’s interests, policies, and values to ASEAN and vice versa, while benefitting from both sides. Such depends on Sri Lanka’s strategic partnership with India, playing an active role with ASEAN, and its commitment to a rules-based multilateral international order.  

Foundations of the India-ASEAN Bridge

Sri Lanka and India have a deep relationship. Both maintain strong diplomatic and economic ties. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his country’s intent to build relations with India to a “very high level” during his first state visit there. Also, Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka Jayanath Colombage mentioned his country will adopt an “India First” approach. These play directly into India’s “Neighbourhood First Policy,” which aims to secure India’s dominance in South Asia through benign means. Further, Sri Lanka and India have robust defence relations, with both conducting military and naval exercises, and India providing training to the Sri Lankan military. Both cooperate on several issues, such as counter-piracy, maritime pollution, and drug trafficking. However, some concerns remain, such as illegal fishing by Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu in Sri Lankan waters, and memories of India’s support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the Sri Lankan Civil War. 

Sri Lanka’s bilateral relationship with ASEAN is of tremendous importance. The foundation of Sri Lanka’s relationship with ASEAN is its non-aligned foreign policy. In his first public speech, President Gotabaya Rajapksha mentioned that Sri Lanka wants to remain neutral in its foreign relations and stay out of any conflicts among world powers. That said, Sri Lanka maintains diplomatic relations with ASEAN states, is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), is a signatory to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and has applied for Sectoral Dialogue Partnership. Despite these ties, economic relations with the organisation are limited. Although Sri Lanka has a free trade agreement with Singapore and is negotiating a similar agreement with Thailand, the Sri Lankan market is small, and the country has limited exports. It must move to higher-end finished products, and not just raw materials. Moreover, Sri Lanka has a limited influence in ASEAN politics. To remedy this, the country can pursue more effective public diplomacy with ASEAN, promoting itself as a destination for trade and tourism, and espousing itself as a neutral venue for ASEAN or India-ASEAN engagements. 

India, Sri Lanka, and ASEAN share multilateralism as part of their foreign policies. All three support a rules-based international order. Multilateralism is at the core of India’s foreign policy, but it remains to be seen to what extent India can push its own interests within such framework. While Sri Lanka advocates for multilateralism as a means to solve global problems such as climate change and poverty, the country is at the centre of India-China rivalry in the Indian Ocean. Multilateralism is also ingrained in ASEAN’s norms, plus the organisation’s ambition to become a regional conductor to harmonise the interests of conflicting powers such as the U.S. and China. However, the ongoing U.S.-China rivalry weakens ASEAN integrity, as individual members are forced to take sides. 

Building the Bridge — Challenges

The foundations for Sri Lanka to be a maritime bridge between India and ASEAN is already there, but with some challenges. 

First is the longstanding India-Pakistan rivalry. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state and is likely to hold India’s attention more than any other issue. The longstanding conflict in Kashmir can divert India’s diplomatic, political, economic, and security resources from securing its shared maritime space with Sri Lanka. 

Second is China’s influence on Sri Lanka’s economy and politics. A particular point is Hambantota Port, which China has taken as collateral on a 99-year lease, after Sri Lanka’s inability to pay its debts to the former. With Hambantota, China has gained a foothold just off Southern India, and access to a critical military and commercial waterway. While Sri Lanka declared that Hambantota won’t be used for military purposes, the port could still be used as such. Further, in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s 2020 Parliamentary Elections, the pro-China Sri Lankan leadership can be pliant to China’s interests.  

Third is ASEAN’s search for relevance. ASEAN was founded as a bulwark against Communism and for economic reasons. With the end of the Cold War, ASEAN became the foundation of regional order in Asia to counterbalance U.S. economic largesse, with China as a major partner. But when China’s regional ambitions grew, and ASEAN failing to solve the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN has arguably lost its reason for existence. ASEAN’s indecision can work against Sri Lanka’s posturing as an India-ASEAN bridge, forcing Sri Lanka to rely more on bilateral ties, with much more uncertainty in its dealings with Southeast Asia due to ASEAN’s failure to resolve the South China Sea dispute. 

Sri Lanka: Shaping Perceptions in a Shared Maritime Domain

As Sri Lanka can link India and ASEAN, it could come up with a foreign policy concept that positions itself as a bridge between the two. However, Sri Lanka has limited resources to play a leading role. What it can investigate is an India-ASEAN bridge concept based on a pluralistic security community, built on the idea of a shared Indo-Pacific maritime space. Such concept can focus on Sri Lanka being the maritime fulcrum between India and ASEAN. This concept could also enmesh India and ASEAN’s shared maritime interests with Sri Lanka’s strategic position, interests, and existing ties with both parties. 

Sri Lanka can integrate this in transactions with India and ASEAN and espouse the same in numerous high-level meetings and forums. Moreover, Sri Lanka could improve ease of doing business, upgrade port infrastructure, and improve maritime security cooperation with both parties. This aims to attract investment from richer Indo-Pacific countries to improve Sri Lanka’s position in the value chain. In terms of improving maritime security cooperation, Sri Lanka can start by modernising its own navy to address non-traditional security challenges in the India-ASEAN maritime space. Ultimately, Sri Lanka must start by shaping existing regional worldviews from land-based interstate competition to maritime-based interstate cooperation, and as a country, it has the potential to do so.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Gabriel Honrada is an International Relations Master’s student at the People’s Friendship University of Russia under the Russian government scholarship. His research focuses on Indo-Pacific military affairs and Russia in the Indo-Pacific.

Darshika Dasanayake is currently doing the Master’s program in International Relations at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. She received her bachelor’s in the same university. Her research focus is issues and challenges in maritime security, and India-Sri Lanka relations.