NEW DELHI: The leaders of India and Sri Lanka have decided to take their relations to a new high. In his first visit abroad after assuming charge as the president of the island nation two weeks ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa told reporters in New Delhi on Friday: “I want to bring the relationship between India and Sri Lanka to a very high level.”
He added that both India and Sri Lanka need to work together on issues related to security and overall welfare of the people of the two countries.
On the second day of his three-day visit, the Sri Lankan leader met his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed terrorism and ethnic reconciliation, with the Tamil minority group dominating the discourse.
“We feel privileged that the Sri Lankan president chose India as the destination for his first trip abroad within two weeks of taking the oath. This is the symbol of close proximity and a sign of dynamism in our relationship”, said Modi.
He announced a $400 million line of credit for the development of infrastructure in Sri Lanka and a $50 million line of credit for counter-terrorism efforts.
“It is my hope that Sri Lanka will take the reconciliation steps further to fulfil the aspirations of the minority Tamils, including the implementation of the 13th amendment”, Modi said in a joint press statement after the meeting.
Rajapaksa’s visit is significant in India as it comes amid widespread apprehension among the Indian establishment that his elevation would further drive Colombo in China’s camp.
New Delhi’s relations with its southern neighbor reached a nadir between 2005 to 2015, when Mahinda Rajapaksa, elder brother of the president, was ruling the country. The elder Rajapaksa gave China lots of economic and strategic space in Sri Lanka, which made New Delhi uncomfortable.
He also allowed China to park its naval ship in the Indian ocean. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to hand over the strategically located Hambantota airport and seaport in southern Sri Lanka to China for 99 years alarmed India.
In 2015, he unexpectedly lost the elections, blaming India for his defeat.
However, after the defeat, the Rajapaksa family tried to mend fences with India.
Within days of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s swearing-in, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar travelled to Colombo and extended Modi’s invitation to him.
“Both the country’s security and development are inseparable therefore we remain alert to each other’s security sensitivity”, Modi said after the meet.
Chennai-based Sathiya Moorthy of the think tank Observer Research Foundation said: “Both the nations have to restore mutual trust and also address Chinese security issues.”
He added that “India’s apprehensions of China using the island nation as a strategic location is based on past experience, when the previous Rajapaksa regime allowed a Chinese submarine to enter the Indian Ocean after he handed over the Hambantota port to Beijing. There now seems to be better understanding between the two countries.”