Delhi may take Sirisena’s pro-China tilt in its stride

Ind1By S Murari from Chennai

Newly elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s first visit to India, coming days after his government has decided to go ahead with the US $ 1.34 billion Colombo port city project to be executed by China, is unlikely to ruffle feathers in New Delhi.

According to Cabinet spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, “the project is fine” and there is still time to make an assessment of the impact of reclaiming land near Colombo’s beachfront will have on the environment.

As for Colombo courting China as a partner, the tilt started during the first term of previous Rajapaksa presidency when he had to depend on the left-leaning JVP.

It was during that period that the Rajapaksa administration first approached India for the modernisation of the Hambantota port and it went to Beijing only after New Delhi showed no interest. India stood its ground only when Colombo sought radars from Beijing after the LTTE raised an air arm. India thrust its second generation radars on it, against China’s more advanced fourth generation radars.

In the post-war period also, India competed with China for several projects in the war-ravaged north.

After Modi became Prime Minister in the middle of last year, India protested only when China’s nuclear submarines were allowed to call on Colombo port, twice over a period of a few months.

In other words, India is ready to compete with China on economic cooperation with Sri Lanka, but it will not countenance Beijing trying to extend its military presence to Sri Lanka, its sphere of influence.

Sirisena may have more opposition from home to the controversial Colombo port city project as he has gone back on the promise made by Prime Ministrer Ranil Wickeremasinghe on the eve of the elections that it will be reviewed. Now the same project is being allowed in the interest of bilateral relations with China.

To contain China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the Modi Government has signed a defence cooperation agreement with the US administration during Republic Day visit of President Barack Omaba. In other words, the Modi government has aligned itself with the US’s “pivot of Asia”, to the extent it suits its own strategic interests.

This explains Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Beijing soon after the departure of Obama. Obviously, India wants ties with both Washington and Beijing, one to serve its strategic concerns and the other its economic interests.

Therefore, Sirisena Government’s policy on similar lines may have no reason to upset New Delhi. Moreover, new Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar has done stints in Beijing, Washington and Colombo. He will play a pivotal role as adviser on the talks between Sirisena and Modi and other Ministers.

Even on the other thorny issue of human rights violations that happened during the closing stages of the Eelam war, the Modi  government is unlikely to take a hardline position on international probe, despite pressure from fringe, pro-LTTE  groups from Tamil Nadu.

This is because Srisena has just won a reprieve from a visiting US official that it most likely ask for postponement of the UN Human Rights Council meeting, due in Geneva in March to consider a report on this. Obviously,  the US wants to give the new government time to go into the issue.

The Sirisena government has already made it clear it will not agree to an international probe that will infringe on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Instead to win credibility among the world, it has decided to restore the independence of the judiciary and order a court monitored time-bound domestic probe.

To win the confidence of the alienated Tamils, the new government’s Presidential Task force on reconciliation is considering release of nearly 275 Tamil prisoners who have been in jail without trial. The task force is also go into the question of restoring lands taken from Tamils by the army.

However, the Sirisena government has gone back on its promise to scale down the military presence in the north though its five years since the war ended. This is a major issue as thousands of Tamils have lost their land to the army. The new government’s decision to go slow on pull out of troops from the north has invited the wrath of Tamil National Alliance MP Suresh Premachandran.

The focus of Sirisena’s talks with Prime Minister Modi will be primarily on bilateral relations, economic and strategic. Of course, India wants the ethnic question resolved and has been for pressing enforcing the 13th amendment on devolution of powers to provinces. That issue is likely to be taken up by Colombo only after the Parliament elections expected in a few months.

Mr Sirisena, who is coming on a four-day visit from Feb 15 will have talks with Modi and other leaders on Feb 16. Thereafter, he is expected to visit Bodh Gaya and Tirupati.

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