New Delhi: Gotabaya Rajapaksa embarks on his first official foreign tour as Sri Lankan President Thursday, and India is all set to roll out the red carpet for him, as it seeks not to let the island nation slip completely into “Chinese hands”.
Rajapaksa, who was Sri Lanka’s former defence secretary, was elected President on 16 November, and soon appointed his older brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit comes at a time when India is grappling with increasing Chinese influence in its immediate neighbourhood, and the Rajapaksa brothers are widely known to be pro-China, sources told ThePrint, adding that this is why India did not want to involve itself in the Sri Lankan election process, unlike previous times.
After his election, India was extremely proactive in extending congratulations to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with PM Narendra Modi immediately tweeting his wishes and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar going to Colombo on 19 November to give him a formal invitation to visit India. Jaishankar was the first senior foreign official to meet the younger Rajapaksa after the election.
“A warm meeting with Sri Lanka President @GotabayaR. Conveyed PM @narendramodi’s message of a partnership for shared peace, progress, prosperity & security. Confident that under his leadership, #IndiaSriLanka relations would reach greater heights,” Jaishankar had tweeted after the meeting.
President Rajapaksa will hold bilateral talks with PM Modi Friday.
In 2015, when strongman Mahinda lost the presidential elections, he had accused India of meddling in the polls and even alleged that Indian agencies had worked with the Indian High Commission in Colombo to dethrone him.
However, things took a positive turn between the countries after Mahinda met PM Modi in September last year.
Container terminal and counter-terrorism
According to sources, the Modi government is now making an all-out effort to bring the relationship with the island nation “back on track”, since the previous government led by President Maithripala Sirisena was seen to be “too weak in front of China”.
Just like Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sirisena had also made India his first destination for a foreign visit after coming to power.
Sources said India is now planning to “gain the confidence” of Sri Lanka by ramping up the projects it has envisioned there, particularly the development of a container terminal at the Colombo Port that New Delhi is building in collaboration with Japan at a cost of $500 million to reduce the Chinese influence.
“Sri Lanka needs both its giant neighbours. So, I believe, they will not play one against the other. They will do the balancing now. India should watch and see what they can do and seek more trilateral cooperation like the container terminal project, and push those ahead and complete them in a timely manner,” said veteran diplomat Rajiv Bhatia, a Distinguished Fellow at the Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House.
Bhatia, who headed the Sri Lanka division at the Ministry of External Affairs between 1991-94, also said it would be incorrect to see the new dispensation in Sri Lanka as pro-China as India also enjoys “enormous influence” in that country.
After the devastating Easter Bombings in April this year, India and Sri Lanka have also made efforts to initiate a dialogue on counter-terrorism efforts.
Sri Lanka has said some of the terrorists belonging to the Islamic State were trained in India, but New Delhi said it had relayed several warnings about possible terror attacks ahead of the bombings, which Sirisena’s government had ignored.
Hambantota Port a wake-up call for India
According to another source, the Chinese-built Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka remains one of New Delhi’s biggest concerns. It was through this port that Beijing actually started to yield influence in Sri Lanka.
Alice Wells, the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, said Monday that it shares India’s concerns over Sri Lanka, which formally handed over Hambantota to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease.
R.K. Yadav, a former RAW officer and an expert on Sri Lanka, said: “Gotabaya is known to be pro-China, so trouble for India in that country has now grown. His visit to India is a mere show of balancing act, otherwise he knows New Delhi can create hurdles for him.”
Yadav added that China would continue to push economic aid for Sri Lanka and dominate the country. “It will also use Sri Lanka for its strategic location for its Belt and Road Initiative,” he added.