The arrest of more than 60 Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy last month created a political stir in Tamil Nadu. The state’s fishermen are continuing their indefinite strike from 19 December, with a plan to stage a ‘Massive Rail Roko’ agitation if all the arrested fishermen are not released. Writing to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, the state’s chief minister M.K. Stalin has also asked the Narendra Modi government to ensure “fishermen’s safety and the right to livelihood” from the intimidatory tactics of the Sri Lankan Navy.

In this context, the release of 13 fishermen by a Sri Lankan court on 5 January has come as a respite. Yet, the continuous resurfacing of the dispute between the Tamil fishermen on the two sides of the Palk Strait has serious implications for the bilateral relationship between India and Sri Lanka. In 2021, there were at least four instances when the Sri Lankan Navy assaulted Tamil fishermen, leading to many deaths.

New Developments: India Versus China?

The ongoing crisis must be seen within the context of two interesting developments in northern Sri Lanka. First, days before the escalation, Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda met US Ambassador Martin K. Kelly on 13 December and sought his assistance to resolve the fisheries dispute between India and Sri Lanka. The push for the internationalisation of the dispute by a prominent Sri Lankan Tamil leader is likely to create tensions in the India-Sri Lanka relationship. The fact that Devananda has been a long-term critic of Indian influence in Sri Lanka and has been in an alliance with the current Rajapaksa government makes it likely that such a move enjoys backing from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

More importantly, the attempts to escalate the bilateral dispute with India have followed China’s unprecedented outreach among the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. The three-day visit of Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong to the island’s Northern Province was nothing short of a soft-power blitzkrieg aimed at the Sri Lankan Tamils. Following his visit to the iconic Jaffna Public Library on 15 December, where he donated laptops and books, the ambassador, accompanied by the Fisheries Minister, took a trip to the sea cucumber hatchery built by a Chinese company.

The following day, a bare-chested Zhenhong donned a white dhoti to make his offerings at the Nallur Kadaswamy temple in Jaffna. Subsequently, he led a “study tour” to the New Silk Road Foodstuff factory at Mannar, which, according to the Twitter account of the Chinese embassy, provides livelihood to thousands of fisher families in the area. After distributing Covid relief supplies and fishing gears to the fishermen, he visited Point Pedro on 17 December, 30 kilometres from the Indian mainland.

China Losing Ground

Ever since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009, China has remained focused on gaining influence in the Sinhalese south. Notably, its role in supporting the Sinhalese nationalists against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cemented its position as a prime backer of the government in Colombo. However, the increase in China’s influence in Sri Lanka is also leading to the rise of anti-China sentiment in the island nation.

This became evident after the Rajapaksa government enacted the Colombo Port City Economic Commission (CPCEC) Act in May 2021, much to the opposition by Sinhalese-Buddhist monks. The Act raised the issue of deliberate cession of Sri Lankan sovereignty by the Rajapaksa regime to China and gave rise to the domestic suspicions of the Port City becoming a “Chinese colony”. The suspicions about China’s role in the region grew in July 2021, when a Chinese company tried to cut corners with the Presidential Secretary, leading to a backlash from the chairman of the CPCEC.

In September 2021, China received another setback after Sri Lanka’s National Plant Quarantine Service rejected the import of 20,000 tonnes of organic fertilisers, citing the presence of harmful bacteria in the consignment. In response, the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka tweeted that it was blacklisting the state-owned People’s Bank of Sri Lanka for the non-payment of the due amount. After China demanded compensation of $6.7 million, it gave rise to the concern among many in Sri Lanka that China will take advantage of its financial muscle and get away with it.

Then, in November, Sri Lanka cancelled a $12 million renewable energy project in its northern islands, which had been awarded to the Chinese companies in January 2021. Since the projects were as close as 50 kilometres from the Indian town of Rameswaram, India lodged a strong protest with Colombo. After the projects were cancelled, the Twitter account of the Chinese embassy in Colombo gave a statement calling out the security concerns of a “third party” behind the cancellation.

The rise of anti-China sentiment is leading to a turn in the Chinese fortunes in Sri Lanka. Much of this has happened despite a patron-client relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Rajapaksa brothers. Importantly, the latter’s ability to channel investments from the CCP towards the political project of majoritarian Sinhalese nationalism cemented their place at the pinnacle of Sri Lankan politics. With the growth of anti-China sentiment among the Sinhalese nationalists, the Rajapaksa regime began to balance Beijing’s influence with support from New Delhi.

Where India Comes In

In August 2021, the Sri Lankan government finally sent its High Commissioner to India after a delay of more than 18 months. It also released an integrated country strategy to reinvigorate the New Delhi-Colombo relationship with common civilizational ties and Buddhism. A series of high-profile visits followed, including the visits of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Colombo in October and Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa to New Delhi in November. As a result, India is now working on an economic package and a currency swap agreement to help the Sri Lankan economy. At the same time, Sri Lanka has moved ahead on the contentious Trincomalee oil tank farm project.

For China, the rise of hostile sentiment against it among the Sinhalese nationalists in southern Sri Lanka allows it to expand its influence in the Tamil north. China’s historic role in supporting the Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarian project in the island makes Sri Lankan Tamils wary of the CCP’s influence. Beijing hopes that a sustained outreach, backed by China’s deep pockets, would likely help it earn the trust of Sri Lankan Tamils. This also leads Beijing to support Sri Lankan fisher communities through its soft power push, especially as tensions remain high across the Palk Strait.

For New Delhi, Beijing’s efforts to wean Sri Lankan Tamils away from India are a cause of concern. Nonetheless, the fishermen dispute has consistently remained a low-priority issue for New Delhi. However, other than the immediate release of arrested fishermen, India should work towards a negotiated settlement between the two countries’ fishermen. In this context, India would also need to counter the attempts by pro-Beijing Tamil leaders to internationalise the dispute. Already, New Delhi’s position on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution earns it the ire of Sinhalese nationalists. If India fails to prioritise the resolution of fishermen dispute, then a pro-India constituency of Sri Lankan Tamils is in danger of slipping away from New Delhi.