Modi’s Second Visit to Sri Lanka


Neither Colombo nor New Delhi has given a high profile billing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second visit to Sri Lanka (May 11-12, 2017). It is possible that both sides want to keep the focus of the visit strictly on Vesak Day- the day that commemorates the birth, enlightenment and nirvana of Lord Buddha- celebrations in which representatives of over 100 countries are participating.

India has a special interest in Buddhism. And the Buddhism in India is not limited to archaeological sites, which are a draw for the devout and the tourist alike from all over the world. The recent visit of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader to Tawang has made people across the borders to sit up and take notice of India’s deep and vibrant Buddhist roots. There is no hiding the fact that under Prime Minister Modi, India is working on re-building India’s Buddhist connect as it refurbishes its credentials as a bankable sun rise state in the new global order

The absence of bilateral agreements during Modi visit, therefore, should not be seen as a big deal, more so after the MOU the two sides had signed during Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s short visit to Delhi and Jaipur toward April-end.

Interestingly, Sri Lankan government has literally walked the extra mile to make pleasant free of wasp bites Modi’s visit to the Central Province to open an India-funded hospital and address Indian-origin plantation workers. Police in Hatton, 125 kilometres east of Colombo, hired a private company Bee Protection Organisation to remove the big nests near two helipads. At the time of landing, helicopters can disturb the wasps and they could sting people in that area,” the head of wasp removal unit Tissa Bandara Thambavita told AFP.  The winged evictees were removed and relocated to a nearby jungle.

It is possible that the absence of bilateral deals is a calibrated effort to deflect attention away from protests that are as much sponsored as spontaneous to the proposal for joint operation of the strategic oil storage facility at Trincomalee port.

India is in no hurry for this deal. Also to the economic and technical cooperation agreement (ETCA). The Trinco offer has been on the agenda for a long time. Some more delay makes no difference. ETCA, which in essence, is an updated Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was stalled during Rajapakse regime largely because of its China tilt.

Now New Delhi wants to wait and see the contours of the trade deal China is negotiating with Sri Lanka, and its likely impact on Indian market. This is because there is going to be no local market for the products the Chinese companies will manufacture at Hambantota and Monaragala under the accord. It will mean yet another route for the Chinese products to enter India. Already Indian SME sector is reeling under the adverse effects of aggressive Chinese push with its low cost consumer products.

Priorities of India and China in Sri Lanka are not on the same page. India is into building roads and hospitals – the socio economic infrastructure it focuses wherever it goes whether in SA or Africa. The Bamboo capitalist is on a different trajectory. And poured Yuans to deepen China’s strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean Island nation.

One such gift is Hambantota port. It has become Chinese albatross for the Sri Lankan economy. China was aware of the limitations of the port from Day One but it still went ahead guided by its strategic urge for a new pearl in its string of ports in the Indian Ocean encircling India. And Colombo became a willing partner in the (mis)adventure. What next is the big question as the world is slowly moving away from its traditional fixation with petrol for energy needs.

Obviously Beijing cannot wriggle out of Hambantota. It wants to make the best out of the deal and exploit the adjoining 15,000 hectares SEZ’s potential to target South Asian and West Asian markets. This in turn would make Hambantota a living Chinese enclave, and pose its own security risks.

Yes, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has said while on a visit to Tokyo in April that security of Hambantota will remain in Sri Lankan hands.  He was short on details.  And left unanswered more questions that pop up in the context of China’s OBOR (One Belt One Road) initiative in the maritime domain with the participation of Sri Lanka.

After Wickremesinghe’s visit to China last year, the two sides said in a joint statement that they would use the development of China’s Maritime Silk Road “as an opportunity to further advance infrastructure development”.

No surprise, therefore, the United States has been expressing anxiety on China’s presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). “Right now there are more questions than answers. China has increased its presence in the Indian Ocean”, Admiral Scott Swift, US Pacific Fleet Commander, said on 06 May after meeting civilian and military leadership of India in New Delhi.

Uncertainty over the consequences and a lack of clarity about the goals of China’s OBOR programme is being raised “in every country I visit,” he said and told a questioner: “Chinese actions are adding to a sense of anxiety in the region”.

The Americans are much focussed on South China Sea, where there is instability unlike in the Indian Ocean.  SCS instability is largely because of China’s refusal to abide by the UNCLOS ruling. IOR is stable primarily because India has accepted UNCLOS ruling though it meant losing some maritime territory while redrawing the maritime boundary with Bangladesh.

There is yet another dimension that deserves attention but has not received the focus it deserves. It relates to Pakistan and its willingness, rather readiness to walk the extra mile on the maritime OBOR to please its all-weather friend China. This was on full display in the first week of May. Whether by accident or design, it came out shortly after Prime Minister Wickremesinghe returned home from his India sojourn.

Coming to specifics

On Wednesday, May 3, Sri Lankan Army chief, Lieutenant General AWJC De Silva met Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif at the PM House in Islamabad and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the GHQ in Rawalpindi.

Minister for Defence Khawaja Muhammad Asif and National Security Adviser Nasser Khan Janjua were present at Nawaz- De Silva meeting. Pakistan Today’s despatch on these meetings appeared under the headline “Pakistan, Sri Lanka ready to tackle security jointly”. The daily reported that Prime Minister Sharif called for further strengthening of defence related cooperation between the two countries.

“The Sri Lankan army chief appreciated Pakistan Army’s achievements and contributions towards national and regional security. The visiting general thanked Pakistan Army for incessant support to Sri Lankan fight against terrorism. Both the sides reaffirmed their determination to work together for enhancing regional security and continuing existing military to military cooperation”, the report added.

Around this time, Pakistan Navy Ship, Zulfiquar, was on a five-day goodwill visit to Sri Lanka “to celebrate the multifaceted friendly relationship between the two countries”.  A reception was hosted for Lankan Navy aboard the PN ship at Colombo port on 05 May.

A Dawn report on the reception said: “Commanding officer Captain Faisal Javed Sheikh in his welcome address thanked the Sri Lankan Navy for extending hospitality to the vessel’s crew during its stay in Colombo. He said Pakistan and Sri Lanka had come a long way in terms of maritime collaboration. He said that Pakistan Navy felt proud to say that several Sri Lankan Navy officers and sailors had studied a range of courses in Pakistan, adding that relations between Pakistan and Sri Lanka were based on mutual respect, support and cooperation. He appreciated the Sri Lankan leadership for strengthening avenues of mutual collaboration by regularly participating in Aman exercise conducted by the Pakistan Navy every year”.

I would love to rest my case with no comment.

But it is tempting to look beyond the visible optics.  The Sri Lankan political situation is in a state of flux, according to my friends in Colombo and Jaffna. The National Unity Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe is only national in character but unity is missing.   Cabinet reshuffle also became a victim of the coalition politics.

“The much talked about Sri Lanka’s cabinet reshuffle did not take place today, as the defiant Sri Lankan Prime Minister thwarted a major political move by President Srisena”, a report on Asian Tribune, said on 09 May.

All is not well between Sirisena’s SLFP and Wickremesinghe’s   UNP is a matter of public knowledge for the past several months. SLFP leaders are peeved that UNP has a better edge in day-to-day governance. Put simply they believe, according to local reports, that UNP has become the big brother with Prime Minister having his say on  most matters. They have been pressing Sirisena to axe some UNP ministers. Their effort has come unstuck with the postponement of the reshuffle.

“Prime Minister has categorically told the President, a defiant “No,” for any reshuffle of the UNP Ministers, but relented in case President wants he can reshuffle the SLFP ministers”, the by-lined Asian Tribune report said. It added that after the cabinet meeting, Minister Rishad Bathiyutheen dashed off to the airport with his family for a private trip to the Middle East, “thus bringing an end to the urgent circular regarding Ministers not to leave the country”.

Minister Rishad Bathiyutheen is from the UNP.

The MoU between SLFP and UNP that had paved the way for the Unity Government will be up for review by this August.   How things will shape up from hence forward is difficult to crystal gaze.  The May Day rallies however offer some insights.

Former President Mahinda Rajapakse drew an estimated one lakh crowd at the rally organised by his faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at Galle Face, Colombo’s iconic seafront.  The rally sparked off ‘come back rumours’, naturally

In contrast the rally held by President Sirisena’s SLFP faction at Kandy in the Central Province saw a poor turnout. The Rajapaksa camp is capitalising on the growing dissatisfaction among the common people on the government’s economic programme taken forward by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, according to a local political analyst, The Hindu reported from Colombo.

In his address, Rajapaksa reiterated his resolve to protect Sri Lanka, especially from foreigners whom he accused of taking over the people’s land, the dispatch said. It added that his supporter, lawmaker Wimal Weerawansa had called for “a black flag protest” to oppose Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit, because “they [the Sri Lankan government] are trying to sell Sri Lanka to India”.

Suffice to say there is going to be no dull moment on the Colombo theatre in the days ahead.

Will it impact India-Sri Lanka relations?

Yes and No.

Conventional wisdom tells that Delhi must keep its ears to ground. It is possible that the players in Colombo draw from their experience, and become pragmatic in their approach and diplomacy.  One thing is clear though.

India is not competing with Beijing in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in South Asia.  Modi’s second visit to Sri Lanka for Buddha Purnima celebrations makes this abundantly clear.

His gift of South Asia Satellite (GSAT-9), a geo-synchronous communications and meteorology satellite, sets at rest any lingering doubts.

Any doubt?