India and Sri Lanka share a common history that goes back to centuries, but multiple issues have cropped up in the last few years. Colombo could now be making an attempt to iron them out with an official visit from the High Commissioner designate to New Delhi slated for this month.
It has been exactly a year since Mahinda Rajapaksa became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka after a massive electoral victory last year and the signs that he wants stronger ties with India have only become more evident. Later this month, the High Commissioner designate from the island nation is slated to visit India armed with a package to help iron out issues that have cropped up between the two countries.
It is expected to be a busy trip with discussions on a host of issues like trade, connectivity, investment and ways to resolve the fishermen’s issues. As a sweetener, he will also arrive with Sita temple stone for the under construction Ram temple in Ayodhya.
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India is Lanka’s largest trading partner in the world and the two countries signed one of their earliest free trade agreements that dates back to 2000. China’s growing influence in the region has in recent times added a new angle to the Indo-Sri Lankan relationship.
The Rajapakse family is traditionally seen as pro-China but early evidence after he took over suggested he wanted to start afresh. For his swearing in ceremony India’s foreign affairs minister S Jaishankar had dashed down to Colombo and got the desired response when his counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena made a three-day visit to India, his first overseas trip since assuming office, in January this year.
All of that seemed to have come to a nought though. India has been disappointed by the scrapping of the East Container Terminal project that was signed in 2019 while Sri Lanka holds some grouse that India has not yet acceded to its request for debt repayment and a separate $ 1 billion currency swap. Signs of China once again gaining an upper hand in infrastructure projects have added to the level of distrust.
At the same time, some positive developments have also happened. In March, Sri Lanka released 54 Indian fishermen who had been picked up by their navy. Fishermen from both sides often inadvertently trespass into each other’s maritime borders.
From its side, India has used its vaccine diplomacy initiative to help Sri Lanka fight the pandemic. It gifted 500,000 doses of the Astrazeneca vaccine in January which kick started the vaccination programme in the island nation. This also led to a competition with China which donated 600,000 doses of its Sinopharm vaccine in March. Yet, Sri Lanka preferred the Indian vaccine over the Chinese when it placed an order for 13.5 million doses later.
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It is symbolic of how the country is getting caught between two great Asian superpowers and Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said on numerous occasions that he wished to remain neutral and not get involved in world power rivalries. He has also been critical of the previous government’s sell out to China when the strategically important Hambantota Port was handed over to the Chinese on a 99-year-old lease.
India has reacted to China’s strategy in the region of providing long term loans for infrastructure projects, which invariably become a debt trap, with its own line of credit support. It has extended a new Line of Credit of $400 million for Sri Lanka to boost infrastructure and development, another Line of Credit of $100 million for solar projects and on top of it a special Line of Credit of $50 million to combat terrorism. The big Housing Project, which spans over a decade and has seen construction of over 50,000 houses across the island is another example.
The Indo-Sri Lankan bilateral ties are ripe for expansion. But before that it needs a reset. The High Commissioner’s visit is expected to do just that.