A Shakespearean play has Brutus urging his comrades in arms that “there is a tide in the affairs of man, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”. Brutus’s name has now become one with betrayers and usurpers. But his advice is sage, as long as one recognises whether the flood is taking you forwards or perilously down.
The Rajapaksa brothers thought their fortune could still take them onward a year ago. It didn’t. Instead, as things stand, Sri Lanka could be in the worst crisis of its history. Not just them, India, too, should consider that line by Shakespeare. This might be a test case, and if played well, could lead on to better times for both countries. But cresting a flood requires patience, precise timing, and to be all that is expected of a 'net security provider’.
Has India Got a 'Libya' in Its Neighbourhood?
Sri Lanka’s crisis is now aflame and out in live television for everyone to see, as groups battle each other and the government. Hooligans have taken full advantage of the chaos, even as other bloody cracks in society have opened up. Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne said that clashes between Muslims and Sinhala ‘looters’ had taken place, while other violent groups like the JVP ( Janata Vimukthi Perumana) admit that they were part of mob attacks while the pro-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna launched their own counter attacks.
Gunaratne said without preamble, that a curfew was imposed to prevent the country from turning into a “Libya”. Meanwhile, the first trickle of refugees into India have already begun and is a source of serious worry in Delhi. Quite apart from a looming humanitarian crisis, with no food, fuel and medicines, India clearly has no choice but to take a hand.
But here’s the danger. Both the Defence Secretary and the Indian High Commission had to categorically dismiss speculation that New Delhi would send troops to Colombo. More interestingly, this denial came on the heels of local social media speculation that former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family members have fled to India. Helping Sri Lanka is not that simple and it has to be done and quickly.
India As a ‘Net Security Provider’
Remember the suggestion that India should be a “net security provider” several years ago? That was in a speech by the then US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in the 2009 edition of the “Shangri La Dialogue”, when he said “We look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond…”.
This was repeated in the 2010 edition of the “Quadrennial Defense Review” of the USA, and was thereafter accepted as a role by the Indian Government. Prime Minister Modi asserted India’s role as a “Net Security Provider” for the Indian Ocean region as he chaired a virtual Security Council session, which upheld the primacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea last year.
The concept, as seen by the US and India, was originally meant to cover the larger Indian Ocean region, and was welcomed by the Indian Navy in particular. The concept of ‘Net Security Provider’ (NSP) was never officially spelt out, and seemed to focus on traditional security threats that focussed on the role of the defence forces.
Delhi was on hand in natural disasters—like the 2015 earthquake in Nepal—or in emergencies like the attempted coup in Maldives in 1988, long before the NSP was even thought of. The role of ‘first responder’ has come into its own with the pandemic, with India supplying vaccines to its neighbours and beyond. Given all this, how should the NSP play out in the present emergency with potential security threats and overflow?
Could Sri Lanka have been Advised in Time to Avert Current Crisis?
Delhi was certainly prompt in providing the first tranche of credit lines (as against loans) for the struggling country, well before it slid into chaos. In January 2022, a USD 400 million currency swap was provided under the SAARC framework and to deferred Asian Clearing Union (ACU) settlement of USD 515.2 million till 6 May 2022.
A new Line of Credit of USD 500 million was extended to Sri Lanka by the Indian government for importing fuel from India. In addition was a credit facility of USD 1 billion for the procurement of food, medicine, and other essential items from India.
But Sri Lanka had declared its worst economic crisis in early 2021, with analysts noting a steep rise in debt from 2005 onwards, from USD 11.3 billion in 2005, to USD 56.3 billion in 2020. India was already well aware of the role of China and its loss making projects—including in Rajapaksa’s town Hambantota—and consequently the rise in imports from China up 33 per cent for machinery and equipment, in a near carbon copy of Pakistan’s unsustainable debt patterns. The disastrous tax cuts of 2019 drove Sri Lanka further into the red. But at the time nearly every country was struggling for itself.
Leaving the pandemic aside, is it possible for the Indian national security system to include neighbouring economies as one of their focus areas in terms of early warning? This may, however, not be a one-off situation in the present climate. It is understood that India has committed to help Sri Lanka with a bailout plan from the World Bank, and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had met with Sri Lankan Finance Minister Ali Sabry in Washington during the Spring meetings in April.
Could quiet assistance and advice been given earlier to stave off a crisis? Diplomats will scorn this as ‘interference’ in the internal affairs of a state, and it will certainly be seen as such if it leaks out. Perhaps, then, that advice or assistance could come from a third country like Japan, already one of the largest lenders to Sri Lanka. It’s the intent that matters, not the route.
Need to Master the Art of Information Warfare
Though there is little excuse for the mishandling by the Rajapaksas, the crisis seems to also have been fanned by specific social media handles, which turned the peaceful protests into a full-fledged street attack against leaders' houses. That was a turning point, and as any policeman worth his salt knows, it is then extremely difficult to turn the clock back, especially when the end result was a curfew.
The role of social media in the "India out" campaign in the Maldives last year, is another instance, where—luckily—matters did not worsen beyond a point. The role of information in warfare has now become critical, as is more than evident in the Ukraine affair, where it has coloured the whole story and possibly the outcome.
There are other instances of misinformation even now colouring the political scene in Sri Lanka. That includes what has now become ‘urban legend’ , and being touted by both Indian and foreign sources: the collapse of agriculture which worsened the crisis was due to the shift to organic farming entirely. Certainly the Rajapaksa government could be faulted for poor planning and roll out, but a hugely influential fossil fuel industry is also at work trying to demolish the vital shift to organic farming.
Sri Lanka May Not be the Only Crisis
Even as the new Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe takes charge, disaster still looms as the country could still collapse if it defaults on its USD 51 billion foreign debt. The International Monetary Fund’s estimates of Sri Lanka’s economy show the tough path that it will have to follow. As unpopular measures are undertaken, further political and social instability is almost a certainty.
With the required massive finances and assistance clearly well beyond India’s resources, it is time for joint action. That means the Quad—the grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India—as well as the Quad Plus countries like the UK and France, must firm up clear plans for assistance in such cases.
Sri Lanka may only be what is now being called the “Canary in the coalmine”. The phrase refers to a practice of sending birds down into deep mine shafts to see if the air was breathable. If not, they came up dead. The cost of the completely unnecessary Ukraine war has hit all economies hard and planning for Sri Lanka-like contingencies elsewhere needs to be done seriously.
India Must Rise to the Occasion
This is the new ‘security ‘ combine that may be needed in the post-Ukraine world, which may include not just urgent and extensive humanitarian aid— especially since almost everyone in the West has forgotten Afghanistan—together with the ‘traditional’ weapons of war or conflict.
After all, the China threat is real as India knows only too well. Security is all going to be extremely expensive, which means there is no alternative to countries working together. Being a ‘net’ security provider has never been more taxing, or more interesting. Its sheer opportunity. It is going to take enormous organisation and beyond-the-horizon thinking to be able to spot the crisis before it hits.
Yet, let's remember that the wealth of the United States arose out of the ashes of war, as did present day Europe. In disaster there was, and will, always be opportunity.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)