Sri Lanka’s foreign minister told the Indian government that their bilateral relationship is strong. However, concerns are growing in Delhi over Chinese investments on the island. Control over Hambantota port boosts China's position in the Indian Ocean.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – During an official two-day visit to India, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris assured his Indian counterpart that Sri Lankan relations with China will not come at the expense of India.
Following the invitation by Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Peiris focused on a series of issues and mutual strategic interests at the meeting on 8 February.
Discussions centred on the state of bilateral relations, especially in defence matters, as well as priority areas for future cooperation.
Minister Peiris also met with Shri Ajit Doval, National Security Adviser to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla.
Talks focused on the transformation of bilateral ties from a transactional relationship to a strategic partnership no longer focused on "this or that negotiation", but based on closer integration in key sectors of mutual interest, like economic cooperation, energy, tourism and production.
Contacts between people will also be encouraged while the relationship will become strategic in every field.
Speaking to AsiaNews, sources in Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said that during the talks, Peiris acknowledged the rivalry between India and China, a factor Sri Lanka has had to live with.
Although India is concerned about China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka, Peiris assured his counterparts that his country’s ties with China in no way undermine the “special relationship” between the island and its northern neighbour.
According to the foreign minister, India and Sri Lanka already have the best possible relations, so anxieties over China’s presence must be “consigned to the past".
For political analysts, the rivalry between India and China is not new, a fact that Sri Lanka has been accustomed to for a long time.
However, India's concerns over China’s rising influence have been aggravated with the approval of controversial legislation governing the US$ 1.4 billion Chinese-funded project to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) next to Colombo’s main port.
The Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill was passed by the Sri Lankan parliament in 2021, empowering a seven-member body appointed by the president to exercise complete control over all decisions relating to the Colombo Port City area.
Under the approved legislation, the project will be administered with no parliamentary oversight, primarily in accordance with the wishes of the SEZ's main investor, CHECH Port City Colombo, which is part of the state-owned China Communications Construction Company.
Although Peiris tried to reassure his Indian hosts, critics note that Sino-Sri Lankan relations have intensified in recent years.
For China, Sri Lanka has become "an important hub on the maritime Silk Road” with Chinese involvement ranging from infrastructure development and oil exploration to investments, trade and economic aid.
Despite Sri Lanka’s attempts to present Chinese involvement in Hambantota port as purely commercial, this facility could provide China a strong foothold to boost its position over a vast area in the Indian Ocean, from Australia in the east, to Africa in the west, all the way to Antarctica in the south.