Takeaways from Gotabaya’s Visit to New Delhi
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COLOMBO: The statements made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the visiting Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after talks in New Delhi on November 29, and the interview given by the Lankan President to The Hindu subsequently, reveal the minds of the two leaders on bilateral and regional issues.
Bonhomie between Modi and Gotabaya came through clearly. There was a significant measure of agreement on key issues like economic development, regional security and terrorism.
In the past, during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency, mutual suspicion was the dominant feature in bilateral relations. Now, there is much greater trust with both sides fine tuning their policies and making them realistic.
It has been Modi’s policy not to force anything on Sri Lanka. He has repeatedly said that Indian projects in Sri Lanka will be based on Sri Lanka’s preferences and these will be executed at a pace Sri Lanka is comfortable with. The 2014 fears over Hambantota port and burgeoning Chinese investments have now been replaced by an understanding of Lanka’s need for China’s investments and India’s limitations vis-à-vis certain spheres. On his part, Gotabaya has clearly stated that he will do the doable in regard to Indian projects and said that there is no point in India’s grumbling about Chinese investments if India does not show interest in investing.
In his statement, Modi had subtly but clearly indicated that he is interested in seeing that Sri Lanka does not go further into the arms of China and gradually allow China (under the garb of rendering infrastructural developmental, technical and research assistance), to creep into areas which have security implications for India.
This is the reason why he offered Gotabaya US$ 400 million for infrastructure development, and US$ 100 for exploitation of solar power.
In the talks, Modi raised the issue of the non-implementation of some major Indian projects for which MOUs were signed in April 2017. While Gotabaya did not touch this subject in his public statement, he told The Hindu that he would study the projects and do what is doable.
“There are certain projects where we have to change certain modalities, and we discussed it during this visit. I haven’t studied all the projects in detail yet, but I will promise that we will expedite all projects that are important to Sri Lanka,” the Lankan President said.
Modi mentined “cross border terrorism” (in an indirect reference to Pakistan), but the Lankan President was silent on that issue in his public statement after the talks, though he gratefully accepted Modi’ offer of cooperation in fighting terrorism with a package of US$ 50 million to equip Sri Lanka to combat terrorism.
However, in his interview to The Hindu later, Gotabaya alluded to the fact that Pakistan has been a problem for India and assured India that Sri Lanka will not do anything that will upset it.
“I think the main issues India could have with us would be on [our relations] with China or Pakistan, but if we don’t do anything that creates suspicions amongst Indian authorities, there will not be any problem,” the Lankan President said.
In his post-talks statement, Modi had forcefully mentioned the need for ethnic reconciliation or the Tamil question and the need for the implementation of the 13 th.Amendment of the Lankan constitution, which, enacted in 1987 under Indian pressure, was meant to give a certain amount of autonomy for the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces. But Gotabaya had skirted the issue.
However, he told The Hindu later, that he indicated that he would not repeal the 13th.Amendement, as predicted by many.
“My approach, as I told the Foreign Minister (S.Jaishankar), is that it is more important to give the (Tamils) development, and a better living. In terms of freedoms, and political rights there are already provisions in the constitution. But I am clear that we have to find ways to directly benefit people there through jobs, and promoting fisheries and agriculture.”
“We can discuss political issues, but for 70 odd years, successive leaders have promised one single thing: devolution, devolution, devolution. But ultimately nothing happened. I also believe that you can’t do anything against the wishes and feeling of the majority community. Anyone who is promising something against the majority’s will is untrue. No Sinhala will say, don’t develop the area, or don’t give jobs, but political issues are different. I would say, judge me by my record on development [of North & East] after five years.”
About the 13th amendment specifically, Gotabaya said: “It is part of the constitution and is functional, except for some areas like control of police powers, which we can’t implement. I am willing to discuss alternatives to that.”
In a limited but important ways nevertheless, Modi and Gotabaya appear to be on the same page vis-à-vis China. Both said that they want the Indian Ocean to be for free navigation with no country trying to dominate it (the allusion was to China).
Modi said: “In line with my Government’s Neighborhood First policy and SAGAR doctrine, we prioritize our relations with Sri Lanka. The security and development of our two countries are inseparable. Therefore, it is natural that we should be aware of each other’s safety and sensibilities.”
“We will continue to work closely with India to ensure that Indian Ocean remains a zone of peace,” chimed Gotabaya.
On the Hambantota port too, the two countries share reservations. While India feels that China will use the port for military purposes some day, making use of the 99 year lease given to it by the previous Lankan government, Gotabaya feels that Sri Lanka has lost its sovereignty over it through the 99 year lease ad that sovereignty must be retrieved.
In the interview to The Hindu he said: “I believe that the Sri Lankan government must have control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. After all, these are not like hotel or a terminal, but to give control of a port or an airport or our harbours is different. With our control they can do anything, but these 99-year lease agreements [that the previous government signed] will have an impact on our future. The next generation will curse our generation for giving away precious assets otherwise. That is why our party protested these decisions.”
On the issue of the visit of a Chinese submarine in 2014 which upset India, because it coincided with the visit of the Chinese President to Xi Jinping to Colombo, Gotabaya said: “We were sensitive (to India’s concerns) then too, but the submarine issue was a simple issue overlooked by officials at the time. Warships were visiting Sri Lanka regularly, and all ships that were part of the naval piracy task force for the Arabian Sea, including Russian ships had docked there. When the Chinese asked for the submarines to be docked, officials considered it a normal port call and approved it. Former NSA Shiv Shankar Menon has written in his book that Gotabaya gave his word that he would not do anything counter to India, and he kept his word. So I was genuinely sensitive
However, Gotabaya ruled out the revival of the war-time “Troika” mechanism in which three key officials each from India and Sri Lanka coordinated and conducted the Indo-Lankan relationship. The Lankan President said that the Troika is not necessary now when there is no war. The task of coordination would be assigned to the Foreign Ministry, he added.
Beijing is still to react to Gotabaya’s statements pertaining to Hambantota. But President Xi Jinping in his congratulatory message to Gotabaya stressed that Sri Lanka is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meaning Hambantota port is part of it.
Beijing has not commented on Gotabaya’s plan to renegotiate Hambantota’s lease period but China’s embassy in Colombo told Daily Mirror that the agreement over the port was for the benefit of the two countries equally (win win agreement) and that the port s under the control of the Sri Lankan government. But the embassy did not mention the real controversy which is over the period of lease and not the management of the part.