With his state visit to China just weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena appears to be trying to balance relations with the two countries that have the greatest influence in the island nation today: India and China. Since taking charge, several decisions by Mr. Sirisena’s government have given China cause for concern, in particular thesuspension of the $1.4-billion Colombo port project. His government has said it would re-examine Chinese projects signed by the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, while on the strategic front Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced that Chinese nuclear submarines would no longer be welcome to dock in Sri Lankan harbours, even as Sri Lanka ups maritime cooperation with India. Sri Lanka also signed its first nuclear agreement with India, albeit one that envisages nuclear safety operations and not energy generation at present. All these moves, capped by Mr. Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, sent out a clear message of India’s importance in Sri Lanka’s external relations. Having assuaged India’s concerns, Mr. Sirisena seems to be shifting his focus to China, and smoothing feathers ruffled by his government’s actions there. If his decision to suspend the Colombo port project was timed days before Mr. Modi’s visit to Colombo, he has chosen his meeting in Beijing to announce that the suspension is “temporary” and that the contract is expected to be reinstated shortly.
However, the more important message from President Sirisena’s meeting with President Xi Jinping is on China’s future plans in the region. At the Boao Forum, President Xi was unveiling the road map for China’s Maritime Silk Route and Silk Road initiatives, that envision massive infrastructure projects in India’s neighbourhood, along with help from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which he discussed with Mr. Sirisena. Mr. Xi has also suggested a possible ‘triangular’ dialogue among India, China and Sri Lanka. It would be a mistake to assume, as some in India do, that these talks could be viewed as a threat to India, or a zero-sum game. Instead, each of these is an acknowledgment that India is now the ‘elephant in the room’ when China engages one of its closest neighbours. Furthermore, India must welcome the offer of the trilateral that has been suggested by both Colombo and Beijing, while keeping its own bilateral relations with both on a steady course of progress. Such magnanimity may seem naive to many, but will go a long way in assuring Sri Lanka that it does not have to choose between its natural affinity and proximity to India, and China’s affluence and interest in its progress. As a rising power, India must also learn to be a secure one.