NEW DELHI (AFP) – The leaders of India and Sri Lanka vowed to strengthen their relationship after a period of tensions Monday and declared their countries’ fortunes were intertwined as they held their first summit in New Delhi.
China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka over recent years has been a source of disquiet in India which has long regarded the neighbouring island as within its natural sphere of influence.
But Maithripala Sirisena’s victory over Sri Lanka’s long-time ruler Mahinda Rajapakse in elections last month has been seized on by both sides as a chance for a reboot in relations, fuelled by the new president’s decision to make India his first port of call in office.
"It’s an honour that you have chosen India as your first foreign destination," India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said after hosting talks for Sirisena who is barely five weeks into his tenure.
"India is the closest neighbour and friend of Sri Lanka. Our goodwill and support will always be with you. I believe that our destinies are interlinked.
"We are at a moment of an unprecedented opportunity to take our bilateral relations to a new level."
While there were no major announcements, the two leaders did strike deals to cooperate on nuclear energy and strengthen defence ties as well as announce plans for Modi to pay a reciprocal visit to Sri Lanka next month.
"We share very strong relations that span several thousand years," said Sirisena who country lies at the southern tip of India.
"The courtesy extended to us on this visit has been very great… This is my first official visit to India and it has been very fruitful.
"I can clearly say that our bilateral relations have been further strengthened."
– Sphere of influence –
India has long considered Sri Lanka to be within its strategic sphere of influence, sending troops to the island in 1987 to enforce a peace accord it brokered between Colombo and separatist Tamil rebels.
But under Rajapakse China ploughed huge sums into Sri Lankan infrastructure projects, becoming the country’s biggest foreign financier and enjoying significant political and even military influence.
India was reported to have been furious at the brief appearance last year of two Chinese submarines in Sri Lankan waters.
China 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.
While neither man mentioned China by name, the announcements of memorandum of understandings (MOUs) on issues such as defence cooperation and energy will have been noted in Bejing.
Although there were few immediate details on the MOUs, diplomats had earlier said that the two men would reach an agreement on cooperation in the civilian use of nuclear technology
This stems partly from Sri Lanka’s concerns that any disaster involving the Kundankulam nuclear plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state could have catastrophic consequences for the island too.
Under the proposed agreement, India would provide technical assistance in education, training and disaster management.
Modi said that he and Sirisena had "agreed to expand our defence and security cooperation" as well as on maritime security cooperation.
Analysts say the visit’s main significance is as a signal of intent from Sri Lanka.
"This visit is very significant because it could very well be a turning point," K.G. Suresh, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation think-tank, told AFP.
"Suspicions that earlier marked India-Sri Lanka relations could now give way to more confidence and strong ties between the two."
Sirisena is keen to attract greater Indian investment in Sri Lanka, which said last week it was seeking an international bailout of more than $4.0 billion.
China funded much of Sri Lanka’s post-war infrastructure under the Rajapakse administration but the new government has said the interest rates charged on the loans averaged between five and seven percent.
Sirisena is being accompanied by several ministers, including Reconstruction Minister D.M. Swaminathan, who said the government was keen to secure India’s support for ethnic reconciliation following the island’s decade-long ethnic war that ended in 2009.
Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils share close cultural ties with the Tamils in Tamil Nadu.
Sirisena is due to be guest of honour at a banquet thrown by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee in the evening.
On Tuesday he will travel to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya and a Hindu temple in Tirupati further south before leaving the next day.