Geopolitics and Security, the view from South Asia


by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Director General, INSSSL

Lecture delivered at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, 20th November 2017 

It is indeed a privilege to speak on the topic of geopolitics at the prestigious LKY school named after Lee Kuan Yew who is considered as a guru of geopolitics and also called the “Kissinger of the orient”. According to Dr.S.Jaishankar “after being a driver of development and serving as an example for the continent, Lee Kuan Yew evolved in the eyes of the world to be sort of a geopolitical guru, guiding Asia and explaining the continent to the rest of the world” [1]


The “great game” in the Indian Ocean

According to Harsh V.Pant, “The ‘Great Game of this century will be played on the waters of the Indian Ocean. Though India’s location gives it great operational advantages in the IOR, it is by no means certain that New Delhi is in a position to hold on to its geographical advantages. China is rapidly catching up and its ties with Sri Lanka are aimed at expanding its profile in this crucial part of the world. Indian policymakers realize that unless they are more proactive they might end up losing this ‘game’ for good”[2]. “Colombo matters because the Indian Ocean matters”[3]

Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, urges the US government to forge closer ties with Sri Lanka to prevent it from drifting into the “Chinese orbit”[4]. Fast forward to this year, a visit by Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs – Ms. Alice Wells – to Sri Lanka, in September 2017, saw her tout the Trump foreign policy that: the US was seriously concerned over the “unsustainable debt burden on Sri Lanka due to non-concessional loans from China”[5].

According to Robert Kaplan, Sri Lanka is a geostrategic hub. He considers “Sri Lanka part of the new [maritime] geography”[6]. He also explains the geo-political symbolism of Sri Lanka’s location. “It’s part of China’s plan to construct a string of pearls – ports that they don’t own, but which they can use for their warships all across the Indian Ocean”[7]. In this regard, Hambantota Port is centerstage due to its geographical position and its Chinese-led development. Situated at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, Hambanthota is adjacent to the busiest shipping lanes of the world.

Most western scholars alike see China’s posturing in the IOR for military strategic reasons. However, Sri Lanka and China continue to emphasize the fact that the Sino-Lankan partnership is for “economic reasons and not for military reasons”[8]. Currently, not many ships dock at Hambantota, the Chinese built port in the South of Sri Lanka and it is not as busy a harbour as the Colombo Port. Yet this position will change with the development of the Gwadar port and CPEC in full operation.

Sri Lanka’s Geographical position

Indian Ocean covers approximately 20% of the water of the earth’s surface – 70,560,000 sqkm.  The IOR is surrounded by the land masses of Asia, Africa and Australia and Antarctica. The Indian Ocean is named after the Indian subcontinent and has several choke points such as the Bab-el-Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, the Lombok Strait, the Strait of Malacca and the Palk Strait[9].

14.6 percent of the world’s fish stock is caught in this region, according to the FAO[10]. Around 36 million barrels per day – equivalent to about 40 per cent of the world’s oil supply and 64 per cent of oil trade[11] – travel through the entryways into and out of the Indian Ocean, including some of the aforementioned straits.

The land masses surrounding the region are densely populated with over 2 billion people.

Many Sri Lankan Governments time to time promote Sri Lanka as a hub. Actually this is not necessary since we are already a hub geographically from the ancient time.

In the ancient libraries of Alexandria, the island was called Taprobane , mapped in an oversized proportion by Ptolemy[12] – the Greek-Egyptian cartographer. Sri Lanka was elongated on Ptolemy’s map due to its rich civilization and trade relations with the rest of the world.


After the discovery and mapping of Cape of Good Hope and the subsequent discovery of the Indian Ocean, Henricus Martellus’s world map (c.1489) also clearly depicts Sri Lanka[14].

Sri Lanka could be defined as Sir Halford Mackinder’s outer crescent touching the rim land. Two other nations which have similar geographical positioning are the islands of Britain and Japan  having access to the Atlantic and to the Pacific oceans respectively, close to the continent but separated by the ocean[15].

Since Mackinder’s land-based-pivot-area strategy, the pivot area has veered

towards having control of the oceans.  In the same vein, Alfred Mahan’s statement that “whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters[16], has never been more apparent.


Chinese Sphere of influence in the IOR

Sino-Lankan Relations

The Sino-Lankan relationship is one that dates back to the Chinese mariner – Zheng He’s visit to Sri Lanka in 1405, a century prior to Vasco Da Gama’s visit to this region in 1498. This confirms the Chinese interest in the IOR and in Sri Lanka in particular before the colonial period. The Sino-Lankan relationship has moved to a strategic relationship after the visit of President Xi and the resurrection of the One Belt One Road initiative.

Today, China is Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner, surpassing the US and just behind India. Sino-Lankan trade remains at more than US $ 3 billion. Our economic partnership will only grow with the Chinese economic zone and Hambantota port in full operation. By 2025, China will become Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner due to the significant investments in the island as well as in the region.

Nevertheless, caution is being touted that, “Sri Lanka will not have the negotiation capacity and the economic strength to deter China when it wants a military base in the future”[17]. The foreign policy of the Sri Lankan government is explicitly clear in the face of such conjectures: “The Sri Lankan Government does not make its bases available to foreign forces”[18].

It’s also important to consider China’s geo-strategic disadvantages in the Indian Ocean when examining this point. According to Dr. David Brewster, “China’s strategic vulnerability is reinforced by the scarcity of overland transport connections between Chinese territory and the Indian Ocean.” He further states that China currently has no ability to exert control over the chokepoints nor has it any regular naval presence in any of the IOR ports.


China’s presence on Land and Sea

 According to Abhijit Singh “Despite denials by their regional leaders, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh are poised to witness a substantial expansion of China’s maritime footprint…The expansion of PLA Navy submarine activity in South Asia is quite in keeping with a powerful navy’s need to familiarise itself with alien operating conditions. The pattern of Chinese submarine visits reveals that the PLA Navy has been incrementally raising the complexity of its deployments, sending both conventional and nuclear submarines to learn more about the Indian Ocean’s operating environment”

Indian observers fear that Sri Lanka’s reluctance to allow basing facilities for PLA Navy warships and submarines immediately will lead Beijing to consider Gwadar, Maldives,Chittagong (Bangladesh) or Kyaukphu (Myanmar) as alternative options. For New Delhi, China’s growing maritime involvement with these states indicates a tightening strategic hold over the South Asian rim, a traditional Indian sphere of geo-political influence.[19]

The cautious atmosphere has been trumped up by the recent Chinese submarine encounters in the IOR-that have arguably created a few ripples in the geopolitical context. According to Prof. Shen Dingli at Fudan University, “it is wrong for us to believe that we have no right to set up bases abroad”. He argues that China needs not only a blue-water navy but also overseas military bases to cut the supply cost[20].

In the South China Sea Abijith Sing warns that “China itself has plans to build its own “Great Wall” under the South China Sea, through which 30% of the world’s trade passes. On the surface, too, China has been increasingly assertive, having built a string of installations that include airstrips and other military facilities. To listen to underwater battle India and Japan plan to install a sea wall of “hydrophones”—microphones with sensors, placed on the seabed—between southern India and the northern tip of Indonesia.”[21]

The One Belt one Road Initiative (known commonly as OBOR) was a construct of the scholar – Wang Jisi’s[22] strategic thinking, to have a significant Chinese footprint in Eurasia, especially to recalibrate the existing world order. The OBOR is the “project of the century”[23], according to President Xi Jinping. This trillion-dollar initiative aims to integrate Eurasia through the development of infrastructure. It is unquestionably the most ambitious project ever launched in recent times, which seeks to revisit and resurrect the Ming dynasty’s – admiral Zheng He’s – global legacy. Thus, the OBOR, when it comes to fruition, will symbolize what I have been talking about in this section – the twin powers of China’s economic and military strength in the IOR.

According to the World Economic Forum, by 2030 the US will no longer be the only superpower and China will be well placed among the many countries to become one of the great powers. The OBOR is the medium through which China envisions this new world order.   Sri Lanka, with its geostrategic position at the centre of the Maritime Silk Road, is a ‘super-connector’ linking the east-west sea lanes. Therefore, as a nation we have a choice in how we calibrate our foreign policy based on this strategic advantage.

Not all nations support China’s OBOR, India recently was absent from the OBOR summit. According to LKY Prof Kanti Bajpai the real reason for india’s absence from the OBOR are quite different and its not the CPEC. It is galling to New Delhi that the entire world is lining up to do business with a rampant China and no one is paying India much attention. Envy apart, there is the strategic worry that China will ‘encircle’ India. That China with an economy five times the size of India, needs the BRI and an encirclement of India to deal with its weak neighbour is unlikely, but clearly this assumption motivates Indian strategic thinking.

 Indian Sphere of influence in the IOR

India’s SAGAR vision

In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Modi, launched the concept of SAGAR – ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’.

According to Indian Foreign Minister Ms. Swaraj, “the principles enshrined in SAGAR provide us with a coherent framework to address some of the challenges relating to economic revival, connectivity, security, culture and identity, and India’s own evolving approach to these issues. The challenge before us is to ensure intra-ocean trade and investment, and the sustainable harnessing of the wealth of the seas, including food, medicines and clean energy”[24].

The SAGAR vision has also laid out the objective of integrated maritime security coordination between India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius; building on the 2011 trilateral India-Sri Lanka-Maldives arrangement[25]. While India’s strive to create a collaborative role with regional countries is a positive sign, its additional policy of keeping the extra-regional powers at bay in the IOR, will only be to its own detriment.

If one studies the works of Jawaharlal Nehru, you could see that India is following similar model to the Monroe Doctrine – which is to exclude extra-regional powers from the vicinity (in this case) of India and the Indian Ocean.

This illustrates the strategic thinking of modern India, in its determination to rid the subcontinent of residual colonial influence and exclude other powers from the entire South Asian region[26]. It is further explained by the Indian scholar Bhabani Sen Gupta, that this is an underlying theme in Indian strategic thinking, where the presence of outside powers in India’s neighbourhood is considered illegitimate. Thus, India’s aspiration is for its neighbours to solely rely upon it as a regional hegemon and security provider. Furthermore, the scholar K. Subrahmanyam, stated that leadership in the Indian Ocean is part of India’s “manifest destiny”.

The SAGAR vision also includes trilateral relationships for India with Iran and Afghanistan in developing ports. This is to geo-politically challenge India’s arch rival of Pakistan in its partnership with China in the creation of the Gwadar port and the CPEC corridor as well as to entice neighbouring Afghanistan into maritime collaboration initiatives.

Sri Lankan scholar Dr. Vernon Mendis, brings the geopolitical context into perspective for our island nation when he states that: “the short-sighted policy pursued by successive Indian governments to make India the sole dominant power in South Asia has created suspicions in the minds of smaller states like Sri Lanka”[27].


Indo-Lanka Relations

Historic entries in the Ramayana to the religious and cultural ties Sri Lanka has shared with India since ancient times, have enabled the cultural diplomacy between the two countries to be strong.

Prime Minister Modi’s“Neighborhood First Policy”. I have clearly stated the importance of this in the book – ‘Modi Doctrine’. However, Indo-Lankan political anxieties persist due to the volatile geo-politics of the IOR and therefore understanding this is key to resolving such tensions.

India, naturally, has an interest in the outcome of elections in Sri Lanka due to our geographical proximity. Thus, geography and politics are intrinsically linked for our two nations. This has unfolded from government to government, and at its peak, New Dehli was especially concerned about the growing friendship between Rajapaksa’s government and China. “The trigger, according to Reuters, was Rajapaksa’s decision [in 2014] to allow two Chinese submarines to dock in Sri Lanka without informing New Delhi first”[28], as required by the maritime security pact between India and Sri Lanka. The geo-political strain culminated in President Rajapaksa stating in an interview that: “it was very open, the Americans, the Norwegians, the Europeans were openly working against me. And RAW (India’s Research Analysis Wing)[29]”.

Today, the geopolitical context is such that one cannot understand the Indo-Lanka relationship without simultaneously considering the Sino-Lanka relationship.  Both India and China are two players with different strengths and weaknesses on the chessboard of the Indian Ocean. The relationship that Sri Lanka shares with India is historical and socio-cultural. Moreover, the location of Sri Lanka, as one of her closest neighbours, paves the way for India to share a bond that cannot be compared to any other relationship. However, today this bond is frail and therefore should be further strengthened at all levels including political, economic, social, cultural and especially at the scholarly level between think tanks. The IOR presents an opportunity for the Indo-Lankan relationship to thrive. Yet, to strengthen any relationship, nations should understand the limitations that have plagued their past – to orchestrate a better future.

India’s hegemonic influence towards its regional nations will only deteriorate this relationship.

This was evident during Chinese submarine port calls to Sri lanka. India and Sri Lanka should maintain a proactive long term defence stance on such important matters rather than a reactive position.

Sri Lanka has received more than 200 warships from 2010. The latest was a US Nimitz Class air craft career few weeks ago. The previous aircraft career was an Indian origin in 2016. While Sri Lanka receives warships from all these nations there should not be a question about Chinese submarines. Sri Lankan security policy makers has carefully made these decisions, they are not knee jerk policies.

While India is building 48 warships under construction including one aircraft carrier, one nuclear and six conventional submarines and a variety of destroyers, frigates and corvettes. By 2027 the capacity will be expanded to hold 198 warships. What warship is Sri Lanka building? basically nothing so India should not worry of Sri Lanka’s cooperation with extra regional powers. Sri Lanka as a sovereign nation has the power to build its own fleet or purchase. Bangladesh as a nation has its submarines and Pakistan also so Sri Lanka in future if we build our underwater anti submarine capacity India should not see this as a threat.

On the regional level India has resisted inviting Pakistan to join the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) or allowing China to become a full member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).

On the other hand, India is building it’s massive naval fleet while a silent yet aggressive naval build-up is taking place in Sri Lanka’s neighborhood, Colombo should be ready to proactively face any future challenge and cooperation as the Indian Ocean security environment is expected to remain complex.


The Tamil Nadu Sphere of Influence to Sri Lanka

A clear challenge in the Indo-Lankan relationship is the Tamil Nadu factor. A plethora of opportunities were missed by Sri Lanka to enhance its strategic relationships in the IOR due to the prolonged conflict with the Tamil Tigers that lasted nearly three decades.

India manifested an arguably adversarial relationship in dealing with the almost 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka. South India occupies 19% of India’s land mass and Tamil Nadu is 130,060 km2 with close to 72 million in population. The south Indian geographical influence in the North of Sri Lanka is clearly evident when you look at the historical context. This influence fueled much political turmoil in the island nation. For instance, India entered Sri Lankan air space on the pre-text of food aid and at the same time LTTE terrorist fighters were being trained on Indian soil. “The Third Agency of RAW, a supra-intelligence outfit, was entrusted with the task. Within a year, the number of Sri Lankan Tamil training camps in Tamil Nadu mushroomed to 32. By mid-1987, over 20,000 Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents had been provided sanctuary, finance, training and weapons either by the central government or the state government of Tamil Nadu or by the insurgent groups themselves[30]. According to Professor Rohan Gunaratna, “the LTTE-India nexus did not secure the geopolitical security New Delhi needed from Sri Lanka. It weakened Indian as well as Sri Lankan domestic security[31].

Given the geographical factor of Tamil Nadu and its direct impact on Northern Sri Lanka, power devolution is not the most desirable option as it will create further instability in Sri Lanka. Constitution making has to consider geographical factors and its effects. India is impossible to manage with its vast geography and many ethnic groups and religions without a federal system. Thus, it has in this respect considered the intrinsic link between politics and geography. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan observed “India is not a nation, nor a country. It is a subcontinent of nationalities.[32]

Therefore, the Federalist model may not apply to Sri Lanka due to its geographical scale and close proximity to South India. This is primarily because of the state of Tamil Nadu which effects both the politics of the Federal State of India as well as in Colombo. Ambassador Shivshanka Menon’s latest book “Choices”, clearly explains the limitations of foreign policy decisions made by India towards Sri Lanka[33].The same limitation was echoed at a Delhi conference organized by ICWA, a few years ago, on the same day India voted against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Salman Kurshid, explained how a regional government can dictate terms to the central government at the conference. This was a clear example of how strong the Tamil Nadu factor was and still is, in the Indo-Lanka relationship.

In today’s context, it is noteworthy, that after 30 years an Indian Prime Minister made an official visit to Sri Lanka in March of 2015. This was mainly due to the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena. During Prime Minister Modi’s last visit, President Sirisena spoke about the devolution of power and the need to go beyond the 13th amendment to the Constitution. This was the same promise made by President Rajapakse, during his term in office.

Furthermore, the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord which was forcefully introduced according to the latest CIA declassified report[34], is a clear example of a weak and watered-down policy advocated due to the pressure of certain political groups in India and Sri Lanka. In this regard, the Sri Lankan Government also failed to have public consultations with the general public of the country prior to introducing this important political milestone. This created further tension between the two countries and within Sri Lanka’s domestic political establishment and its détente toward India.  On a visit to Sri Lanka, Dr. S. Jaishankar, India’s Foreign Secretary met with members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA). In doing so, he was perhaps emphasizing the unity of the Tamil political leadership needed to fulfill Tamil political aspirations. Thus, all these examples serve to illustrate the fact that Tamil Nadu still has political clout in Sri Lanka in the geo-political context.



The Indian Ocean region is a pivotal area in this century and to understand the geopolitical game one must assess the ongoing risk and future risk to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka from independence failed to produce in house capabilities as a nation to develop its economy. Innovation is at the lowest and investment in research is very poor. The economy is of high debt of total around $64b and 95% of all government revenue go towards debt repayment. Sri Lankan economy has become weaker due to massive debt and less revenue generated. This year Sri Lanka drops 14 places in  the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index(GCI) Report. Becoming less competitive means less productive, it is pivotal that Sri Lanka strengthens its economy with the right policy prescription to face the geopolitical challenges.  Sri Lanka could benefit immensely from tourism with positioning its image with rest of the world. Its geography and rich culture has been attractive from the ancient days.

On foreign policy balancing New Delhi and Beijing will be a priority for Sri Lankan foreign policy as President Sirisena has rightly spelled out his foreign policy as “balanced Asia centric”. Clearly an equidistant foreign policy is what Sri Lanka should have.

Speculative media articles is another area I want to bring to your attention. The recent article on the India-Sri Lanka joint military exercise, “Mitra Shakti 2017” with Sri Lanka in October. According to the Indian Express, the joint military exercise is India’s response to China’s growing influence in South Asia and the IOR. I believe this article is speculative, since the military exercise clearly falls short of limiting China’s growing power in the region. In this vein, many speculative media-stories will raise similar tensions with regard to Sri Lanka’s relationship with its overarching neighbour India.

Sri Lanka could potentially take a lead role in establishing a movement that demilitarizes and de-securitizes the Indian ocean by building a regime for peaceful cooperation[35]. This was clearly articulated by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayaike in 1971 at the UN General Assembly, a proposal for a  Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IOPZ).[36] In this manner, we could construct a peaceful region which will benefit all and most importantly secure and engage our nation in the game played in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Sri Lanka’s future development is intrinsically linked to the Indian Ocean. In this regard, maintaining the freedom of navigation is important for Sri Lanka. External actors will use Sri Lanka’s strategic location for their own political and economic leverage. Rather than following a process of leasing land and ports, Sri Lanka should instead chart a path that capitalizes on our strategic advantage.

What we witness today in Sri Lanka is the Indian Sphere of Influence centered on South India, the Chinese Sphere of influence centered on OBOR.





[2] Harsh V Pant,

*Views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the Government of Sri Lanka or the Institute of National Security Studies (INSSSL).

[3] Harsh V Pant,



[6] Kaplan, Robert D.(2010) Monsoon :the Indian Ocean and the future of American power New York : Random House

[7] Ibid.

[8] Quote from Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s speech at the Indian Ocean Conference, Colombo 2017.



 [11]World Oil Transit Chokepoints, U.S. Energy Information Administration, November 2014.

[12] Hellenic Studies Series 56, Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space, Yota Batsaki, Dimiter Angelov

[13] Sir Halford Mackinder’s Map drawn by Author


[15] (Refer Picture)


[17] Author’s personal conversation with a Japanese scholar

[18] Quote from Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s speech at the Indian Ocean Conference, Colombo 2017.


[20], 28 Jan 2010





[25] P.K. Ghosh, “Maritime Security Trilateralism: India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 38, No. 3, May 2014, pp. 28 3-288

[26] Brewster et al.

[27] Lin Liang Guang, 1992: 45



[30] Rohan Gunaratna’s, “Sri Lanka Tamil Insurgency”,

[31] Ibid.


[33] Choices: Inside the Making of India S Foreign Policy by Shivshankar Menon


[35] de Soysa Indra, INSSSL Defence Review 2017