Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a two-day visit to Sri Lanka at a time when China is preparing for the first ‘One Belt One Road (OBOR) Summit in Bejing on May 14 and 15. Officially, PM Modi is not expected to sign any deal with Sri Lanka. But, he is on a kind of religious tour where he would also meet top leaders of the country and visit places.
In international affairs, it rarely happens when the leader of a state visits a foreign nation without having any strategic or economic agenda on her/his mind. While India and Sri Lanka have not declared if they have any of the two on their minds, Modi’s visit to the country primarily to participate in the International Vesak Day celebrations shows the mutual trust between both countries have reached a new level since PM Modi came to power in 2014. More so because PM Modi is visiting Sri Lanka for the second time since 2015. This is a good development for India as China’s presence in Sri Lanka had increased considerably in recent years even as India considered the neighbouring country under its “zone of influence”.
According to Reuters, Sri Lanka declined China’s request to dock one of its submarines in Colombo this month. A senior Sri Lankan official told the agency that Colombo was unlikely to agree to accept the Chinese request because of India’s concerns. Another official also confirmed this but said a decision on a further docking had been postponed. “It might happen later,” the second official told Reuters.
‘Sabka Saath and Sabka Vikaas’ is not only a declared domestic objective of Modi government but also for the neighbourhood. In line with this objective, India recently gifted South Asia Satellite for communication to six countries of South Asia, including Sri Lanka. Last month, Modi government signed a number MoUs for time-bound projects in Sri Lanka. These included several infrastructure projects related to ports, energy and transportation sectors.
With his second visit to Sri Lanka, PM Modi has become the second only Indian Prime Minister after Jawahar Lal Nehru to have addressed Tamils of Indian origin in tea-growing central Sri Lanka. Having arrived in the mid-19th Century as labourers, these Tamils are different from those in the north and eastern part of the country. Unlike the Tamils of north-east Sri Lanka, who wanted to secede, the central Sri Lankan Tamils struggled for long to get citizenship of the country. They are also one of the poorest ethnic groups in the country.
OBOR is expected to boost China’s sphere of influence, which extends to India’s neighbourhood as well. While India has so far not agreed to participate in OBOR, the government is apparently aware of the need to counter the Chinese designs, especially in its neighbourhood. Indian government aims to do this not just by physical projects but also by giving new life to hundreds of years of shared history of cultural and religious ties.
Foreign affairs expert C Raja Mohan writes in the Indian Express that past Indian governments committed “monumental errors” in their Sri Lanka policy. According to the expert, India can “rebuild” the special relationship with Sri Lanka by “reclaiming the shared spiritual heritage with Lanka, recognising its special position in the sacred geography of Buddhism, and acknowledging Colombo’s leadership role in Asia and the Indian Ocean.”
PM Modi’s Sri Lanka visit, hence, is significant in this regard. He also acknowledged this before leaving for Sri Lanka on Thursday. “My visit brings to the fore one of the most abiding links between India and Sri Lanka- the shared heritage of Buddhism,” Modi wrote on Facebook.