COLOMBO (EconomyNext) President Maithripala Sirisena is visiting India this week to mend relations strained by China’s growing influence in the small but strategically-located island.
The new leader is making India his first foreign destination since last month’s defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse who had irritated New Delhi with his overarching cooperation with Beijing.
India had watched China’s growing economic, political and even military influence in Sri Lanka and the final straw may have been the rare presence of Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army submarines and war ships in Colombo last year.
Government ministers say Sirisena will be meeting with Prime Minister Modi on Monday to assure him that the new administration in Colombo will have a distinctly different foreign policy that will not cause unease for neighbours.
"Our relations with India had nosedived," Plantations minister Lakshman Kiriella told reporters this week referring to the state of Indo-Lanka ties in the past decade when the Rajapakse regime relied heavily on China.
"We want to have a new beginning with India," Kiriella said. "If we have any relations with China, that will not be to the detriment of India."
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera visited New Delhi for talks even before he could complete one week in office and told reporters that the visit demonstrated the importance Colombo placed on mending ties.
Sri Lanka, a midway point on one of the world’s busiest international shipping lanes, is a vital stop in Beijing’s 21st century maritime Silk Road initiative to secure their trade routes.
Beijing has built in Sri Lanka two ports and an airport, including a $500 million mega container terminal which is the largest in South Asia.
The mega terminal opened in August 2013 as a commercial port, but was also used later to dock the Chinese submarines in September and October.
China biggest financier
China is already the largest investor in the island nation.
Chinese President Xi Jingping, during a visit to Colombo in September, launched work on another Beijing-funded $1.4 billion port city which could give them a firm foothold in Colombo.
However, Sirisena has begun a review of all Chinese projects commissioned under the previous regime.
Soon after Sirisena assumed office, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei noted in Beijing that cooperation between the two countries "has been deepening" and expected their projects in the island to go ahead.
"We hope and we believe the new Sri Lankan government will carry on the friendly policies towards China and lend their support to relevant projects to make sure these projects are successful," he added.
After the New Delhi visit, President Sirisena who has said he wants to maintain a "middle path" in foreign relations, is due to travel to Beijing next month.
Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake said Colombo wants to restructure high-interest Chinese loans that had become a heavy burden on the national budget as most of the projects financed by China remained white elephants.
For decades, New Delhi considered Colombo to be within its geopolitical sphere of influence and any attempt to ignore that had been frowned upon by successive Indian governments.
India ended up sending troops to Sri Lanka in 1987 to enforce a New Delhi-brokered peace accord between Colombo and separatist Tamil rebels.
The rebels had been armed at a time when the then Colombo government leaned towards the West after becoming the first in South Asia to embrace a free market economy in 1978.
Sri Lanka’s Reconstruction minister D. M. Swaminathan who is a member of Sirisena’s delegation to New Delhi said they were 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.
Swaminathan said Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka next month could energise Indian investors to have a bigger interest in the island’s economy and take advantage of its proximity to East-West shipping routes.