Resetting Indo-Lanka relations: Irreversible excellence is the goal
The Pathfinder Foundation and Vivekananda International Foundation have recently signed a Memorandum of Intent to cooperate on issues of bilateral interest. The following Release has been issued by the two institutions in Colombo and New Delhi.
With a new government about to assume office in India, this is an opportune occasion to consider how Indo-Sri Lankan relations can be reset.
From tensions to irreversible excellence
There can be no denying the fact that the current bilateral relationship between the two countries is less than optimal and marred by irritants. With a view to restoring ties between the two countries to a state of “irreversible excellence”, a term coined by a former foreign minister of Sri Lanka, it is imperative that a structured and meaningful dialogue, based on mutual respect and sovereign equality, is put in place as soon as the new Indian government assumes office. This should be complemented by increased and multifaceted contacts at the popular and civilisational levels in order to promote wider dialogue and greater understanding.
Exemplary Indo-Sri Lankan ties would redound to the political and economic benefit of both countries as well as the region as a whole. A peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka, enjoying close ties with India, would be a factor of strength for India. Equally, friendly relations with India are a crucial determinant of Sri Lanka’s future development prospects, given its proximity, large and growing market, technology and human resources.
New political cycle: Opportunity for rethinking and resetting
The Indo-Lanka relationship is multifaceted and offers considerable scope for significant expansion and rapid improvement in the coming years. The commencement of a new political cycle in India provides an opportunity to cast aside mutual suspicions and apprehensions of each other’s motives and work together to lay a firm foundation for closer and mutually beneficial cooperation in many fields, including security, trade, investment, education, health and culture.
The re-setting of Indo-Lanka relations, ex-post the Indian elections would depend on resolving the contentious issues that are currently sources of disharmony. The first of these is post conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka. This would lay a sound foundation for the development of stable and friendly bilateral ties. It is important that Sri Lanka strengthens and expedites the reconciliation process with political support from all stakeholders, while taking cognisance of its bilateral understandings and commitments.
Priority should be attached to expeditious implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) related to reconciliation. Action in this direction will create the space for the Indian Government to take a more forthright position in international forums against outside interference in Sri Lanka through intrusive proposals. Above all, it will facilitate the eradication of ethnic distrust, which currently afflicts the country.
The second important issue relates to security. It is in the interest of neither India nor Sri Lanka for external forces to seek to exploit the situation against the interests of either country. Both countries have to take their share of the blame for the tensions that have arisen in the bilateral relations, but the need now is to move on and ensure that there is closer security coordination between them. Each country is vital to the security of the other, and each must take this into account in its foreign policy and national security strategy.
Addressing the above two issues adequately will open the door to wider cooperation in a number of areas. First of all, it will allow deeper engagement in the field of defence cooperation, where Sri Lanka and India are natural partners. Joint exercises, training, and equipment – all these will gain traction going forward.
Similarly, economic engagement will grow deeper and faster. Regional integration between countries like India and Sri Lanka, which have well-recognised complementarities, will be in their mutual economic interest, and also enable them to stand up to international competition more effectively.
These developments will also help for a settlement of the frequent tensions over fishing in the waters of the Palk Bay. Both countries need to work towards adopting a holistic approach to the sustainable management of fisheries and other marine resources through the establishment of a joint mechanism.
Finally, there are strong civilisational links between India and Sri Lanka, and between the Hindu and Buddhist traditions in each country that have not been put to full use in the past in cementing their ties. Not only will this add another welcome dimension to the multi-faceted relations between the two countries; it will also provide mutual support to each other in the face of global currents that could be inimical to their long-term stability.
Short-term adjustments and long-term vision and road map
The two countries should not only address the above issues expeditiously but also work on a 20 – Year Vision and Road Map for taking advantage of the considerable potential that exists for expanding Indo-Lanka economic and business relations. Trade, investment, tourism and energy are all areas where there is scope for substantial growth. Early attention should be paid to: deepening the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement and broadening it to include services and investment; signing mutual recognition agreements; and addressing other non-tariff barriers.
Implementing the above agenda will require sustained attention at the highest level on both sides. It is therefore recommended that a system of annual summits be established between the President of Sri Lanka and the Prime Minister of India to be held alternately in the two countries. In addition, there is need for more frequent, informal contact and communication between the leaders of the two countries, without protocol, so that the emphasis is on implementation of agreements reached and fulfilment of commitments by both parties.