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Resetting ties

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
February 16, 2015

On his first foreign state visit, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has signed a nuclear deal with India - a move reflecting his intention of reviving the strained bilateral ties, as analyst Alan Keenan tells DW.

Mithripala Sirisena und Narendra Modi
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Sirisena met with PM Modi and Indian officials on Monday, February 16, after arriving on his first foreign visit since winning a general election in January. The four-day visit has been seen by analysts as an attempt to ease tensions and strengthen ties between the South Asian neighbors.

Relations became strained over the past years as Sri Lanka's ties with China grew significantly closer under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who turned mainly to Beijing as a key source of financial support and development. This angered New Delhi who viewed this as Beijing's foray into its strategic sphere of influence.

On the second day of Sirisena's visit, India and Sri Lanka signed a deal on nuclear safety. While Indian PM Modi stated there was "unprecedented opportunity" to take bilateral ties to a new level, Indian officials said they would discuss ways to speed up reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka.

Sririsena's government is facing international pressure to speed up post-civil war reconciliation efforts at home. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera asked the UN last week to delay the release of its report on alleged war crimes during the war, saying the country was opening its own domestic probe.

Alan Keenan
Bilateral relations have warmed considerably since Sirisena became president,' says KeenanImage: privat

Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says in a DW interview that President Sirisena will likely seek increased Indian investment and assistance for the re-development of the war-affected northern province, as well as continued support from India at the UN human rights council.

DW: What are the top issues on both Modi's and Sirisena's agenda?

Alan Keenan: The two leaders are set to discuss a full-range of issues - political, economic and geo-strategic - in an effort to repair relations that were badly damaged over the final five years of Mahinda Rajapaksa's presidency.

Issues due to be discussed include increased trade and economic ties, a move away from the Rajapaksa's worryingly close ties with China, progress on post-war reconciliation, disputes between Indian and Sri Lankan fishing communities, and the return of some of the more than 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in India.

How would you describe bilateral ties at the moment?

Relations between India and Sri Lanka have already warmed considerably in the five weeks since President Sirisena was elected president. The Indian government made no effort to hide its delight at Sirisena's victory and the removal of Rajapaksa, who had repeatedly failed to deliver on his many promises to India.

Particularly irksome to India were the increased economic and political influence of China, including two port visits to Colombo by Chinese submarines in 2014, and the Rajapaksa government's failure to pursue a lasting political settlement to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict.

What does President Sirisena expect from PM Modi?

Sirisena will likely seek increased Indian investment and assistance for the re-development of the war-affected northern province, as well as continued support from India at the UN human rights council, where Sri Lanka remains on the agenda following large-scale human rights abuses during and after the civil war, which ended in 2009.

What does India want from Sri Lanka?

Modi will seek assurances from Sirisena that Sri Lanka will reduce its over-reliance on Chinese economic investment and will curb its growing military ties with China. India will also urge Sirisena to take tangible steps towards meaningful reconciliation with Tamils, particularly in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

It will encourage Srisena to cooperate with the elected northern provincial council, assist the development of its administrative capacity and allow it to make full use of its limited constitutional powers.

India is also likely to press Sirisena to provide tangible relief to Tamils in the north and the east, through the release of land occupied by the Sri Lankan military and other confidence-building measures. Modi will also seek to make progress on India's long-standing desire to integrate the Sri Lankan economy more fully into India's, through a new trade agreement and other economic deals.

How are both countries seeking to improve ties?

Reports suggest the two countries are likely to sign an agreement to cooperate on the development of civilian nuclear technology. It is also possible that a long-stalled Indian-financed coal-power plant in Trincomalee district will be put back on track, along with negotiations for an India-Sri Lanka free trade agreement, which the Rajapaksa government was reluctant to pursue.

What stance do you expect President Sirisena to take towards China?

Sirisena is unlikely to make any abrupt shift in Sri Lanka's policy towards China, but will nonetheless seek to move away from what many in Sri Lanka saw as over-reliance on Chinese economic and political support.

The new Sri Lankan government has promised to reconsider the multi-billion dollar Chinese-funded Colombo Port City project, though it remains unclear whether it will have the will or the leverage to make any significant changes in the project.

Sri Lanka Bürgerkrieg Flüchtlinge
Keenan: 'India is also likely to press Sirisena to provide tangible relief to Tamils in the north and the east'Image: AP

While Sri Lanka will resist taking action that could undermine continued economic and political support from China, Sirisena's government will aim to be more balanced in its relationship with Asia's two premier powers, with greater sensitivity to India's concerns about Chinese influence in the India ocean region, particularly with regard to the movements of China's navy.

Analyst Alan Keenan is Sri Lanka project director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in London.

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