Last month, Imran Khan made his first visit to Sri Lanka as Pakistan’s Prime Minister. The two-day visit to Colombo, during which Imran Khan and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa discussed cooperation across a variety of strategic areas, signifies Islamabad’s intention to work with Sri Lanka for expanded political, security, and economic partnerships in the Southern Asian region.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka have historically enjoyed a conflict-free and relatively stable relationship. While their cultural affiliations and diplomatic cooperation in multilateral forums had initially undergirded their bilateral ties, their economic and defense partnerships have further bolstered their relations since the turn of the 21st century. Moving forward, Pakistan and Sri Lanka can engage on an even broader and deeper level to enhance their strategic partnership and grow their combined political power in South Asia. However, their ties will be subject to Sri Lanka’s ability to balance its politico-economic relations with its larger and historically more important neighbor, India, and Pakistan’s commitment to its defense and economic cooperation with Sri Lanka.
Cultural Connections and Diplomatic Cooperation
The Pakistan-Sri Lanka relationship is rooted in shared cultural ties and diplomatic cooperation. Since Pakistan hosts ancient relics and architecture central to Buddhist heritage in the Punjabi city of Taxila, Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka has held regular exhibitions of the “Gandhara Art of Pakistan,” borrowing the sacred Buddhist relics on the anniversaries of Lord Buddha. Notably, although Muslim-majority Pakistan remains critical of the violence meted out to Muslims in various other parts of the world, its officials have traditionally remained quiet on the episodic human rights issues of Muslims on the Lankan island which is not unusual considering Islamabad’s policy to use discretion on controversial issues vis-à-vis its strategic partners. Interestingly, following Imran Khan’s suggestion, Colombo revoked the directive on forced cremation of COVID-19-affected Muslims immediately after Imran Khan’s recent visit, suggesting the Lankan government’s deference to the Pakistani prime minister and international criticism.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka have also historically cooperated at international forums. Both countries were members of the non-aligned movement (NAM), with Pakistan becoming a member in 1979. Sri Lanka, amongst other smaller South Asian nations, has also supported the UN resolution for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in South Asia following India’s 1974 nuclear tests. Additionally, during Sri Lanka’s 25 years of civil war, the Pakistani Cricket Board supported Sri Lankan cricket by sending its cricket team to the island. Commensurably, despite the 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, the Lankan Cricket Board continued to send its team to Pakistan post-2017.
Lastly, Pakistan has consistently voted against the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on investigating the Lankan government’s military operations against Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebel groups. This may be one of the most prominent aspects of Pakistan’s diplomatic support of Sri Lanka and might also have been a factor in Colombo’s neutral position on the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan.
Defense and Security Relations
Although Pakistan is not involved in the Indo-Pacific strategy or other initiatives to promote strategic ties with smaller South Asian states, the shared diplomatic stance of Pakistan and Sri Lanka on numerous regional security issues of South Asia led both to advance bilateral defense relations.
Sri Lanka and Pakistan, as most small continental South Asian states, share territorial security concerns vis-à-vis India on varying levels. Considering both Sri Lanka’s northern region and India’s southern region host significant Tamil populations, Colombo feared an Indian invasion to integrate its northern region with India’s southern Tamil-populated areas post-independence. Over the years, New Delhi has pressured Colombo to grant political and economic rights to the Lankan Tamils. In the 1950s, the fear of India might have initially propelled Sri Lanka to partner with Britain and the United States and at the same time make mutual defense and non-aggression agreements with neighboring states.
Pakistan and Sri Lankan defense relations were realized during the 1971 crisis in East Pakistan, when India blocked West Pakistan’s overflight through the Indian airspace and Sri Lanka stepped in and granted the Pakistani civilian and military airplanes stopover and landing rights. Additionally, counter-insurgency and counterterrorism cooperation have also strengthened Pakistan-Sri Lanka bilateral defense ties as both countries have had experience in leading counterterrorism operations on their respective soil. Pakistan, among other countries, supplied the Sri Lankan government with military hardware and military training support to defeat the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group focused on creating a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. Four decades later, when Pakistan itself was engulfed in terrorist strikes nationwide, it reportedly sought Sri Lankan support for training its military on counter-insurgency operations.
The Pakistan-Sri Lanka fight against domestic militancy paved the way for intensifying bilateral defense cooperation. In 2016, Pakistan signed a defense agreement with Sri Lanka to provide Colombo with eight JF-17 fighter aircraft. Pakistani and Sri Lankan armies and naval forces have also regularly interacted through port calls, military and naval training and exercises, and defense workshops and seminars. In the recent high-level visit to Colombo, the Pakistani premier offered a USD $50 million credit line to Sri Lanka to further enhance defense and security partnerships.
Nonetheless, Sri Lanka has generally avoided taking sides and entangling in military conflicts between India and Pakistan or strategic competition between India and China or China and the United States. The Sri Lankan government’s cancelation of Imran Khan’s planned speech in the Lankan Parliament earlier this year might be an indication of Colombo’s impartiality and attempt to avoid antagonizing India, its more powerful neighbor and chief economic partner.
Developing Bilateral Economic Ties
Another important aspect of Pakistan-Sri Lanka ties is their bilateral trading relation. Pakistan has Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with China, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, and only with Sri Lanka does it happen to have a trade surplus. However, despite the 2005 FTA, Islamabad and Colombo have failed to expand their bilateral trade on a larger scale. For example, the bilateral trade between Pakistan and Sri Lanka grew only marginally from USD $180 million in 2004 to USD $460 million in 2018. Reportedly, the removal of harmful trade barriers could take the bilateral trade up to USD $2.7 billion. In February 2021, commerce secretaries from both sides agreed to revive the Joint Working Groups (JWGs) to address technical impediments to bilateral trade and effectively implement the FTA.
Although the financial value of bilateral trade appears to be minimal, the diplomatic significance of the FTA and the JWGs indicates continued desire and potential for strengthening economic relations. Imran Khan’s recent talks with Sri Lanka’s prime minister have further animated this mutual desire to expand trade, tourism, and investment.
Pakistani officials have advised Sri Lanka to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to improve regional economic connectivity with Central Asia through transit routes in Pakistan. However, this is unlikely in the short-term since Pakistan is yet to develop an efficient road and rail network for continental trade with the Central Asian Republics. Instead, Colombo may be better served to invest in the special economic zones under CPEC.
Defense and counterterrorism cooperation and the free trade agreement form the backbone of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka relationship. Colombo’s enhancing security partnership with Islamabad, despite its broader and deeper political and economic relations with India, illustrates Sri Lanka’s ability to successfully navigate between the South Asian rivals. The recent premier-level visit demonstrated that government-to-government interaction could remove many of the bottlenecks in political, security, economic, and cultural sectors. In order to further expand bilateral relations, both countries should ensure the effective implementation of planned agreements, promote people-to-people and business-to-business interactions, host regular cultural and educational exchanges, and develop foreign investment-friendly conditions and policies. The progress on these aspects of the relationship may however remain stagnant due to Islamabad’s lack of a focused policy toward smaller South Asian states and Sri Lanka’s difficulty in balancing its relations with Pakistan and India.
This article was originally published in South Asian Voices.