India-Sri Lanka relations: Modern tools, age-old wisdom

  • IASbaba
  • July 29, 2020
  • 0
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Topic: General Studies 2

  •  India and its neighborhood- relations 
  • Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation. 

India-Sri Lanka relations: Modern tools, age-old wisdom

Context: Need for revitalizing and reinvigorating the bilateral relationship in post-COVID world 

A brief background  

  • Indo-Srilankan ties is steeped in myth and legend, and influenced by religious, cultural and social affinities.  
  • The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is more than 2,500 years old with free exchange of ideas, trade and intellectual discourse. 
  • The advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka during the time of Emperor Ashoka was the result of cross-border discourse 
  • Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, to this day, contain shrines for Hindu deities 
  • The colonial expansion of European maritime nations reshaped the Sri Lankan economy.  
  • Labour from south India was brought to Sri Lanka to work in plantations which in post-independence era created tensions with indigenous communities and continues to persist till date 
  • The Indian freedom struggle had its influence on Sri Lanka as well. There was cross-border support for the revival of culture, tradition, local languages, spiritual practices and philosophies, and education. 
  • Both countries transformed into modern nations with constitutional and institutionalised governance under colonial rule. 
  • The nearly three-decade long armed conflict between the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE came to an end in May 2009. During the course of the conflict, India supported the right of the Sri Lankan Government, much to the anger of Srilankan Tamils 
  • Trade between the two countries grew particularly rapidly after the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement which came into force in March 2000 

Importance of Sri Lanka to India 

  • Geopolitical Significance: Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean region as an island State has been of strategic geopolitical relevance to India’s maritime interests in region 
  • Defence & Security Cooperation: India and Sri Lanka conducts joint Military ( ‘Mitra Shakti’) and Naval exercise (SLINEX). This increases synergy between both militaries thus safeguarding the common interest of countries 
  • Economic importance: Sri Lanka is one of India’s largest trading partners among the SAARC countries. India in turn is Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner globally. 
  • Collaboration at multilateral fora: Sri Lanka is a member of regional groupings like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and SAARC in which India plays a leading role. 
  • Containing China: Among others, freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together with a rules-based international order and peaceful settlement of disputes are of common interest, which is threatened by increasing presence of China in the subcontinent 

Concerns in the relationship 

  • Growing Closeness with China: Sri Lanka has long been in India’s geopolitical orbit, but its relationship with China has strengthened in recent years Ex: Hambantota port built by China; participation in BRI; arms supplies etc 
  • Unresolved Tamil Issues: The rehabilitation of Tamils displaced by Sri Lankan civil war and provision of autonomy to Northern & Eastern Sri Lanka where Indian Origin Tamils are in majority, has not progressed at the required pace 
  • Fear of Protectionism: Policies and thinking are becoming communally exclusive, localised and inward-looking. 
  • Asymmetry in relationship: There is asymmetric in terms of geographic size, population, military and economic power, on the one hand, and social indicators and geographical location, on the other.  
  • Trade Balance in favour of India: Exports from India to Sri Lanka in 2018 were US$ 4.16billion, while exports from Sri Lanka to India are US$ 767 million. Sri Lanka wants to reduce this imbalance and wants greater access to Indian markets 

Way Ahead  

  • While avoiding advocacy of zero sum solutions on crucial issues, both countries must seek to harmonise strategic and other interests in line with common values and socioeconomic compulsions. 
  • Sri Lanka can encourage Indian entrepreneurs to make Colombo another business hub for them, as logistical capacities are improving in Sri Lanka 
  • Integrating the two economies but with special and differential treatment for Sri Lanka due to economic asymmetries needs to be fast-tracked 
  • Engagement of legislatures is also essential for promoting multiparty support. 


With many countries receding into cocoons due to the pandemic, this is an opportunity for both countries to focus on the renewal and revitalisation of partnerships. 

Connecting the dots:

  • Belt & Road Initiative 
  • String of Pearls Theory 

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