Almost every observer of South Asian politics agrees that something very significant happened in January 2015 when Maithripala Sirisena defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka's presidential election. For those focused on geopolitics, it symbolised the beginning of the end of China's "elusive empire" into the Indian Ocean - a period of uninterrupted entry of Colombo into the geo-economic and geo-strategic orbit of Beijing. But China's future in South Asia is not yet written and many outcomes, both positive and negative from Indian perspective, are possible.
Heightened Chinese activities in and around Sri Lanka has reawakened India to the importance of Colombo's strategic location. India has been silently and helplessly watching China spreading its wings by building port facilities, highways, and other major infrastructure in Sri Lanka in last few years. Last year, what unsettled India most was the sight of port calls by two Chinese submarines at a Chinese-built terminal in Colombo.
It is precisely because of anticipated negative publicity in India and the unanticipated change of administration in Sri Lanka that China has been forced to address India's security concerns in the Indian Ocean region. Had it not been so, Chinese President Xi Jinping would not have felt the need to propose trilateral cooperation among New Delhi, Beijing and Colombo. Sirisena recently paid a four-day visit to China where Xi is reported to have reiterated the proposal for three-party talks.
Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa had drifted so close to China that made it behave indifferently about India's concerns. Sirisena has shown great sensitivities towards India. After getting elected in January, he chose India his first foreign destination where both countries signed an important agreement on nuclear safety. He has repeatedly claimed to be pursuing a balanced foreign policy that neither upsets nor pamper any nation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who paid a quick return visit to Sri Lanka, has also demonstrated that his government does not view Sri Lanka as a space of strategic opportunity: to demonstrate Indian regional hegemony. Modi wants India and Lanka to be equal partners in ensuring peace and prosperity in the region.
Despite recent warming of relations between New Delhi and Colombo, India should recognise the challenges in the relationship. Two issues that have complicated India's ties with Sri Lanka are the 'Tamil factor' in the domestic politics of Tamil Nadu and the Chinese economic might.
Sankaran Krishna rightly mentions in his book that "If Indian interest in Sri Lanka's domestic affairs had been dissociated from its largely chimerical implications for Tamil Nadu, Indian advice to Sri Lanka to resolve its affairs through greater devolution of power to minorities, the establishment of provincial councils, and its recognition of itself as a plural society may have found a more receptive audience among both the Sinhalese and the Tamils."
It is a well known fact that the previous UPA government gave unusual precedence to the domestic political consideration of Tamil Nadu over India's national interests in Sri Lanka. Moreover, India's lack of interest into Hambantota project as well as its unwillingness to give military assistance to the Rajpaksa government provided China with the godsend opportunity to make deep inroads through its vital economic, military and diplomatic support.Strategic perspective
Economically, India cannot match China when it comes to investing in Sri Lanka's infrastructure projects. Over the last few years, China invested heavily in cultivating Rajapaksa. China views Sri Lanka from strategic perspective both because of its critical location in the Indian Ocean and its centrality to building Xi's ambitious Maritime Silk Road project.
The controversial Colombo Port City project is also thought to be a vital link in the Maritime Silk Road. During Sirisena's China visit, Xi underlined Beijing's commitment to Colombo and emphasised the necessity of continuance of all Chinese projects in the island nation.
Even if policymakers in India were to recognise the merits of India-China-Sri Lanka trilateral confidence-building, this reality must not be ignored that the two Asian giants are rising in a complex international environment where their bilateral relationship cannot be separated from strategic dynamics taking place in Indian Ocean region.
Modi's recent trip to Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Seychelles indicates that his government will be actively deepening its partnerships with most Indian Ocean littoral states. What Modi said in a speech to Sri Lankan parliament during his visit to Sri Lanka highlights the importance of Indian Ocean: "The course of the 21st century will be determined by the currents of the Indian Ocean".
India must recognise that China will never easily let go of the gains that it has secured in Sri Lanka. While Beijing will continue to loom large in Sri Lanka, New Delhi's real challenge is to rapidly consolidate its own strategic and economic partnership with Colombo.
There is no substitute for a deft, sophisticated and less-politicised foreign policy approach for managing India-China-Sri Lanka trilateral relationship. The alternative is to cede the greater initiative to China.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur)