Working Papers

Small States and Great Powers: The Role of Sri Lanka and India-China Competition in the Indian Ocean

September 16, 2019   Reading Time: < 1 minute

Reading Time: < 1 min read

Image Credits:U.S. Pacific Fleet/flickr

*Barana Waidyatilake


International Relations literature often views smaller states with great power neighbours as being of strategic value to other great powers seeking to expand their influence in the regional power’s backyard, or as seeking to balance against this larger neighbour. However, recent theoretical developments suggest that smaller states employ a tactic of ‘strategic hedging’ where they diversify their defence partnerships while maintaining a relatively stronger link with the neighbouring power. Such smaller states can be used by extra-regional powers against the regional power in a viable manner, only when they possess an overwhelming military advantage over the latter. Using these insights, this LKI Working Paper examines Sri Lanka’s security strategy and situation against the backdrop of India-China competition in the Indian Ocean. It argues that Sri Lanka, in keeping with the literature, employs a ‘strategic hedging’ tactic whereby it has a stronger defence relationship with India, while still maintaining good defence ties with China. It also demonstrates that, given China’s lack of an overwhelming naval advantage over India in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka would likely not be of strategic value to China in seeking to strategically ‘encircle’ India.

*Barana Waidyatilake is a former Research Fellow at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies LKI. All errors and omissions remain the author’s own. The opinions expressed in this publication are the author’s and not the institutional views of LKI. They do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.


  • 2019


  • Barana Waidyatilake


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