Sri Lanka won’t do anything that will harm India’s interests: Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Newly elected Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said ahead of his visit to New Delhi that he wanted to work very closely with both India and China

Updated - November 26, 2019 11:34 am IST

Published - November 25, 2019 05:36 pm IST - Colombo

Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the nation, at the presidential swearing-in ceremony in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka November 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the nation, at the presidential swearing-in ceremony in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka November 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Days ahead of his first State visit abroad, to New Delhi, Sri Lanka’s newly-elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said his government will not do anything that would threaten India’s security.

“We don’t want to do anything which will threaten the security of India... Our involvement with China is purely commercial,” he told the Indian website Bharat Shakti, in his first interview to foreign media since becoming President a week ago.

President Gotabaya is scheduled to visit New Delhi on November 29, following an invitation from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was the first senior foreign official to meet the newly-elected President in Colombo, to hand over the PM’s invitation, hours after Mr. Gotabaya assumed duty.

Reiterating his “neutral” foreign policy vision, Mr. Gotabaya said, “we don’t want to get in between the power struggles of superpowers. Further, commenting on his predecessor government’s agreement with China on the southern Hambantota Port — the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration leased it to China for 99 years — Mr. Gotabaya said: “I am not afraid to say, that was a mistake.”

Thaw in relations

The newly-elected Sri Lankan President’s visit signals a full circle in diplomatic ties between New Delhi and the Rajapaksas in the last decade — with relations shifting from close cooperation to heightening tensions and now, to what appears a thaw. 

Mr. Gotabaya is well-known in New Delhi’s power corridors, particularly due to his role in the “troika” — a three-member team with his brother Basil Rajapaksa and senior bureaucrat Lalith Weeratunga — that held frequent discussions with Indian counterparts during the final years of the civil war that ended in 2009. The troika engaged on behalf of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has now been appointed Prime Minister of a caretaker government by his younger brother Mr. Gotabaya.

The dynamic would change post-war. Many in South Block associate Mr. Gotabaya’s tenure as Defence Secretary under his brother’s presidency, with Sri Lanka allowing Chinese naval warships to dock in Colombo in 2014, despite India voicing serious concern. Following the strain, the Rajapaksa brothers, at different points, even accused the Indian establishment of playing a role in “regime change” in the island in 2015. 

However, the friction seemed to reduce in the subsequent years. Mr. Modi, who visited Sri Lanka in March 2015 — months after Mr. Mahinda was defeated —and later in May 2017, and more recently this June, after the Easter terror attacks, met Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa each time. 

The shift in relations was further evident during Mr. Mahinda’s visit to New Delhi in September 2018 when he, along with his son parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa, met Mr. Modi. Both sides put out multiple photographs and messages around the visit, that was closely watched by political analysts.

Indian projects’ fate

Meanwhile, New Delhi’s list of pending India-assisted projects in Sri Lanka looms. It figured in different bilateral meetings over the last few years, including in the October 2018 meeting between PM Modi and then PM Wickremesinghe in New Delhi, when the former “expressed concern” over the delay in the projects. 

India is keen on projects, including an LNG terminal in Kerawalapitiya near Colombo, a 50-100 MW solar power plant and development of an oil tank farm in the eastern district Trincomalee and the East Container Terminal at the Colombo port.

While development and security have dominated bilateral talks over the last few years, New Delhi’s recent remarks that India “expects” Mr. Gotabaya to take post-war reconciliation forward to ensure, peace, dignity and justice for the Tamil people has sparked heightened interest in India’s foreign policy strategy with the new Rajapaksa administration.

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