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Straddling the major power rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR): Sri Lanka’s quest to navigate in an Increasingly ‘Zero-Sum’ Environment

Ravinatha Aryasinha, LKI | 08/01/2024

Courtesy: LKI

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Abstract: The paper discusses the impact of major power rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region and assesses the foreign policy challenges for Sri Lanka. Drawing on a presentation made at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) Regional Conference on ‘Ocean Security: South Asia and the Indian Ocean’ – 16 October 2023, it reviews the associated dynamics, identifies the flashpoints, and suggests modalities that could help Sri Lanka overcome the predicament of becoming a battleground for confrontation between the major powers. 

  1. Introduction 

The past decade has seen the emergence of growing competition in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), driven by the conflicting strategic visions of the major powers. This power rivalry has been dominated by China’s 2013 Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the U.S.’s 2017 ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy (IPS). There have also been other conceptualizations posited by: India through its ‘Neighbourhood First’, ‘Look East’, and ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR) policies; Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’; ASEAN’s ‘Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’; Australia’s ‘Foreign Policy White Paper’; France’s growing involvement in the Indo-Pacific and projection of a ‘Third Way’; and, more recently, the extension of the European Union’s ‘Global Gateway’ programme which has been interpreted as a western-led response to the BRI to also cover South Asian countries. 

Notwithstanding these multiple visions on the Indo-Pacific, the major power competition in the IOR continues to revolve around the U.S, China, and India. Given its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and longstanding relations with all the 3 countries, Sri Lanka has been at the centre of these complexities. The narrative in this regard appears to have been dominated by China’s competitors, who in their attempt to counter Chinese influence in the region, have portrayed the Hambantota Port project as the “top candidate for a future base of China” (Wooley and Zhang, 2023); posited a “debt trap” narrative around Chinese lending to Sri Lanka (Tharoor, 2022),  and continue to call on Sri Lanka to take a stronger position against “visitations by Chinese vessels”(Laskar, 2023, 2023; Indian Express, 2023).  

(Read the full paper here.)

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