As Narendra Modi embarked on his official trip to three Indian Ocean sojourn, all eyes are now set to the changing dynamics of the Indian Ocean. Srilanka, also called the Emerald Island is located very strategically in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is barely a few tens of miles from the vital sea routes. It is located almost mid-way between the two choke points of the world, the Strait of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait. His visit to Srilanka, first for an Indian Prime Minister in 28 years has ushered a new phase in India-Srilanka relations. Ironically, Srilanka is just 27 miles from India but it took 28 years for Prime Minister Modi to visit Sri Lanka.

Being Sri Lanka’s only neighbor, India should have sought to engage Sri Lanka more. But that was not be. In Sri Lanka, this snub was seen as the government’s attempt to appease the Tamil sentiments. Narendra Modi is there to make up for the last decade. Unfortunately in the same period China had made huge inroad. But all that is set to change now. China has already made huge inroads in our neighborhood. Seen in this context this visit of Narendra Modi becomes extremely important.

This visit becomes even more important in a context of increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka.
Of late, China has been strengthening its relations with littoral states (Bordering the Indian Ocean) in the Indian Ocean Region, particularly Sri Lanka, as part of its “String of Pearls” diplomacy.

Sri Lanka had initially offered the Hambantota Port development project to India, but India backed off and seizing the opportunity China stepped in. It would be regretted long in the Indian Diplomatic circles. Last September, two Chinese (non-nuclear) submarines docked at a Sri Lankan, much to the displeasure of India. Though it was said by the Chinese that it was just a usual stop, but everyone knows that it was a cover up. Such projects, like the Gwadar project in Pakistan, are often set up with military goals in mind.

Beijing’s interests in Sri Lanka are not means strictly commercial; twice in 2014, Chinese submarines for the first time ever docked in Sri Lanka, at the newly Chinese-built and Chinese operated south port of Colombo harbor. At the other new port, Hambantota, which is also controlled and operated by a Chinese state-owned company, four of seven large berths are exclusively reserved for Chinese vessels for 35 years.

However with this visit Narendra Modi seeks to put the relationship back on track again. This visit comes barely a month after the visit of Sri Lanka’s newly appointed President Maitripala Sirisena which was his first visit to any country as a head of state. On January 8, a diverse coalition of Sri Lankan parties led by Maithripala Sirisena defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa. The previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was very assured of his victory had called the elections two years before the schedule. After the defeat at hands of a formidable opposition, Rakpasha said that he was ousted by RAW and CIA. Just before the election he ordered to expel an Indian diplomat. This was vehemently denied by the Indian External affairs ministry.   The new president, Sirisena, formerly a minister in the Rajapaksa government, urged his fellow countrymen “to free the country from corrupt practices and family rule,” In a reference to China, he said during campaign “The land that the White Man took over by means of military strength is now being obtained by foreigners by paying ransom to a handful of persons. This robbery is taking place before everybody in broad daylight.” 

 

 

Expectedly the new president’s Prime Minister Ranil Vikramasinghe declared in December that he would scrap entirely the $1.5 billion port city project at Colombo. This has caused much disappointment in China which was underlined by their state-owned website Global Times’ reporting of the same.   China was also the main supplier of arms, including vital fighter jets, radar and munitions, to Rajapaksa’s regime in the ramp-up of its destruction of the LTTE resistance and alleged massacre of tens of thousands of civilians in 2008-9. China has also repeatedly protected Rajapaksa from possible UN war crime investigations.   Though the Sri Lankan government has tried to assure New Delhi by communicating to them that relations with the Chinese are on a commercial basis, but it had no takers in the Indian Government and the diplomatic corp.   However, for India the greater cause of worry should be Sri Lanka’s enthusiastic endorsement of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

 

When Xi Xingping came to Colombo in September 2014, in was announced in a joint statement that a Joint Committee on Coastal and Marine Cooperation to explore joint ventures in ocean observation, marine and coastal zone management, maritime security, search and rescue, and navigation security would be set up. Again this is not accepted by Indians experts as in their opinion it is a surreptitious attempt to snoop on southern India.   A tactful Politician that he is, Narendra Modi has surely seen these developments, but it will take multi-directional efforts to regain the strategic space India has lost in Sri Lanka over the past decade.

In barely three months, there have been four high-profile interactions, starting with the visit of Sri Lankan foreign minister to India followed by the February 15-18 visit of President Maithripala Sirisena to New Delhi.

The talks are going to emphasize on the political reconciliation of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population and addressing their aspirations. The chief minister of Northern Sri Lanka has already welcomed Narendra Modi’s decision to visit Jaffna. In its official statement the ministry of external affairs said, “Politically, I think we clearly want to promote and encourage the reconciliation process, support democracy and reform, and we do want to expand our people-to-people contacts including tourism, travel between the two countries,” India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar said.

The fishermen issue would also be a key issue on the agenda as this has strong political ramifications in both countries causing must discomfort to natives of both the countries

Highlights of the visit

Developmental cooperation makes the underpinning of the improving India-Sri Lanka partnership. India had pledged to build 50,000 houses in Sri Lanka – 42,000 in the Northern Province, 4,000 in the Eastern Province, and 4,000 in the Central and Uva Provinces. The prime minister would be formally handing over in Jaffna some of these 27,000 houses to those displaced by the civilian war

India has also extended a line of credit of $800 million that has been channelized in transforming the infrastructure projects in the country particularly the railway lines for eg. The Yal Devi Express. The southern line, which was battered by the tsunami from Kalutara-Galle-Matar, has now been restored and resurrected with India’s assistance. Similarly, the northern line from Omanthai to Kankesanthurai, the northwestern line from Talaimannar to Medawachchiya, the rehabilitation of KKS harbour and the Palali runway are shining examples of India’s unflinching commitment assist the resurgence of a neighboring country. Also, Prime Minister Modi will unveil a plaque inaugurating the Talaimannar pier railway station.

Economic Opportunities

The two countries will be looking to build on their over $5 billion bilateral trade. India is expected to announce some incentives that will enable Sri Lanka to expand its exports, thereby reducing the trust deficit. India is now among the four largest overall investors in Sri Lanka with cumulative investments over US$ 800 million.

Energy Security Energy security has emerged as a key aspect of the evolving India-Sri Lanka relations, which is foraying into new areas. The two countries signed a pact on cooperation in peaceful uses of civilian nuclear energy during the visit of President Sirisena to New Delhi in February. Mr. Modi’s visit will seek to push the envelope, and could see visible progress in India building a thermal power plant in Sampur, close to Trincomalee.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PRwlzhFuVE People to People Contacts

Buddhist spiritual bonds will be highlighted during the visit when Narendra Modi visits the ancient heritage city of Anuradhapura and prays at the Mahabodhi Society in Colombo. He will also be inaugurating Jaffna Culture Centre that will underline cultural synergy between the two nations. Around 200,000 Indians visit Sri Lanka every year. And about 260,000 Sri Lankans visit India every year. Tourism is good opportunity to increase people to people ties.

 

Summarizing

The relations between India and Sri Lanka have ushered into a new phase where both countries will seek to learn from each other and understand each other better. It’s truly a multifarious relation with so many cultural and civilizational links helped by geographical proximity. With both countries looking at each other as a narrative of opportunity, the India-Sri Lanka relations have entered a fast-track phase where sky is the limit. Narendra Modi adds another feather by turning a situation that has turned so anti-India into a largely positive one for India.

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Contributor: Sachin Diwakar

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