Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves at his supporters as he leaves a polling station after casting his vote during the country's parliamentary election in Colombo, Sri Lanka.(REUTERS)
Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves at his supporters as he leaves a polling station after casting his vote during the country's parliamentary election in Colombo, Sri Lanka.(REUTERS)

On strategic security, Prez Rajapaksa has India-first approach: Lankan foreign secy

Colombage, a retired admiral who commanded Sri Lanka’s navy during 2012-14 and is perceived as close to Rajapaksa, made the remarks in two recent interviews.
By HT Correspondent | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON AUG 27, 2020 05:29 AM IST

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made it clear that Sri Lanka’s strategic security policy will have an “India first” approach though Colombo remains open to dealing with other major countries for economic development, the country’s new foreign secretary Jayanath Colombage has said.

Colombage, a retired admiral who commanded Sri Lanka’s navy during 2012-14 and is perceived as close to Rajapaksa, made the remarks in two recent interviews. He also said Rajapaksa’s administration has adopted a posture of neutrality in its dealings with key powers at the regional and global level as Sri Lanka cannot become a “staging area” for any country to do “anything against another country – especially...India”.

“Very categorically, the president has stated that we have a strategic security-wise ‘India first’ policy because we cannot be, we should not be, we can’t afford to be a strategic security threat for India, period,” Colombage said in an interview to Derana 24 news channel that aired on August 20.

“We can’t be and we don’t have to be [a security threat to India]. They are a very big power, [the] fastest developing major economy in 2018, 1.34 billion people, a 7,500-km coastline, it’s a huge country. We need to benefit from India,” he added.

Colombage made similar remarks in an interview with the Daily Mirror newspaper, pointing out that Sri Lanka is “between two economic giants” ,a reference to China. He added: “That is why the president mentioned that as far as strategic security is concerned, Sri Lanka will always have an India-first approach. That means Sri Lanka will not do anything harmful to India’s strategic security interests.”

However, he said Rajapaksa had made it clear to India’s leadership that Sri Lanka cannot depend on any one country for economic development. “We are open to anyone. We know China is one country willing to invest and develop (sri Lanka). They have the capacity to do it. We have to benefit from it. We have to balance,” he told the Daily Mirror.

Colombage also told the news channel: “Even to India...very firmly, the president has said, you are my first priority insofar as security is concerned but I have to deal with other players for my economic prosperity.”

Colombage, who was appointed foreign secretary on August 14 and previously served as additional secretary to the president for foreign relations, also said the Sri Lankan government will not hand over total control of strategic national assets to a foreign power following the experience with Hambantota port, which was given to China Merchant Port Holding for 99 years.

“Now in that deal, roughly...about 85% of that project’s stakes are for China Merchant Port Holding and only 15% for Sri Lanka. We will do everything so that no one can use our country against another country but then giving total control for a long period, of majority 85% is a very high stake,” he told the news channel.

In future ventures, Sri Lanka will retain a 51% stake in any project with foreign investment, he said.

Colombage told the Daily Mirror that China understands Sri Lanka’s position and “is pushing for commercial things”. He added, “China also understands it isn’t ethical to push Sri Lanka beyond a certain point that is worrisome to India.”

He also told the daily that in 2015, India feared “we had moved towards China too much”, and that India, Japan and the US considered it was wrong for Sri Lanka to give Hambantota port on lease to a Chinese firm. “We actually made India jittery during the period between 2015 and 2019. But India is comfortable with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.”

The Modi government has focused on improving ties with Rajapaksa’s administration. Modi was the first world leader to congratulate Rajapaksa even before the final results of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections were declared earlier this month, after his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party took an unassailable lead.

Last month, India announced a $400-million currency swap facility for Sri Lanka under the Saarc framework, and officials said Colombo’s request for a bilateral swap facility for $1.1 billion was also being considered.

When Rajapaksa visited India last November, just 10 days after becoming president, New Delhi announced a $400-million line of credit to boost infrastructure and development, and offered another $50 million to fight terrorism and enhance intelligence gathering.

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