India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is on a three-day visit to Sri Lanka starting from January 5. According to his ministry, Jaishankar will hold discussions with his counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena and Sri Lanka’s leadership “on the entire gamut of bilateral relations”.
This is Jaishankar’s first foreign visit in 2021, “and also the first by a foreign dignitary to Sri Lanka in the New Year. As such, it signifies the priority both countries attach to strengthening their close and cordial relations in all spheres of mutual interest,” MEA said in a statement.
Jaishankar’s Colombo tour comes amid uncertainty over the multi-million-dollar East Container Terminal (ECT) development project after the Sri Lankan government ordered a review of the same in July last year.
The project was cleared by the previous Ranil Wickramasinghe government in May 2019, and accordingly, a tripartite agreement or memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between Sri Lanka, Japan, and India. Colombo would have 51 percent investment in this project while the rest would have to be borne by Tokyo and New Delhi.
There is enough room for suspicion that Beijing had a role in this matter. China’s growing assertiveness in India’s neighborhood is known to the world. Call it a coincidence, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government had ordered the review of the ECT project in July last year, days after Indian and Chinese troops had a violent face-off in Ladakh, leading to the death of 20 Indian soldiers.
The ECT project, which was estimated to cost $500-700 million dollars, is a prestige issue for India, which it would never let go of. No matter how much pressure China would exert on the island nation, New Delhi would try its best to ensure things come back on track soon.
EAM @DrSJaishankar arrived in Colombo on his first foreign visit of the year. He is scheduled to meet @GotabayaR, @PresRajapaksa, @DCRGunawardena and several other dignitaries and business leaders during the course of his stay. pic.twitter.com/spjdi9uDl7
— India in Sri Lanka (@IndiainSL) January 5, 2021
Last year, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told a group of journalists about why India could be kept out of the project. “There is no final decision on India’s participation in ECT yet,” The Hindu quoted him as saying. Significantly, the Left-leaning Sri Lankan party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) had vehemently opposed India’s participation in the infrastructure project.
Hence, it is safe to assume that Communist China may have orchestrated the entire confusion, something Jaishankar could be looking to fix now. Needless to say, China uses its predatory debt-trap approach to target economically vulnerable nations in Asia. And debt-ridden Sri Lanka is perfect prey for Beijing to extract economic and political concessions.
The widely cited example of the Hambantota Port slipping out of Colombo’s control shows how Sri Lanka was trapped by China.
The project was leased to China Merchant Port Holdings Limited for 99 years for $1.12 billion in 2017. It is believed Sri Lanka had been totally aware that it would not be able to repay the Chinese debt in the near future, resulting in Colombo handing over the port to Beijing.
Over the years, China has made generous offers to India’s neighbors, including Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh to expand its footprint in South Asia.
Unlike New Delhi, Beijing is focused on its long-term strategic goals, which the communist country is pursuing vigorously in the guise of trade diplomacy. China has already taken its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to countries like Nepal and Myanmar.
However, everything is not hunky-dory for China either. For instance, there has been a massive pushback against China’s BRI projects in Myanmar. As reported by The Economic Times, China’s role has been minimized in the Yangon mega-city project. Similarly, the local government in Kachin state and residents are not in favor of the China-funded Myitkyina Economic Development Zone – both part of BRI.
Such developments should be music to India’s ears given that the Modi government has put a lot of emphasis on its Act East policy, aimed at countering China’s growing influence in Asia