Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka on Friday reflects a bounce back in bilateral relations, as India seeks to mitigate China’s growing influence at New Delhi’s doorstep.
Sri Lanka is the last stop on Modi’s trip after visits to Indian Ocean island nations Seychelles and Mauritius. It comes on the heels of three decades of mostly rocky relations largely due to an ethnic separatist conflict in Sri Lanka.
Ties fell further to their lowest levels in the final years of the nine-year administration of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose pro-Chinese policies threatened India’s say in the region. Rajapaksa’s election defeat in January at the hands of Maithripala Sirisena has reversed that trend, especially when Sirisena picked India for his first official visit.
Sri Lanka’s government is also reviewing China-funded infrastructure development and has suspended the $1.5 billion Colombo Port City project, citing environmental issues and alleged corruption. The project to build a city on reclaimed land off the western coast came to be viewed as the face of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. It was inaugurated in September during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Modi said on his official Twitter account this week that his aim is to boost relations. “This visit is also part of my objective of maintaining frequent contact with our neighboring countries. I am delighted with the opportunity to visit one of our most important neighbors.”
During his visit, the first by a Chinese head of state in 28 years, Xi won support from Sri Lanka and neighboring Maldives for a new maritime “Silk Road,” which was seen as a way of encircling India and controlling port access along sea lanes linking the energy-rich Persian Gulf and economic centers in eastern China.
China and Sri Lanka have enjoyed longstanding ties, which were boosted by Beijing’s supply of weapons during Sri Lanka’s civil war against Tamil rebels. India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor, refrained from selling arms for fear of antagonizing its own sizable Tamil population.
China has also consistently defended Sri Lanka at the United Nations from allegations of human rights violations committed during the civil war, and has increased its presence on the island by building highways, a seaport, an airport and power plants.
According to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang, told reporters that it was important for Sri Lanka to honor its agreements, and that Beijing is confident that the relations will remain strong.
That heavy Chinese presence in a country just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away made India apprehensive. The prospect of China being given outright ownership over part of the Colombo Port City land increased the worries.
It is the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years since the late Rajiv Gandhi arrived on the island nation in 1987 to sign a peace accord in an effort to end the Tamil uprising, which was then in its early years.
It was a tumultuous period in relations as India was accused of training and arming the Tamil rebels, and then tried to mediate by sending a peacekeeping force. That upset some among Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese, while the Tamils saw it as a betrayal and subsequently fought the Indian troops.