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India's Modi visits Sri Lanka, Maldives

June 9, 2019

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a brief visit to Sri Lanka to emphasize his "neighborhood-first policy." China is also trying to exert its influence in both Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena during his welcome ceremony in Colombo
Image: Reuters/D. Liyanawatte

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was received Sunday by his Sri Lankan counterpart, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as he arrived in Colombo after completing his Maldives trip.

Modi's Maldives and Sri Lanka visits are his first since he was re-elected as prime minister in May.

The Indian prime minister was scheduled to hold talks with President Maithripala Sirisena and opposition leaders as well.

Modi's choice of the Maldives and Sri Lanka for his first overseas trip after re-election "underlines the continued emphasis that the government lays on the 'neighborhood-first' policy," according t Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale.

India's "neighborhood-first" policy, however, excludes Beijing and Islamabad, with whom New Delhi has territorial and geopolitical disputes.

Read more: What does Indian PM Narendra Modi's reelection mean for regional rivals?

Modi (L) signs documents as Solih looks on during Indian PM's  one-day visit to the Maldives
Indian Prime Minister Modi sealed a number of deals with the Maldives during his brief visit to MaleImage: Getty Images/AFP/Str

Chinese advances

India has become wary of China's increasing involvement in both Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Both South Asian countries are facing political instability as their ruling class has been divided into pro-India and pro-China groups.

Read more: Sri Lanka's political crisis: In the shadows of China and India

In recent years, China has managed to increase its footprint in Sri Lanka. It began to develop a close partnership with the country when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president from 2005 to 2015. In 2013, China unveiled plans for the $1.4 billion (€1.2 billion) Colombo Port City.

China and India have strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, and Sri Lanka, a key location for global shipping lines, is crucial for implementing them. Its biggest city, Colombo, is set to become part of China's New Silk Road project to transport goods to the West.

China's new Silk Road map

China also considers the Maldives an important route in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that, apart from its other projects, also aims to connect the Indian Ocean to Central Asia. Beijing's ties with Male strengthened under Former President Abdulla Yameen's rule.

Read more: Sri Lanka: Will Ranil Wickremesinghe's reappointment end the political crisis?

'India first'

But India has been able to assert itself in both Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the past few months. Wickremesinghe, India's close ally in Colombo, is back in power after attempts by the president to oust him, whereas a pro-India alliance of political parties won the general election in the Maldives in April.

Read more: Ex-Maldives President Nasheed: 'Opposition victory resets ties with India'

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih hailed the historic ties between the Maldives and India during Modi's visit, affirming his administration's "India-first policy."

A joint statement by India and the Maldives said that both countries are fully committed to deepening their "multifaceted and mutually beneficial partnership."

Modi also vowed to assist the Maldives in its fight against climate change and terrorism.

The Indian premier was set to discuss the issue of terrorism with the authorities in Sri Lanka, where several terrorist attacks on churches and hotels killed over 240 people in April.

China bets big on Sri Lanka

shs/jm (AP, Reuters)

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