Sirisena, thenewly elected President of Sri Lanka, did some deft geopolitical course correction by choosing India for his first state visit, thereby rectifying the pro-China tilt that had come to mark the last phase of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. China’s growing proximity to Sri Lanka, especially the visit of a Chinese submarine to one of its ports, was being perceived as a threat to New Delhi.
The new Sri Lankan government has gone back and forth on the decision to allow an over $1 billion Chinese project to build a port city. Colombo is likely to go ahead with the project. Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera is likely to visit China later this month.
It is interesting how maturely India and China are playing off the Sri Lanka angle in their relationship. Steering clear of a perception of China-India rivalry, Beijing has now proposed a triangular partnership with India and Sri Lanka, ahead of a month-end visit to Beijing of the Sri Lankan foreign minister. Asked to comment on Sirisena’s visit to India, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “We are happy to see the close and friendly development of India-Sri Lanka relations”. She added: “We believe the sound relations among the three countries are conducive to them, as well as to the whole region. Therefore, we are happy to see development of relations between Sri Lanka and India.”
China’s new strategic construct of inclusive ties with India and Sri Lanka follows its advocacy of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), where India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan are visualised as partner countries in South Asia. While India is connected to the MSR through the Bangladesh-China-In- dia-Myanmar economic corridor, China sees Sri Lanka as an important point of trans-shipment in the global capacity building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy”.
Two years ago too, Sri Lanka had expressed safety concerns arising from the geographical proximity of the Kudankulam nuclear reactors. | That the signatory to the agreement on the Sri Lankan side was power and energy minister Champika Ranawaka who had voiced the concerns, shows that Colombo is now sufficiently reassured.
These developments are expected to impart a new thrust to India-Sri Lanka ties and are in keeping with Modi’s emphasis on neighbourhood diplomacy. Other key elements of the Sirisena visit were:
- India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner. New Delhi has now offered to promote greater flow of Indian investments and tourists into Sri Lanka. The commerce secretaries from both countries will meet soon to review their bilateral commercial relations.
- India will help Sri Lanka with development, including in the area of infrastructure.
- The two countries will improve air and sea connectivity between them.
- Sri Lanka and India will expand their defence and security cooperation.
- India has signed a memorandum of understanding with Sri Lanka on cooperation in agriculture.
- The fishermen’s associations of both countries will meet to solve longstanding of maritime violation and detentions that take place regularly.
- The two countries signed a three year agreement on a ‘programme of cultural co-operation’ to nurture cultural ties and promote contacts.
- Sri Lanka is now part of the Nal- anda University – an international project to revive the ancient centre of learning in Bihar.
Interestingly, there were no public statements on the Tamil question during the President’s visit. Nevertheless, this remains top of the agenda in bilateral relations. New Delhi will have to encourage Sri Lanka’s new leadership to be determined in addressing the issues of ethnic reconciliation and power-sharing with Tamils.
♦ RAKESH JOSHI email@example.com