Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has urged Sri Lanka to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. ‘Most worrying’ aspect for New Delhi is proposal for Colombo to use Gwadar Port, which Analysts say could threaten India’s Trade & Security.

Pakistan’s offer to Sri Lanka to join its multibillion-dollar trade and infrastructure scheme with China under Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative has raised concerns in Indian policy circles, as New Delhi seeks to secure its influence in a region where China’s presence is growing.

On a two-day visit to Colombo last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan urged Colombo to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which comprises railways, power plants and the deepwater Indian Ocean port of Gwadar.

The CPEC is aimed at offering China a major overland route from its western frontiers to the world but critics have accused it of being a debt trap for Islamabad.

India has kept a close watch on the visit but has not commented on it.

“My visit is aimed at strengthening the bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka, especially trade and economic ties through enhanced connectivity,” Khan said, adding that the CPEC could offer Sri Lanka better connectivity with the rest of Central Asia, through the Gwadar port.

Indian strategic affairs observers said a proposal for Colombo to use Gwadar could be problematic for India’s security, as about 70 per cent of the goods that Sri Lanka’s ports now handle are transhipped to and from India, according to data from the independent Indian think-tank Observer Research Foundation.

In 2014 Sri Lanka had allowed a Chinese submarine and warship to dock at the Colombo harbour, raising serious objections from India.

Former Indian diplomat Rajiv Bhatia, who was ambassador to Myanmar and also looked after New Delhi’s ties with South Asian countries, described it as the “most worrying aspect” of the visit, which comes as Islamabad tries to expand its influence in a region traditionally dominated by India.

Bhatia, now a distinguished fellow at the Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House, said: “The facet to explore is whether Pakistan and Sri Lanka are planning to enhance maritime or naval connectivity under Chinese inspiration. If so, this should worry New Delhi.”

China and Sri Lankan trade is worth over US$3.6 billion and between 2005 and 2017 Beijing invested US$15 billion in infrastructure development in Colombo. The pair have a long history of defence cooperation.

But India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade accounting for over US$4.6 billion and the two countries also cooperate in areas such as security and defence as well as in challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic. Since the Rajapaksa-led government came to power last year, Sri Lanka has stressed an “India-first” policy.

Rival neighbours India and Pakistan last week in a rare joint statement said they would observe a ceasefire along their de facto border known as the Line of Control, after years of violations.

Still, China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka is a cause for concern for India.

China currently runs Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port under an agreement made in 2017 to cover Colombo’s debts to Beijing. Several years ago, Colombo chose to co-develop and operate with China the Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT) in a section of the country’s largest port, Colombo port.

To appease India’s concerns, the government agreed to develop the east terminal of Colombo port with New Delhi and Tokyo but last month it seemed to have changed its mind according to minutes released from a cabinet meeting.

A Reuters report said the government had decided to proceed with the east terminal on its own. It would be 100 per cent owned and operated by the state-owned Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA), but India and Japan would instead be invited to develop the nearby West terminal on a public-private partnership basis, the minutes said. New Delhi responded by saying it expected Colombo to honour the earlier agreement.

George Cooke, a former Sri Lankan diplomat currently researching the country’s diplomatic history, said Sri Lanka could benefit from cooperation with the Gwadar port by offering special packages to international shipping lines for the use of facilities in both Colombo and Gwadar ports, especially to vessels coming from East Asia.

“Though it is an attractive proposal it needs to be looked at more seriously by experts involved in the port sector,” he added.

But Ganeshan Wignaraja, a non-resident senior fellow specialising in trade, investment and regional integration at the National University of Singapore, said the volume of trade between Sri Lanka and Pakistan had remained static at around US$400 million for many years as neither side had much to sell to the other.

“The CPEC can only be a viable option for Sri Lanka as a long-term prospect if the volume of trade and investment between the two sides rises substantially in future. But given the state of the economy in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, I don’t see that happening in a hurry,” said Wignaraja.

Closer Ties?

Majority-Buddhist Sri Lanka and majority-Muslim Pakistan have a history of helping each other. Colombo allowed Islamabad’s ships and aircraft to refuel at its facilities during the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan war. Islamabad then helped Colombo during its 2009 bid to quash a 25-year insurgency by Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north. It supplied arms and aircraft while training Sri Lankan airmen and military personnel.

But in recent years, Sri Lanka’s Muslims who make up about 10 per cent of the 21.8 million population have reported being subject to increasing violence by Buddhist nationalists.

In the past year, Sri Lanka has carried out forced cremations of all those who have died of Covid-19, including Muslims, even though Islam requires them to be buried. Colombo agreed to stop the practice after Khan’s visit.

This was seen by analysts as a way to shore up support for Sri Lanka at the ongoing United Nations Human Rights Commission session in Geneva, which is to discuss a resolution for “war crimes” against Sri Lanka in its fight against the LTTE.

Both Pakistan and India are in the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council that will decide on the resolution on March 23. If the resolution is approved, the resulting sanctions will damage Sri Lanka’s international reputation but also put additional pressure on its economy, which is under severe strain due to a drastic fall in tourist traffic and global trade.

Colombo has asked Islamabad to help convince the 14 Muslim countries in the council to reject the resolution. It also hopes for support from both China and Russia, both council members that have backed Sri Lanka in the past.

While laying out the red carpet for the Pakistani prime minister last week, Sri Lanka also signalled that it was mindful of India’s views. It cancelled a planned address by Khan to the Sri Lankan parliament and did not sign a defence agreement with Islamabad as many thought it would.

Said Pradeep Kaushiva, a Retired Vice Admiral of the Indian Navy: “Though we must keep a close watch on it, I am reasonably confident that Sri Lanka will not do anything to jeopardise its ties with India.”

Author: Pranay Sharma, New Delhi-based Independent Journalist. He has written reports and commentaries on current and foreign affairs for several decades, and has worked for leading Indian media organisations like Outlook and The Telegraph as Foreign Editor and Chief of Bureau.