In the first high-level visit by a foreign official to Sri Lanka this year, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will be in Colombo from January 5 to 7 and hold bilateral talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena, official statements from both capitals said.
The visit assumes significance for strategic and diplomatic reasons as India tries to counter growing Chinese outreach in the region. It also comes at a time when some in the ruling Rajapaksa administration are seeking the abolition of the provincial council system born out of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987.
Coveted Colombo port project
The visit might indicate if New Delhi and Colombo are any closer to sealing the proposed deal on jointly developing the East Container Terminal at the strategically located Colombo port, amid opposition from workers, sections of southern polity and some backers of the Rajapaksa regime.
The coveted project has remained contentious from the time Sri Lanka’s former government, India and Japan had signed a tripartite Memorandum of Cooperation in 2019. As per the MoC, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) was to retain 100% ownership, while the terminal, they agreed, would be run by a jointly owned operations company, whose stakes were to be divided between Sri Lanka, with 51%, and India and Japan, 49%.
The persisting opposition is pegged to two major concerns — of “selling national assets” to another country and the likely involvement of the Adani group.
Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena has recently said the East Container Terminal will be developed — and not sold to anyone — into an economic and naval hub, and that Indian and Japanese investors, as well local investors, had been invited to jointly develop it. The remarks, published in the State-run Daily News on Monday just ahead of Mr. Jaishankar’s visit, points to a possible shift in the Rajapaksa administration’s stance after apparent reluctance over the last year.
It also remains to be seen if New Delhi will respond to Colombo’s request — from the President in May 2020 and the Prime Minister in February 2020 respectively — for a special $1 billion currency swap facility and a debt moratorium.
From the time the Rajapaksas came to power, New Delhi has repeatedly called upon Colombo to address Tamil concerns and aspirations, but the chorus on doing away with the provincial councils and the 13thAmendment — the only legislative measure of power sharing thus far — has only grown louder in recent weeks. Significantly, prominent members of the government and others aligned to the regime have openly sought the abolition of the system, while the President and the Prime Minister have not commented on the issue. Mr. Jaishankar’s remarks here will be keenly watched, particularly by Sri Lanka’s Tamil leadership.
Mr. Jaishankar was last here on November 2019, just as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed charge at the most powerful office, after a resounding election victory, chiefly on the majority Sinhala-Buddhists’ votes. The EAM’s visit now follows a series of high-level interactions from New Delhi during the pandemic — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s telephone conversation with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in May 2020, his virtual summit with PM Mahinda Rajapaksa in September and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s visit late November.
A statement from the Ministry of External Affairs said the visit “signifies the priority both countries attach to strengthening their close and cordial relations in all spheres of mutual interest”, and Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “Both sides are looking forward to strengthen the bilateral relationship in multiple areas of cooperation.”