Importance of Jaishankar’s visit to Sri Lanka beginning on Tuesday
Posted on January 4th, 2021

By P.K.Balachandran Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Colombo, January 4 (newsin.asia): The Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar, will pay an official visit to Sri Lanka from January 5 to 7 at the invitation of the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena.

Dr.Jaishankar will hold discussions with his counterpart and Sri Lanka’s leadership on the entire gamut of bilateral relations, a press release from the Indian External Affairs Ministry said on Monday.

This will be the first foreign visit by the Indian Foreign Minister  and the first visit to Sri Lanka by a foreign dignitary in the New Year, the release said. As such, it signifies the priority both countries attach to strengthening their close and cordial relations in all spheres of mutual interest,” the release added.

While generally, India-Sri Lanka relations are on an even keel, there are outstanding issues such as the delay in finalizing the involvement of India in the construction and running of the Eastern Container Terminal in Colombo port; delays in starting industrial development and infrastructural projects for which MoUs were signed in 2017; and further plans to develop the Trincomalee oil tanks as a joint venture between the Indian Oil Corporation and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.

A Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) was signed in 2019 to develop and run the Eastern Container Terminal jointly by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), India and Japan, with the SLPA holding 51% share in and India taking a 15% stake. But the project ran into trouble with the  port workers’ union and Sri Lankan nationalists who asked the government not to give away national assets to foreign parties. After dilly dallying the government had recently set up two committees to study the investment pattern, including the involvement of Sri Lankan companies.

The government has assured the workers and nationalists that no decision has been taken yet to give the work to India. But India wants a foothold in the Colombo port for strategic reasons because rival China is ensconced in the adjacent terminal called Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT). India says it has a legitimate interest in Colombo port as 67 to 70% of the port’s business is accounted for by Indian transshipment.

When Sri Lanka demanded that the unused oil tanks in the Trincomalle Tank Farm be handed back to it for development by the State, India said that development could be done as a joint venture. The matter rests there.

India-Sri Lanka Accord

Meanwhile, a major political problem had arisen. The Sri Lankan government has been hinting that it might scrap or drastically modify the Provincial Councils set up as part of the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is under pressure from the Sinhala majority nationalist lobby to scrap the 13 th, Amendment under which the Provincial Councils were set up.

The majority Sinhala community is against devolution power to the provinces especially when two of them are populated predominantly by Tamil-speaking communities (Tamils and Muslims). Devolution would lead to secession, it is feared.

The nine Provinces are without elected councils for the past three years and there are demands from both within the government and outside to postpone elections to them citing the COVID 19 pandemic. It is also suggested that elections may be postponed till the country gets a new constitution. Work on a new constitution is being done now by an experts committee.

India is very much committed to the 13 th.Amendment which devolves a certain amount of power to the provinces. The 13A is India’s brainchild. India believes that devolution of power to the Tamil speaking provinces will meet a basic demand of the minority Tamils which is for a reasonable degree of self-rule. Devolution will curb separatist tendencies it is felt.

The Tamil National Alliance, which is battling the Sri Lankan government on the issue of devolution and the 13 th.Amendment, is likely to seek and secure an appointment with the Indian Foreign Minister.

Through his engagements in Colombo, Foreign Minister Jaishankar would get to know first-hand, the minds of the Sri Lankan leaders on these issues. He will in turn communicate India’s concerns and commitments.

China Factor

Jaishankar is likely to discuss the China factor in Sri Lanka and express India’s concerns about the security aspects of China’s widening strategic and economic footprint in Sri Lanka. He would like to rope Sri Lanka into the ‘Quad’ which is a maritime security alliance between India, Japan, Australia and the US to campaign for free, unhindered and rule-based navigation in the high seas, which is seen to be under threat from China.

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