A New Chapter in Indo – Lanka Relations: Maithripal Sirisena’s Foreign Polcy towards India

India and Sri Lanka share values and traditions and a common commitment to democratic governance. India- Sri Lanka relations are based on a deep and abiding friendship on shared historical experience and common civilisation. Both countries have taken a similar trajectory in international relations, having emerged from colonial oppression. Since then, India and Sri Lanka have proceeded to renew and reinvigorate age old cultural, commercial and strategic links for the mutual benefits of the two independent nations and their peoples.

Sri Lanka’s relations with India constitute a critical component of its foreign policy. The specific geo-strategic location of India in the Indian Ocean and ethnic affinity of the Indian Tamils with the Sri Lankan Tamils have been the most important factor of their relationship. Sri Lanka is one of the closest neighbors of India, separated from it at its narrowest point by 22 miles of sea called Palk Strait. The relationship between Sri Lanka and India has been built upon a legacy of intellectual, cultural, religious and the highest political level engagement, growing trade and investment, cooperation in the fields of development, education, culture and defense, as well as a broad understanding on major issues of international interest.

This paper is to closely examine the relations between Sri Lanka and India in this recent phase, with special attention to new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s foreign policy towards India and find out the scopes on the base of which these two countries will become closer ally, which may create a new balance of power in Asia.

Soon after the victory in presidential election, Maithripala government sent off Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to India with a clear message that the new Sri Lankan government looks forward to strengthen bilateral relations with India. Apart from this, President Sirisena’s visit to India as his first official abroad visit after elected as a new President. More importantly, this visit showed a new dedication to Non-alignment which was a key factor in the good relations between India and Sri Lanka, during the Cold War era. We may also see that the Maithripala government in Sri Lanka is considering more to following a Non-alignment policy, than ever in the past.

The elections in January 2015 highlighted many significant developments in the country’s politics. Former President Rajapakshe government’s Cabinet Minister Maithripala Sirisena suddenly decided to join hands with the Opposition. This was a major setback to the the Rajapaksa’s regime. Sirisena’s entry had strengthed and powered the Opposition. Although previous government gave opposition only one month to become battle-fit, everything moved so rapidly against Rajapaksa and end up with his defeat in elections.

Moreover, it seems like Modi government believes that this new Maithripala government in Sri Lanka will help to strengthen the bilateral relations. During Rajapaksa government, although the bilateral relations remained cordial, occasional tensions and suspicion remained the order of the day. However, Indian government faced awful political pressure from Tamil Nadu especially in fishermen issues, Tamil Diaspora issues etc. As a major power in South Asia, India had to tread very carefully respecting the sovereignty of the Sri Lanka while attending to concerns surrounding human rights.

However, Sri Lanka’s close relationship with China always attracted serious attentions from Indian security establishment. What precipitated matters was the sudden appearance of two nuclear submarines at the Colombo Port late last year. Indian establishment’s serious concerns were conveyed to Rajapaksa’s administration which seemed to have taken note of the same. More importantly, when the new President visited India these two issues, namely economy and security, dominate India’s agenda.

Specially, Sri Lanka’s trade with India forms almost 45% of its total trade. And Sri Lanka also certainly consider about revisiting and strengthening India- Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement and looking up to India for stabilizing its economy. China also has strong economic ties with Sri Lanka especially in the infrastructure sector. Therefore, it is clear fact that, Sri Lanka’s economic stability requires a fine balance of support from both the major powers.

Cultural and religious linkages play a major part of tourism engagement. India’s Buddhist circuit of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh and Bodh Gaya in Bihar attracts large number of tourists from Sri Lanka every year. Although the Indian tourist inflow is proportionally less, it is steadily on the rise in the last few years after the war. Sri Lanka has many beautiful tourist attractions. Its historic association with the epic Ramayana is an added attraction for Indian tourists.

One of most important instruments signed between Sri Lanka and India in New Delhi recently is Cooperation in the Peaceful use of Nuclear Energy. This covers a very wide range of activity of special importance to Sri Lanka in the search for new technology and the use of nuclear energy, with ground breaking action to facilitate the development and strengthening of scientific, economic, and technical cooperation in a highly specialized field. It looks forward to specific projects in relation to transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources and experience, and capacity building. There will be focus, among other matters, on applied research in the peaceful usage of nuclear technology; production and utilization of radioactive isotopes in industry, agriculture, water management; health care including nuclear medicine. This comprises a very wide area of activity, between two neighbour, in the context of the rapid globalization of economies, and the search for sources of energy that are less harmful to the environment, with the possibility of easing our dependence on imported fossil fuels. This also has considerable importance in expanding the opportunities for development of knowledge and skills among the youth who are eagerly seeking such progress.

Another essentially important instrument signed is The Work-Plan for 2014-2015 under the existing Memorandum of Understand (MoU) on Cooperation in the field of Agriculture. This provides for collective programmes in agriculture, including post-harvest technology, agricultural science and technology, agricultural extension and farmer linkages, horticulture exchange, training in the field of farm mechanization; knowledge on livestock disease, and plant quarantine. In a country where the vast majority of the population is engaged in agriculture, and where the development of the rural sector is of increasing importance, this will offer many new opportunities for progress through the availability of new agro-technology, as well as providing new areas of training for the youth, especially in the rural sector.

There was also a MoU on the Establishment of Nalanda University, which encourages networking and collaboration with Nalanda University, the great historical centre of learning which is being re-established in India. This will give opportunities for existing Centers of Excellence in Sri Lanka to interact with Nalanda, enabling to build an Asian community of learning with regional awareness.

The wide scope of the instruments signed, and the overall quality of the reception accorded to the Sri Lankan President, which is also in keeping with Prime Minister Modi’s own demonstrated interest in stronger bonds within South Asia, gives good cause to recognize that, with this visit by President Maithripala the relations between India and Sri Lanka have been reinforced. It shows a clear move towards a new direction and dynamic in neighborly relations, as neighbors with a commitment to democracy, and Sri Lanka’s new vision in international relations, taking cognizance of new trends in the rising Asia, and the related positions of the major economic and political powers of the world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also visited Sri Lanka in March 2015 and it was very remarkable because Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Sri Lanka in 28 years. PM Modi addressed Sri Lanka’s Parliament and this visit further cemented the relations between the two countries. And both countries have signed four important cooperation agreements as well. Trade and tourism remain two major areas of engagement between the two countries. Indian investments in Sri Lanka will be heartily welcomed because of the natural civilization proximity. Sri Lankan business community was eagerly waiting for the arrival of the Indian Prime Minister who, they hope, would bring in more trade and investment into their country.People-to-people contacts were also highlighted by the grant of Indian visas on arrival for Sri Lankan nationals. This is of interest to the Sri Lanka side given that only a handful of countries had earlier been exempted from the new scheme.

President Sirisena was clearly cutting a new path in the development of relations between the country’s closest neighbor; the land that made the greatest contribution in culture and tradition, to the past and present progress of Sri Lanka; with continued interest and ability to contribute towards such progress and understanding in the future. It can be hoped that the governments of both the countries will focus on all these areas and do everything possible to take bilateral relations to newer heights.

surangika Surangika Jayarathne is a Lecturer at Department of International Relations at Colombo University Srilanka.

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