The Enduring Connection Between Colombo And Islamabad

A close look at Sri Lanka and Pakistan’s Bilateral Relations

The relationship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan operates on a broad spectrum and Cooperation is visible on numerous fronts. With India Being the bigger Neighbour in South Asia, It is often looked at with suspicion by its smaller neighbours, thus becoming the common ground for closer cooperation. Kautilya’s Mandal Theory appears to be aptly working in the south Asian Context. The Ties between the two countries have grown since 1948, and are crucial for both countries, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah has described the relations between the two countries in the following way:

“Pakistan has the warmest goodwill towards Ceylon, and I am sanguine that the good feelings which exist between our people will be further strengthened as the years roll by and our common interests, and mutual and reciprocal handling of them, will bring us into still closer friendship.”

And Common interests still brings the two countries together. The strong ties with China of both Colombo and Islamabad play a crucial role in their bilateral relations. As the Gwadar port of Pakistan and Hambantota of Sri Lanka are important assets in China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative. China becomes crucial for both countries as they see it as a refuge from India’s towering presence in South Asia.

An assessment of the bilateral relations

The two countries have important economic ties, though the balance of trade is in favour of Pakistan. Both countries have made constant attempts to make progress in this arena. Pakistan and Sri Lanka signed a free trade agreement in 2002 that came into effect in July 2005. Sri Lanka was the first country to sign a free trade agreement with Pakistan. Under the agreement, both countries gave each other’s numerous products duty-free access to their respective domestic markets. A joint economic commission was set up between the two countries in 1974, to enhance trade cooperation between the two nations. Pakistan is the second-largest trading partner for Sri Lanka in South Asia. 

But the economic factor of the Pakistan and Sri Lankan Cooperation pales in comparison to the Political-Military alignment. An important factor in the ties of Colombo and Karachi has been the mutual fear regarding the bigger neighbour India. The beginning of the ties can be traced to 1948 when Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake visited Pakistan. Though the frequent trips by Sri Lankan leaders didn’t lead to similar return trips from Pakistan in the Initial days, As Sri Lanka didn’t figure into Pakistan’s foreign policy calculations just after its independence as it was fighting with numerous challenges to its nation and state-building. This approach changed in the 1960s as President Ayub Khan was the first Pakistani head of state to visit Colombo on 8th December 1963, the visit was in the backdrop of strained Pakistan-US ties and the beginning of US’s arm flows to India in the 1960s. This was the time Pakistan became keen to build close relations with other South Asian neighbours like Sri Lanka and Nepal. Further since 1977, the exchange of military delegations also increased between the two countries. The logistical support Sri Lanka provided to Pakistan during 1971 war was also crucial, as Colombo allowed Pakistani planes to refuel at Bandaranaike airport, and became an important link in the 3000-mile ocean route to erstwhile East Pakistan. Pakistan also provided strong military and arms support to Sri Lanka to deal with LTTE during the civil war.

Pakistan’s Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa/ Image source: Dawn

The current Sri Lankan regime headed by the Rajapaksas is even more likely to strengthen the ties further with Pakistan. Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have had ties with Pakistan Military in the Past. Gotabaya Rajapaksa did an officers training course in Pakistan during the 1970s when he was a military officer. Also, Pakistan’s military provided important support to Sri Lanka during the civil war, under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa being the Defence Minister of Sri Lanka at that time. The military cooperation is thriving with Pakistan’s latest offer to assist Sri Lankan Air force. The timing of the offer was also crucial as it was presented just before Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India in February this year. 

Days after this visit the Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Sri Lanka, extending an invitation to Sri Lankan Prime Minister to visit Pakistan. Sri Lanka asked for Pakistan’s cooperation to deal with drug trafficking and Islamist extremism.

A look at Dragon’s presence in both Colombo and Islamabad and its implications for India

China’s all-weather friendship with Karachi is a well-known and well-established fact. China has made a huge investment in CPEC and is building the Gwadar port, which becomes its access point to the Indian Ocean. In Sri Lanka the Rajpaksas have been known to have closer ties with China, also China has made important investments in the Island nations, When it comes to defence cooperation China has a great deal to offer Sri Lanka in 2019, China gifted a warship, frigate ‘P625’ to Sri Lankan Navy. Sri Lanka and Pakistan are amongst a dozen countries where China has established its bases. According to the latest Pentagon report “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) 2020”, Beijing is planning to enhance its logistic capabilities on all these ports to sustain its military presence and power projection in the region. This has serious security implications for both India and the USA. Which have been striving to ensure a free and open indo-pacific, the latest statement by Indian Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, saying QUAD can become a system to “ensure Freedom of Navigation (FoN) and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS)” in the Indian Ocean signals that Indian is preparing to look into the challenge of Chinese presence. India’s relations with Islamabad have been degrading for a while now, but New Delhi has been cautious when it comes to Colombo and is constantly working to improve the relations with it.

Sri Lanka Army Chief Lt Gen De Silva with hi Pakistani counterpart/ Image source: Dawn

Sri Lanka and Pakistan have shared deep and multifaceted relationship over the years, but Sri Lanka has been cautious to not project itself as an adversary of India, as India has major investments in the island nation and have been cooperating with it on multiple fronts. But the enduring defence cooperation between Sri Lanka and Pakistan provides a sense of how countries in the region are always cautious of India, at the same time, it is in Sri Lanka’s strategic interests to keep good relations with both China and India and keep enhancing its military cooperation with Pakistan. For Pakistan ensuring the support of other neighbours in the region is crucial. The Bilateral relation between Colombo and Islamabad brings opportunities for both countries and with China’s presence added to the mix, it becomes a good balancing tactic for both in dealing with India.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Kiran Chauhan

Kiran Chauhan is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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