Amid Tensions With China Along Line of Actual Control, India Speaks to Lanka and Mauritius on Scaling Up Ties

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a photo opportunity in New Delhi, on November 29, 2019. (REUTERS/Altaf Hussain)

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a photo opportunity in New Delhi, on November 29, 2019. (REUTERS/Altaf Hussain)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conversations with the Sri Lankan and Mauritian leaders are significant since China has been engaging with both island nations and increasing its footprints there aggressively.

Maha Siddiqui
  • CNN-News18
  • Last Updated: May 24, 2020, 12:36 AM IST
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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi had two significant phone conversations on Saturday. One with the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and another with his Mauritius counterpart Pravind Jugnauth. The two are islands in the Indian Ocean, but more importantly China has been engaging with both and increasing its footprints there aggressively.

In the call with President Rajapaksa, there was an agreement on the need “to accelerate Indian-assisted development projects in Sri Lanka”. India also promised to promote investments and value-addition in Sri Lanka by the Indian private sector, according to a press release issued by New Delhi.

India has been trying to open a new chapter with Sri Lanka after Rajapaksa took the reins of the island nation last year. Within hours of his victory, external affairs minister S Jaishankar dashed off on a sudden, unannounced visit to Colombo and extended him an invite to visit India. He reciprocated by making his New Delhi visit the first foreign visit after taking charge.

India's caution stemmed from the fact that the 10-year regime of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, from 2005-2015, made New Delhi uncomfortable with its open closeness to China. Mahinda Rajapaksa was accused of driving Sri Lanka into a Chinese debt trap and pushing the Hambantota port in his constituency, one that was considered economically unfeasible but strategically significant.

China managed to get the port on a 99-year lease from Sri Lanka despite India’s opposition. The only solace India could draw was from the fact that the port cannot be used for military purposes without Lanka’s consent.

During Gotabaya’s visit to New Delhi, India announced a $400 million line of credit for development projects in Sri Lanka and a $50 million fund to fight terrorism in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attack.

Significantly, India chose to once again reiterate its commitment to Colombo during the Covid-19 pandemic, similar to the supplies India is sending to Mauritius during this tough phase. In the call with PM Pravind Jugnauth, he “thanked PM (Modi) for sending the Indian Naval Ship 'Kesari' to Mauritius as part of 'Operation Sagar', with a consignment of medicines and a 14-member medical team to help the Mauritian health authorities fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In addition, India also offered enhanced “cooperation in various areas, including measures aimed at supporting the financial sector of Mauritius.”

Strategic Affairs Analyst Commodore Uday Bhaskar explained to News18 why these calls are significant. “India is extending a hand of friendship to its smaller neighbours in a very non-transactional manner and this adds to India’s credibility,” he said.

He added that while China may not have been directly mentioned, any effort by India to enhance its reliability, as a partner as a friend in need, would stand New Delhi in good stead in the long run.

The call assumes significance as the skirmishes on the Line of Actual Control with China have gone up significantly over the last few weeks. After initially dismissing them as events arising due to a “difference in perception of the LAC,” the MEA on Thursday not just rubbished allegations of activities on the Western and Sikkim sector but also counter-alleged that “all Indian activities are entirely on the Indian side of the LAC”.

“In fact, it is the Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns,” the MEA spokesperson said.

Simultaneously, boundary issues with Nepal have also taken a rather unusual turn, with the KP Sharma Oli government issuing a new map, including Kalapni, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. India dismissed the move as a “unilateral act” and an “unjustified cartographic assertion”.

Indian army chief General Naravane had indicated that this could be at the behest of another country, indicating a China hand here too.

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