Wickremesinghe’s India Visit Could Check Chinese Influence In Sri Lanka

By Rajeev Sharma

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s just-concluded India visit — before he had completed his first month in office — could help in keeping the Chinese dragon’s influence in the island nation under check. His talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi have helped bilateral relations, with discussions on sensitive issues like the devolution of more powers to Tamil-dominated regions in Sri Lanka and the issue of Indian fishermen being detained detentions by Sri Lankan authorities.

The two prime ministers’ decision to boost India-Sri Lanka bilateral trade is a step in the right direction and has strategic intonations as well, because strong business ties will inevitably reduce Sri Lanka’s dependency on Chinese investment. Mutuality of interest is essential for any relationship to survive and grow. From the Modi-Wickremesinghe joint statement, it is clear that India-Lanka relations have passed the test and cleared the decks for the long-pending CEPA — Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

“We discussed how we can achieve these goals in a more open and competitive Indian market, including through bilateral arrangements for trade and investments,” Modi said and went on to state that both countries have a “huge stake” in each other's successes, and in stability and development in the region.

His Sri Lankan counterpart agreed with the formulation and said, “We are looking at a permanent agreement on cooperation on economic affairs — trade, investment and technology — which is essential for development”.  His government of national unity, he said, according to The Times of India, has a mandate for trade and investment with India.

Wickremesinghe did not disappoint his Indian interlocutors both in terms of diplomatic symbolism as well as political substance. He made a positive start to his India visit (between 14 and 16 September) by referring at the very outset to the ethnic Tamil issue: “We are looking at how power-sharing and devolution takes place within the Constitution, within a unitary state and there is still scope for much more to be done”.

His foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera used the UNHRC forum in Geneva, just as the premier's plane was landing in the Indian capital, to spell out clearly and unambiguously the road map for a ‘political solution’, to set at rest any lingering doubts. “The best guarantee for non-recurrence is, of course, a political settlement that addresses the grievances of the Tamil people. We hope that we can achieve this through the adoption of a new Constitution,” he told the UN body, declaring that the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation is on the right course.

This is a significant statement since the Mahinda Rajapaksa-era war crimes issue is going to come to the forefront once again. Deft diplomatic footwork has already helped Colombo to buy peace with human rights Ayatollahs, and make them endorse its plan for a domestic investigation. It is no mean feat because there is an unadulterated clamour amongst sections of ethnic Tamils for an international probe to bring to book leaders and generals who had committed atrocities during the final assault on LTTE citadel.

Along with President Sirisena, Wickremesinghe is slowly dismantling the ‘old’ structures without disturbing the waters. It is a calibrated process. Going by the mood in the national unity government, the fruit of its labour should be ready sooner than expected.

Modi duly mentioned a long pestering sore — the fishermen issue — and spoke about its humanitarian angle too. From what is on record, it is clear that an occasional arrest by Lankan Navy of Indian fishermen will not add new strain to the relationship and the issue will be handled in the ‘normal’ way.

Moreover both sides have found a way out to keep the waters calm, cool and pleasant in the Palk Straits with neither side yielding much on their publicly-stated positions.  This is a natural corollary to the credibility and trust Colombo places in New Delhi these days.

(First Post)

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