Symbolism is on full display before Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena arrives in India on Sunday for his first foreign tour after assuming office, with the aim to mend ties that soured under his predecessor.
The stage for the four-day visit is set with Sri Lanka deciding to release 87 Indian trawlers in its custody and India letting off 22 Lankan fishing boats amid hopes of an early resolution on the issue of illegal poaching in each other’s territorial waters.
Unlike Mahinda Rajapaksa whom Sirisena unexpectedly ousted in elections last month, New Delhi now has to deal with a president who is closer to the Western powers with strategic intent in the Indian Ocean region.
Sirisena, 63, defected from the ruling party in 2013 after emerging as a surprise consensus candidate for a fractured opposition, turning the tables on Rajapaksa who expected to breeze through after calling an early election.
However, Indian officials say the new Lankan government understands New Delhi’s “security sensitivities”— a euphemism for Colombo calibrating its ties with China more carefully.
Rajapaksa's decision to allow two Chinese submarines to dock in Sri Lanka last year angered India.
India has long considered Sri Lanka to be within its strategic sphere of influence, sending troops to the island in 1987 to enforce a New Delhi-brokered peace accord between Colombo and separatist Tamil rebels.
Sri Lanka is a lynchpin in one of Beijing’s key foreign policy projects, a maritime trade route intended to connect China and Europe, known as the “Silk Road.”
The Sirisena administration has so far shown no signs of slowing down its economic engagement with China, which has strategic underpinnings for India.
But it has decided to review Chinese projects granted under the previous regime apart from looking at restructuring expensive infrastructure loans worth over $6 billion, mostly from Beijing.
Shortly after Sirisena took office, China’s foreign ministry said it hoped the new administration would “carry on the friendly policies towards China and lend their support to relevant projects”.
India also expects Lanka to move swiftly on the issue of giving political rights to Tamil minorities, which is part of a 1987 accord between the two countries.
“This is an important issue. We will discuss issues relating to reconciliation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said on Friday.
Sources say hopes are high of the two countries bolstering relations during this trip, paving the way for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to both Colombo and Tamil-dominated Jaffna in the near future.
Union minister of state Pon Radhakrishnan said the Modi-Sirisena meeting will pave the way for a permanent solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. The Centre was already trying to tackle the problems being faced by fishermen from Tamil Nadu and it was not necessary to take advice from DMK chief M Karunanidhi for initiating action, he added.
Colombo is keen on increasing economic engagement with India and seeks more investment from the Indian private sector, experts said. The two sides are also looking to step up ties in higher education and tourism.
The total Indian investment in Lanka now stands at close to $1 billion while the two-way trade is worth four times that.
(With agency inputs)