Mixed signals worry Delhi

Indo China rivalrySri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena will visit India this month on his first foreign trip in office but his attempts at also assuaging Chinese concerns have sparked worries in New Delhi of a fresh tug-of-war underscored by two greetings Colombo received 45 minutes apart yesterday.

Sirisena is expected to land here onFebruary 16 on a three-day trip he had confirmed soon after his election victory over former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to return that gesture by visiting Sri Lanka in March – a trip where he may also travel to the northern city of Jaffna that no sitting Indian Prime Minister has visited.

But conflicting signals from Colombo over key pre-election promises quietly cheered by New Delhi have forced India’s diplomatic establishment to temper some of their excitement over Rajapaksa’s defeat as they prepare for Sirisena’s visit, senior officials said.

“There’s definitely a lot of expectations from the Sirisena government, from our perspective, and we’re hoping the visits lead to some tangible outcomes,” a senior official familiar with India’s relationship with Sri Lanka said. “But on some of the key issues, we’re still waiting for clarity.”

On Wednesday, Sirisena witnessed some of the contesting pulls that some diplomats fear could be the seed of a fresh battle for influence over the South Asian island.

At 7.29 in the morning, Modi posted on Twitter greetings to the people of Sri Lanka on what is their Independence Day.

“The bonds of history, culture and shared values that we share are unbreakable,” Modi wrote, before adding that he was looking forward to welcoming Sirisena to India this month.

But exactly 45 minutes later, Chinese state-owned news agency Xinhua posted on its website a message President Xi Jinping sent to Sirisena, congratulating him and the people of Sri Lanka on their Independence Day.

“China and Sri Lanka are traditional friendly neighbours, and relations between the two countries have remained unshakeable and become even firmer as time goes by,” Xi said.

Xi’s words were not dissimilar to Modi’s, and his use of “unshakeable” to describe ties with Colombo – as opposed to “unbreakable,” used by the Indian Prime Minister – if anything suggests even greater confidence in the future of China-Sri Lanka ties.

Symbolically, the Sirisena government has sent just the right signals to demonstrate that India is its top foreign policy priority. Foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera made India his first destination – four days after he was sworn in – and on the festival ofPongalin Tamil Nadu, Sirisena announced Sri Lanka would release 15 Indian fishermen under arrest.

Just a little over a month into office, Sirisena will himself make India his first destination abroad.

And in India, Sirisena will step beyond Delhi to Bodh Gaya and Tirupati – twin journeys to major shrines representing the dominant faiths of both the Sinhala (Buddhist) and Tamil (Hindu) ethnic communities in Sri Lanka, in a departure from the past.

But despite these gestures, and repeated assurances, India is still waiting for key clearances on a series of infrastructure, power and culture projects it has committed to Sri Lanka but that were held up under Rajapaksa.

These include the $350-million Sampur power plant, a harbour at Kankeanthurai – the northern-most tip of Sri Lanka – a ferry service between Mannar and Rameswaram and the restoration of the Tiruketheeswaram temple. India also wants to build a cultural centre in Jaffna.

Indian officials said New Delhi was willing to give Colombo more time to deliver on these projects.

But simultaneously, the Sirisena government appears to have pulled back from much of their pre-election rhetoric targeted at Chinese projects in Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe had, prior to the elections, promised to scrap a $1.4-billion China-built port city just outside Colombo alleging a series of violations in the way the deal was inked between Beijing and Rajapaksa.

But late in January, Sri Lanka’s investment minister Kabir Hashim and his deputy Eran Wickramaratne told China’s ambassador in Colombo Wu Jianghao that no Chinese projects would be scrapped.

At worst, the terms of the project may be marginally revised to address environmental concerns, they told Wu, Chinese and Sri Lankan officials confirmed.

India views the project – whatever its terms – itself as a strategic threat because of the access China would get through its control of the port to Indian ships. Over 70 per cent of Indian ships visiting Sri Lanka depend on Colombo port. (The Telegraph)

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