New Delhi: External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will begin his three-day visit to Sri Lanka Tuesday where he is expected to push the Rajapaksa government to kickstart the stalled East Container Terminal (ECT) development project at Colombo Port.
Jaishankar will be visiting Sri Lanka from 5-7 January at the invitation of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. During the visit, he is also expected to call on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, apart from holding bilateral discussions with his counterpart.
“This will be the first foreign visit by EAM in 2021, and also the first by a foreign dignitary to Sri Lanka in the New Year. As such, it signifies the priority both countries attach to strengthening their close and cordial relations in all spheres of mutual interest,” a statement by the external affairs ministry read.
The statement added that both sides will discuss an “entire gamut of bilateral relations”.
While Sri Lanka has reiterated their commitment to an ‘India First’ policy ever since the Rajapaksa brothers came to power, China’s influence continues to grow in the island nation.
India is concerned about the key infrastructure projects stalled in Sri Lanka and believe China is likely to take advantage of the situation, sources told ThePrint.
Also read: Mahinda Rajapaksa brings family rule to Sri Lanka. All eyes on his India-China balancing act
Stalled ECT project in Sri Lanka
The ECT project is one such stalled infrastructure project that India plans to develop at Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port, in collaboration with Tokyo, under a $500 million deal.
In May 2019, India and Japan signed a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) with the Sri Lankan government to develop the terminal at the Colombo Port, which is also on the map of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
However, it got stalled after President Gotabaya ordered a review in July 2020.
Since then, India has been pushing Sri Lanka for quick implementation of the ECT project.
“In the present situation, at the present stage, perhaps the best way to deepen the India-Sri Lanka ties is to implement quickly the deep port project of East Container Terminal,” Gopal Baglay, High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka, had said at a webinar in October last year.
Also read: Eyeing China, NSA Doval looks to promote Indo-Pacific strategy in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s reluctance to join Indo-Pacific
India is also looking to implement several other projects in Sri Lanka. This follows the island nation’s growing strategic importance for the US, Japan and Australia under the Indo-Pacific initiative.
During outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka in October 2020, the US presented itself as a “friend and partner” to the country and cautioned them against tilting towards China.
However, Sri Lanka is reluctant to join the strategic framework of Indo-Pacific as it does not want to upset China. During Pompeo’s visit itself, President Rajapaksa had made it clear that Sri Lanka “will maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs”.
Jaishankar is also expected to discuss India’s position in the Indo-Pacific and also its tensions with China with the leadership there, sources said.
Meanwhile, China remains one of the main partners of Sri Lanka in terms of grants and loans.
India has also been assisting Sri Lanka with $400 million currency swap that was agreed upon in July. New Delhi is also considering another currency swap agreement of $1.1 billion that will help the island nation in its debt management.
A currency swap is a transaction in which two parties exchange an equivalent amount of money with each other, but in different currencies. It helps in reducing the cost of borrowing in a foreign currency at favourable rates.
Also read: Sri Lanka’s debt concerns mount after S&P cuts rating deeper into junk