Sri Lanka’s new president heads to India this weekend on his first foreign trip in office, seeking to rebuild ties hit by tensions over growing Chinese influence on the strategically located island.
Maithripala Sirisena swept to power last month, ending a decade of rule by former president Mahinda Rajapakse, whose close alliance with Beijing had sparked serious concerns in New Delhi.
China ploughed huge sums into Sri Lankan infrastructure projects, becoming the country’s biggest foreign financier and enjoying significant political and even military influence on the island under Rajapakse.
India has long considered Sri Lanka to be within its strategic sphere of influence, sending troops to the island in 1987 to enforce a New Delhi-brokered peace accord between Colombo and separatist Tamil rebels.
New Delhi was reported to have been furious at the brief appearance last year of two Chinese submarines in Sri Lankan waters.
Sri Lankan officials said Sirisena, whose administration last week reversed approval for a controversial $1.4 billion Chinese project, would aim to allay Indian fears when he meets Prime Minister Modi on Monday.
AFP / Prakash Singh
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters during a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election rally in New Delhi, on February 3, 2015
“Our relations with India had nosedived,” said Plantations Minister Lakshman Kiriella.
“We want to have a new beginning with India. If we have any relations with China, that will not be to the detriment of India.”
Beijing has been accused of seeking to develop facilities around the Indian Ocean in a “string of pearls” strategy to counter the rise of its Asian rival India and secure its own economic interests.
Sirisena is also expected to try to secure greater Indian investment in Sri Lanka, which said this week it was seeking an international bail-out of more than $4.0 billion.
The new government has accused Rajapakse’s administration of understating the country’s debts and is also seeking to restructure expensive Chinese loans.
– ‘Tightrope walk’ –
However, one foreign policy expert sounded a note of caution, saying India’s pockets were not deep enough to take over China’s role as Sri Lanka’s chief financier.
AFP / Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping (C-L) speaking to then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, as Xi formally opens the start of work on the Chinese-funded .4 bln Colombo port city, on September 17, 2014
“India does not have the economic might to steer China away from Sri Lanka,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan of India’s Observer Research Foundation told AFP.
“Basically, Sri Lanka’s policy with India is a tightrope walk. It will be quite difficult to keep everyone happy and balance everything out.”
China provided $141.9 million in loans in the first four months of 2014 — the latest official figures available — making it the island’s largest financier. India loaned $53.7 million.
Beijing has made clear it wants the relationship to continue and Sirisena, who has said he wants to maintain a “middle path” in foreign relations, is due to travel to there next month.
Shortly after Sirisena took office, China’s foreign ministry said it hoped the new administration would “carry on the friendly policies towards China and lend their support to relevant projects”.
China has already funded two ports and an airport, including a $500 million mega container terminal which is the largest in South Asia.
Sri Lanka is a midway point on one of the world’s busiest international shipping lanes that Beijing wants to secure as a maritime silk road for the 21st century.
Sirisena has launched a review of all Chinese projects commissioned under the previous regime.
His government initially approved a controversial $1.4 billion Chinese port-related project, but reversed that decision after objections from other parties.
Indian diplomats have privately raised concerns about the venture, as it gives China ownership of one third of the total 233 hectares (583 acres) of reclaimed land.
The new president will travel to New Delhi late Sunday with several ministers, including Reconstruction Minister D. M. Swaminathan, who said the government was also keen to secure India’s support for ethnic reconciliation.
Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils share close cultural ties with the Tamils in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Modi, who has made clear his desire to reassert India’s dominance in its own backyard, will travel to Colombo next month.
Swaminathan expressed hopes the visit could bring greater Indian investment to the island.