Emerging Trends in India-Sri Lanka Bonhomie
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Emerging Trends in India-Sri Lanka Bonhomie

By Sindhu D.

Cover Image Attribute: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa. Date: February 8, 2020, Place: Rashtrapati Bhavan, India /Source: Shekhar Yadav, EPS

Cover Image Attribute: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa. Date: February 8, 2020, Place: Rashtrapati Bhavan, India /Source: Shekhar Yadav, EPS

India – Sri Lanka relations in recent times have received a lot of attention and have been considered as geopolitically significant. The island nation’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, accepting PM Modi’s invitation, had come on an official five-day visit to India on February 7, 2020. This is his first visit abroad after having come back to power in November 2019. The agenda of the visit included bilateral talks with Prime Minister Modi and Foreign Minister Jaishankar on Saturday, a meeting with President Ramnath Kovind followed by visits to some of the religious sites in India.

After the visit by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the visit by Mahinda Rajapaksa is significant and could yield tangible outcomes for both countries. Defense and economic security were pivotal issues for discussion. The Prime Minister was received by the Dhotre Sanjay Shamrao, the State Minister for Human Resources Development, Communication and Electronics and Information Technology. He was accorded a grandeur ceremonial welcome at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan.

The Sri Lankan delegation consisted of ministers from various portfolios pertaining to infrastructure development, fisheries, and Finance. It is reflective of the key priority areas that Sri Lanka was looking forward to discussing with the establishment in New Delhi. The delegation included Community Empowerment and Estate Infrastructure Development Minister, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister, Foreign Secretary, Secretary to the Treasury and Ministry of Finance, Secretary to the President, Secretary to the Prime Minister and Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister. A perusal of the delegates reveals that taking cognizance of India’s concerns regarding the Tamil minority community, Sri Lanka has carefully ensured to include Tamil Cabinet ministers in the delegation.

The bilateral talks were held in the Hyderabad house. In the Joint Press Meet held after the discussions on February 8, 2020, PM Narendra Modi emphasized the special priority accorded to Sri Lanka under his government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and ‘SAGAR’ doctrine (Security and Growth for All in the Region). He stated that they discussed in detail the bilateral relations and international issues of mutual interest like terrorism, economic projects, regional security, and development. It was also pointed out that the recently announced direct flight between Chennai and Jaffna, were steps towards enhancing people-to-people connectivity and promoting tourism. On the other hand, PM Rajapaksa expressed gratitude for India’s continued aid in enhancing Sri Lanka’s Intelligence and Counter-terrorism capabilities. Appreciating the prior assistance offers of 400 million USD, the PM focused on support for state housing, community-related and other infrastructure projects. He steered clear of any mention of Indo-pacific, Tamil community, and the Thirteenth Amendment. A possible ‘Trilateral terror and security co-operation’ between the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India were hinted at. This would help ensure better coordination and control over the activities in the Indian Ocean Region.

About the Fisheries conflict, it was agreed that a humanitarian approach would aid both sides. The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Douglas Devananda apart from seeking India’s assistance in deep-sea fishing techniques had a proposal for setting up a Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar Joint Marine Fisheries Resources Management Authority. It was reported that PM Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar responded favorably to the proposal. Concerning infrastructure and development projects, progress on the oil terminal being constructed in Colombo’s eastern port jointly by Japan and India was discussed.

In an interview with The Hindu, Mahinda Rajapaksa articulated that his government has a firm policy concerning not encouraging foreign control over national resources. To that effect, he stated that prior projects that were signed under the Ranil Wickremesinghe & Mythripala Sirisena dispensation were not going to be taken up. This includes the Mattala Airport that was to be constructed and developed by India. When a question regarding the Hambantota port was asked, the Prime Minister expressed disappointment at the turn of events and said that they look forward to re-engaging in negotiations with the Chinese and explore ways to recover it back on different terms.

The Prime Minister explicitly described that Colombo seeks India to play a pivotal role in aiding Sri Lanka in the repayments of its debts. For the current year alone, the island nation’s servicing domestic and foreign debt amounts to about US$ 60 billion. He said that they requested India to provide a moratorium on all loan repayments for at least up to three years until their economy is revived. Currently, an 89 billion USD economy, the market faced a slow down after the Easter Sunday attacks and has been recovering. An IMF staff mission recently projected a GDP growth rate of 3.7% in 2020 for Sri Lanka.

In interviews held later along the sidelines of his visit, Mahinda Rajapaksa thanked India for its support during the civil war stating, they could not have won it otherwise. He added that India is a ‘Relation’ while other countries were friends. However, on the same note, the Prime Minister was also quick enough to acknowledge that China has aided Colombo in post-war reconstruction and Sri Lanka is appreciative of the proactive support they extended. He supplemented it with highlighting that China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in Sri Lanka have positively helped the country. These statements received a formal commendation from the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang. Perhaps, this is an insight into smaller countries always seeking to leverage by playing off one country against the other. It is an act of balancing power equations and crafting a prudent external engagement calculus.

Owing to the frictions in the positions and power descriptions of Prime Minister and President, the Rajapaksha brothers might be in a position to handle the tussles and work in more agreement. After the official meetings, the PM went on a visit to the well known religious sites of Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Sarnath Buddhist Temple in Varanasi, Mahabodhi Temple and Bodh Gay Centre in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, and Tirupati. It highlights the shared culture and heritage links shared between the two countries. This narrative is one of the underpinning factors binding the two nations together and strengthening people-to-people ties.

At this juncture, India’s options lay best in focusing on and strengthening the areas of convergence shared between the two countries. It would be pragmatic to stay cognizant of Colombo’s tryst with Beijing while making sure to not attach over-importance to the same. Without India matching up to and be in a position to help Sri Lanka economically, the Island nation would continue to weigh its options between China and India. In a geopolitically charged game in the Indian Ocean region, Balance of Power in place, Sri Lanka would heavily concentrate on pursuing its national interest with any state that is ready to help it regain its economy and not interfere in any internal matter disturbing its sovereignty.

About the Author:

Sindhu D. (ORCID: 0000-0002-0691-5784) is a Post Graduate Research Scholar in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Her area of interest is Geopolitics of South Asia and India’s relations in the Neighbourhood.

Cite this Article:

Sindhu, D. "Emerging Trends in India-Sri Lanka Bonhomie", IndraStra Global Vol. 6, Issue No: 2 (2020), 0026, https://www.indrastra.com/2020/02/Emerging-Trends-in-India-Sri-Lanka-Bonhomie-006-02-2020-0023.html, ISSN 2381-3652

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of their parent organization, or IndraStra Global.

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