Indian Ambitions and Sri Lankan  Reality: Balancing Great Powers Before the Geopolitical Entanglement of the Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean Rim Association

The significance of the Indian Ocean is undoubtedly the most indispensable factor in deciding the 21st century. Throughout history, the perennial value of the Indian Ocean continued in making empires and shrinking them. Different powers tended to yearn for the hegemony of the Indian Ocean in different periods.  In late antiquity, it galvanized the Chola empire to hold the helm of power during Rajendra Chola from South India to South East Asia. In the late medieval era, the emergence of the Ming power as naval domination arose from the voyages of Admiral Zheng He, who set Chinese supremacy in the Indian Ocean under the guise of a civilizing mission. The attempts made by the Chinese were not always pacific as there were moments that displayed the Ming dynasty’s stark ambition of changing the regimes to install their friendly rulers. One notable example was the famous Kotte -Ming war, which resulted in the ending of the rule of Alagakonarra at the hands of Admiral Zheng He. West’s gaze on the Indian Ocean was an offshoot of the rise of navigation and ambition in search of sea routes to counter the Muslims in the aftermath of the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453. For years Portuguese and Dutch strived for the supremacy of the Indian Ocean until the British completely decimated all the fellow European powers by turning the Indian Ocean into a “British Pond”.

Today, the question on the Indian Ocean is further deepened by the convoluted geopolitical ambitions stemming from Indo-Sino rivalry and a rather piecemeal stance of the USA, in which the centrality of the Indian Ocean Region comes to the fore. It is a question beyond a dispute that New Delhi will not remain patient before the broader expansionist policy of China under the guise of Belt and Road Initiative in India’s backyard. Even India most idealistic premier Jawaharlal  Nehru was zealous supporter in preserving India’s uniqueness in the Indian Ocean, which he connected to India’s civilizational affinity with the Indian Ocean and his stance remains unchanged.

It is in this context that one should carefully examine the aspirations of Sri Lanka as a small state in the Indian Ocean in meddling with the great geopolitical chaos. Sri Lanka’s position in the Indian Ocean has been an ambivalent one driven by threat perception from history and its significant geopolitical position in the Indian Ocean as a connecting island. In the 1970’s the policy adopted by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government towards the Indian Ocean filled with peace rhetoric, which elevated the status of the country into a peace promoter. The first formal shot was fired by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in the UN, Mr Shirley Amerasinghe when he addressed a letter to the UN Secretary General suggesting the “Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace”. At the outset, it appeared to be an alluring proposal intended to promote peace and harmony in the Indian Ocean as a zone devoid of hostile activities. But what Mrs. Bandaranaike or Shirley Amerasinghe failed to fathom was the geopolitical reality, which encompassed the Indian Ocean and the insignificance of Sri Lanka as a key player in dealing with bigger powers. The UN resolution (2832) brought by Sri Lanka remained stagnant since then.

This year Sri Lanka will assume the Chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for the period 2023 to 2025 at the forthcoming 23rd Council of Ministers meeting in Colombo. Even though the IORA is not a security pact akin to Quad or AUKUS, its significance lies in promoting economic activities and ensuring maritime safety. The theme Sri Lanka has opted for its chairmanship in IORA is “Strengthening Regional Architecture: Reinforcing Indian Ocean Identity” and it is certainly a pertinent one concerning the geopolitical currents in the Indian Ocean. However, it raises a salient question on Sri Lanka’s capacity to be an influential actor in the Indian Ocean as Sri Lanka itself is caught is caught between the Indo-Sino rivalry. From a pure realist point of international relations, the endeavours of the small states are less likely to be crucial in deciding decisive decisions.

India’s greater ambition to secure its strategic position in the Indian Ocean has been intensified under premier Modi, who vociferously claims India’s traditional dominance over Indian Ocean. Especially, the increase of Indian warships such as  INS Rana, INS Sahyadri, INS Shivalik and the aircraft carrier INSS Vicramaditya is a clear signal for the China’s People’s Liberation Army as its submarine frequently visit the Indian Ocean Region.

Given the ample geopolitical ambitions in its security apparatus, the India’s position in the Indian Ocean will be the most pivotal factor and Sri Lanka cannot drift away from this reality. Yet, a small state feared by the growing tension in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s interest in promoting  a possible common framework for the Indian Ocean is plausible. For instance, after 1971 UN resolution dwindled, Colombo made two attempts in compelling India to support the idea of declaring Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. India seems to have supported the idea at Galle defence dialogue in 2014, but is yet to commit fully.

In general, Sri Lanka should accelerate its chances for its benefit under IORA tactfully as its importance in altering the current geopolitical tension in the Indian Ocean Region is peripheral. However, Sri Lanka should adhere to hedging as its best mode of diplomacy in coping with the geopolitical challenges in the IOR. Prof Rohan Mukherjee describes hedging as the best form of diplomacy that small states can rely on with its pragmatic effect. IORA is a better platform that Sri Lanka can realize its goals without making a bigger stir. The notion of hedging has got greater power as a viable strategy as it is an alignment choice, which involves “signalling ambiguity over the extent of shared security interests with greater powers. In fact, Sri Lanka’s smartest strategy should focus on balancing greater powers in the Indian Ocean while receiving the best benefit through consistent hedging diplomacy.

Dr.Punsara Amarasinghe is a Post Doctoral Scholar at the Scuola Superiroe Sant Anna, Pisa, Italy. He can be reached at [email protected]

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