Relations between India and Sri Lanka have not just been reinforced during the visit of President Maithripala Sirisena but have also gained new direction and momentum. As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour that has ethnic links to its most significant minority, India is a huge influence in the island nation’s political, economic, social and cultural consciousness, and its world view. President Sirisena was hewing to a long and unbroken tradition of newly elected leaders making New Delhi the first port of call for foreign visits. But in a departure from the routine nature of such visits, both sides signed four substantive agreements. Of these, the agreement on Co-operation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy was the most significant as it imparts a new strategic element to bilateral relations. Since 2010, Sri Lanka has wanted to utilise nuclear energy in industrial applications as well as in fields such as medicine and agriculture. Two years ago, Colombo had indicated it was exploring such an agreement with Islamabad, with which too it has a warm bilateral relationship. Its decision to move ahead on this front with India shows the maturity of the new Sri Lankan leadership and the importance it attaches to its relations with New Delhi. The agreement envisages “exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy”. Two years ago, Sri Lanka had also expressed safety concerns arising from the geographical proximity of the Kudankulam nuclear reactors. That the signatory to the agreement on the Sri Lankan side was Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka who had voiced the concerns, shows that Colombo is now sufficiently reassured.
The two sides have also agreed to enhance their defence and security cooperation in the existing trilateral format with the Maldives. New Delhi should press any security concern it may have, such as that which arose with the docking of a Chinese submarine in the Colombo harbour, without dictating Sri Lanka’s choice of friends and allies. The travails of fishermen on both sides of the Palk Bay received attention with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Sirisena pledging to resolve them in a “constructive and humanitarian” way. Sensibly, fishermen’s associations on both sides are to continue talks begun two years ago to find their own solution. There were no public statements on the Tamil question during the President’s visit. Nevertheless, this remains top of the agenda in bilateral relations. New Delhi must encourage Sri Lanka’s new leadership to be determined in addressing the issues of ethnic reconciliation and power-sharing with Tamils.