Modi dangles carrots, Lanka doesn't bite

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By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 17.02.15

New Delhi, Feb. 16: India today dangled before Sri Lanka's new government offers of speedier investments and a flood of tourists, but the bid to yank Colombo away from Beijing using Chinese-style, foreign-policy tools failed to earn New Delhi any commitment from the island nation's President.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the offers to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena during a three-hour dialogue marked by promise but also caution about the direction of bilateral ties critical to India's strategic game plan, senior officials told The Telegraph.

Sri Lankan officials justified Sirisena's refusal to commit to any strategic realignment as at least partly rooted in concerns about any domestic backlash ahead of April parliamentary elections on the island, where excessive proximity to India comes with political risks.

The cagey response has only prolonged India's wait for concrete moves from Sri Lanka that would signal that New Delhi no longer need worry about competing with Beijing for influence over Colombo, a wait some thought had ended when Sirisena came to power in January.

"There's promise, and then there's a delivery on the promise," an Indian official said. "It's early days but, so far, we've only seen the promise."

Sirisena's visit to India, a month after he unseated former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who openly courted China, is loaded with symbolism. It is his first visit abroad as President, and Sirisena will during this trip visit both Bodh Gaya and Tirupati - holy sites for the Buddhist and mostly-Hindu Tamil communities that his government has promised to bring together after decades of war.

"I chose India as my first foreign trip," Sirisena underscored today.

The two nations also inked four pacts - big in intent but tiny in strategic import - after the bilateral talks led by Modi and Sirisena.

Under a nuclear pact, India will train Sri Lankan engineers if that country ever chooses to pursue civil nuclear energy, and will ensure its southern neighbour's safety in the event of any accident at the Kudankulam nuclear plant.

The two leaders also firmed up plans for a visit by Modi to Sri Lanka in March - a trip that may become part of a four-nation tour that also takes the Indian Prime Minister to the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. Modi's visit, Sirisena's aides hope, will add ballast to the President's charge at a parliamentary majority. "We are at a moment of an unprecedented opportunity to take our bilateral relations to a new level," Modi said today.

But for that "opportunity" to translate into a reality, India wants Sirisena to clear hurdles placed by the Rajapaksa regime in the way of New Delhi's infrastructure and development projects in Sri Lanka, while weaning itself away from the influence of China.

Sirisena and his Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, had indicated before the January presidential elections that they would review key Chinese projects in Sri Lanka. Wickramasinghe said he would scrap a US$ 1.4bn port city China is building outside Colombo - a project that India views as a strategic threat.

"Rajapaksa tried to play China against India, and India against China," Wickramasinghe had said in a television interview just after the elections.

But over the past fortnight, Sri Lankan officials have committed to China that Beijing's projects - including the port city - would remain safe.

And India is still awaiting clearances for some of its stuck projects, including a $350mn coal-fired power plant in Sampur, a ferry service connecting Mannar and Rameshawarm, a harbour at the northern-most tip of Sri Lanka and a cultural centre in Jaffna.

On Monday, Modi reminded Sri Lanka that the security of the two neighbours is interlinked.

"Our security and prosperity are indivisible," Modi said. "We also share a broad range of interests - economic development for our countries; peace and prosperity in South Asia; maritime security in the region."

Modi also served up offers that mimic China's strategies in stamping its footprint in the small, developing, tourism-dependent nations: quick investment and planeloads of tourists.

Though India is Sri Lanka's largest trading partner, China is the island nation's largest provider of foreign direct investment. In 2013, Beijing contributed a quarter of Colombo's total $1.2bn FDI, while India didn't figure in the top five investment sources.

China is also snapping at India's heels in terms of the numbers of tourists the nations send to Sri Lanka, a nation where tourism is a key driver of the economy.

"I conveyed our readiness to promote greater flow of Indian investments and tourists into Sri Lanka," Modi said.

But even as Modi and Sirisena were speaking, sections of Colombo's foreign office were busy planning a trip to Beijing at the end of this month by Sri Lankan foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera.

And Samaraweera's Beijing trip may be followed by a visit by Sirisena to China, Sri Lankan officials hinted.

"I hope I'm wrong, I really do," another Indian official said. "But increasingly what we're seeing carries shades of what we've already seen under Rajapaksa, not anything different and new."