President of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe’s two-day (20-21 July 2023) visit was significant in the growing relationship between the two countries. This year is important for two reasons. First, the two countries are celebrating their 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations; and second, the Tamil community of Indian origin is completing 200 years of their arrival in Sri Lanka. The visit also assumes importance as Sri Lanka allowed the Chinese space and satellite vessel Yuan Wang 5 to dock at the Hambantota port last year in August, which caused concern in India.
The statements exchanged and agreements reached during Wickremesinghe’s visit capture the essence of developing relations between the two countries and efforts to iron out irritants. PM Modi, while welcoming Wickremesinghe, underscored that India stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Sri Lanka, who are facing a crisis, hinting at their political and economic problems. He further stated that Sri Lanka has an important place in both, India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR) vision. He underlined that the security and development interests of the two countries are intertwined, and therefore “it is essential that we work together, keeping in mind each other’s safety and sensitivities.” The reference was clearly to India’s security interests in the region.
On this occasion, the two Leaders outlined ‘a common vision of theirs to further develop the bilateral relationship in the coming years, centred around enhanced extended and deepened connectivity and deeper economic partnership.’ This is a multi-dimensional economic vision that covers various dimensions of connectivity, maritime, air, energy, power trade and economic connectivity, financial connectivity, digital connectivity, and resulting people-to-people engagement. The two countries agreed to cooperate in the development of ports and logistics infrastructure at Colombo, Trincomalee, and Kankesanthurai. They agreed to push further the ongoing cooperation in the development of ‘Trincomalee Tank Farms’ and turn it into a regional hub of industry, energy, and economic activity. It envisaged construction of a multi-product petroleum pipeline from the southern part of India (Nagapattinam) to Sri Lanka (Kankesanthurai) with the aim of ensuring an affordable and reliable supply of energy resources to Sri Lanka. It was also agreed to cooperate in the joint exploration and production of hydrocarbons in Sri Lanka’s offshore basins with an aim to develop Sri Lanka’s petroleum sector.
Digital connectivity received due attention. An agreement was made between NPCI International and Lanka Pay on UPI based digital payments. This is aimed at easing the payment flow mechanisms between the two countries. Sri Lanka’s unique digital identity project is being implemented through Indian grant assistance, which will enable the Sri Lankan Government to deliver and host a lot of citizen centric services for its people.
The two leaders discussed steps required for the recovery of Sri Lanka’s economy. While India has provided substantial assistance since the crisis broke out, the discussion included measures needed to push up bilateral trade and investment, which can accelerate the economic recovery of Sri Lanka. Economic and technological cooperation is continuing, and discussions are ongoing over the use of INR for trade settlements. In March this year, an agreement was announced through which Sri Lanka was to receive a Dornier aircraft and a Floating Dock at no cost.
PM Modi discussed the issue of the Tamil community with Wickremesinghe. While he announced a multi-sectoral package to support the economic development of the eastern province, PM Modi requested his counterpart to take their aspirations into consideration and fully implement the 13th amendment.
The issues pertaining to fishermen and fishing boats were taken up and it was decided that these should be approached from a humanitarian perspective. There was also discussion on land connectivity. A feasibility study is likely to be initiated soon.
While Wickremesinghe’s visit was important, India’s security concerns remain. China’s attempts to enhance its footprint in the Indian Ocean deserve the utmost attention and Sri Lanka remains important from that angle. The positive aspect is that Wickremesinghe is a balanced person and shows no inclination to favour China against India, like the Rajapakse clan. India’s larger objective is to stymie Sri Lanka’s drift towards China. This is not only necessary for India but also for the entire Indo-Pacific.
India has close links with the people of Sri Lanka, notwithstanding certain sections displaying anti-India sentiments. EAM Jaishankar’s articulation of “blood is thicker than water” at the Raisina Dialogue left no-doubt about the positive state of relationship. President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry are on record both in Parliament and outside giving India full marks for its support to Sri Lanka at its worst moment.
However, internal developments and fault lines need to be kept in mind. It is to state the obvious that anti-India feelings run deep in certain sections of politicians and society, and this demands careful handling by policymakers and other stakeholders in India and Sri Lanka. Without getting involved in internal politics, pragmatism demands that Wickremesinghe be supported at the present juncture.
The Tamil issue also needs to be dealt with in an objective manner. The 13th Amendment and the full implementation of provisions of the India-Sri Lanka Accord-1987 (ISLA-87) is needed. The ISLA-87 is one of the finest documents drafted by India to secure its national interests. The devolution of power remains a sticking point. This must be dealt with deftly by the current dispensation.
India is trying to ensure that the Sri Lankan economy comes out of the crisis. India is ensuring that its assistance to Sri Lanka does not add any debt burden to the latter’s economy. Fortunately, the IMF has provided the much-needed assistance. But the restructuring of debt could be problematic and would require cutbacks on social spending, hurting the most vulnerable sections of society. Sri Lanka will also be required to balance its ties with all major lenders, including China. In view of this, any major change in its relationship with the Dragon is unlikely to take place. India’s effort should be to ensure that it does not become more dependent on China.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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