President Ranil Wickremesinghe is scheduled to visit India on or before July 20th for a three-day visit which will be strategically significant for both Sri Lanka and India.

Though Wickremesinghe assumed duties as the President in July last year, India dragged her feet, delaying an appointment for the President of her immediate neighbour to discuss strategic issues that are imperative for the wellbeing of both countries.

India has played a vital role in bailing Sri Lanka out of a catastrophic economic crisis which brought the country to its knees towards the end of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term and just before his exit as President. India granted Sri Lanka nearly four billion US dollars and extended a credit line for food and medicine supplies.

Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman took a personal interest in taking Sri Lanka’s matter to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). She discussed Sri Lanka’s economic downturn with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva on the sidelines of the IMF summer meetings in Washington in 2022. Meanwhile, high-level Indian delegations were in and out of Sri Lanka to discuss defence cooperation and other related matters. External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar also visited the country.

Nevertheless, there has been an inordinate delay of nearly one year for  high-level talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Meanwhile, Tamil political parties have envisaged a plan to meet with Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, just before the proposed visit of the President to Delhi. Tamil parties want India to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, which is opposed by many political parties.  They also want to merge the North and East, the two Tamil-speaking provinces and to hold elections for them immediately. Wickremesinghe has had talks for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment but has not been successful in his endeavour owing to vehement opposition by the Buddhist clergy and political parties toeing a more nationalist line.

Hence it is interesting to see the outcome of the talks with India in the present political climate, especially with reference to the Indo-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean region.

Although no country specifically invited Wickremesinghe, he met with a number of world leaders for bilateral talks. This included Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida being in Tokyo to address the Nikkei Asia conference. The forum features high-profile speakers who share their insights on the latest trends and issues in the Asian region and also talk about the future of Asia as a global force to be reckoned with, representing 60 percent of the world population and accounting for 40 percent of the world economy.

Addressing the Nikkei Asia forum in Tokyo in late May Wickremesinghe said Asia has become the crux of U.S.-China rivalry. The President analysed where Asia should stand in such a geo-political backdrop that is causing concern for the entire world since the political landscape has now shifted to the Indo-Pacific region.

President Wickremesinghe said that the ‘intensification of that rivalry (between the United States and China) in recent times has brought about the QUAD (between the USA, India, Australia, and Japan) and the Indo-Pacific on the one hand and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on the other’.

‘One thing is certain, Asian countries do not wish to be forced to manage competing pressure from these two sides. For example, most ASEAN countries and China are economically interdependent; and countries such as Cambodia and Laos have moved onto the Sino-economic radar. By the time the U.S. launched the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN late last year, China had already established a similar link with the Association a year before. Consequently, Asian countries are resisting the pressure to choose between the US and China’.

‘We are opposed to what my friend Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, calls Asia’s bifurcation. In Asia, we don’t want to have to choose between the U.S. and China. Many of us cannot make that choice because we have already made our choice in Asia. We want an Asia that accommodates the Indo-Pacific, the BRI, and the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific. The BRI is a strategy to increase China’s influence in Asia and Africa through economic means. We, the BRI members, have no security arrangements with China, nor do we intend to enter into any security agreements with China.

The Indo-Pacific is an evolving concept with unanswered questions.

 APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) is a structured regional organisation, including channels of dialogue between the U.S. and China. However, the Indian Ocean is amorphous. There is no effective regional political system or structure to deal with economic or security matters.

The only principles guiding the Indian Ocean States are the outcomes of the Asian-African Conference of Bandung in 1955 and the UN Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. These were again affirmed at the inaugural Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Leaders’ Summit in 2017. Therefore, in the absence of any structures in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka convened the “Indian Ocean: Defining Our Future Conference in 2018,” which highlighted the need for an agreement on the freedom of navigation, overflight, and undersea cables.

Then in 2019, ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific – the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean are distinct but closely integrated and interconnected spaces’.

Sri Lanka is committed to multi-layered connectivity in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, we also support Prime Minister Kishida’s Principles for Peace and Rules for Prosperity. In keeping with the Rules for Prosperity, Sri Lanka will apply for membership in the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) to achieve a higher level of economic liberalisation’.

In conclusion, Sri Lanka welcomes the G7’s announcement that they are prepared to build a stable and constructive relationship with China.

This is essential, as espoused by Prime Minister Kishida in New Delhi earlier this year when presenting Japan’s New Plan for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). I quote: “The approach we should take going forward is rule-making through dialogue that respects the historical and cultural diversity of each country and the equal partnership among nations.”

We appreciate Japan’s cooperative approach and support it. It is crucial for a peaceful and prosperous Asian region. We also support a dialogue between all Asian nations.

In this context, Sri Lanka believes Japan, China, India, and ASEAN should initiate an open-ended dialogue among themselves and thereafter with the other Asian countries.

This is the first step in establishing an effective framework for peace and cooperation in Asia’.

President Wickremesinghe’s insights into the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions may have prompted India to invite him for further discussion. This is before he travels to China for the Belt and Road Initiative in October. Wickremesinghe doesn’t want to commit himself but wants to remain neutral in the face of growing political influence in the Indian Ocean.

It is critical that Sri Lanka engages in a healthy dialogue with India since India is likely to become a member of the G-7 countries making it G-8.

Simultaneously, India too has a vital strategic stake in Sri Lanka for her own security interests. An unfriendly Sri Lanka would strategically  be of discomfort to India.

Sri Lanka is also strategically relevant to India in terms of her Indian Ocean strategy and networking partners, for her aims of establishing an Indian Ocean Rim Community.

For the Indian Navy, it is of importance as the switching of naval fleets from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea and vice versa the fleets have to take a round of Sri Lanka.

Already, the two navies are engaged in naval exercises, demonstrating a strong and close relationship between them. The two countries are likely to review their strategic partnership and establish a closer partnership since India is closely following Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean in a bid to checkmate them for supremacy in the Indian Ocean. Hence, it is imperative that Sri Lanka maintain a balance between the two power blocs, which appears to be an arduous task.

On the local political front, the President is facing obstacles to furthering his political programme since he has to clear many a hurdle as he tries to resolve issues involving the North and East once and for all.

Last week the President directed the Archaeological Department to suspend certain explorations which directly affect the lives of Mulaitiviu residents.

Director General of Archaeology Professor Anura Manatunga resigned after disagreeing with the President over archaeology excavations in the Mutative district.

The Department of Archaeology demarcated over two hundred acres, including paddy land, for excavations connected to the Kurundi Maha Viharaya in Mulaitivu. This was opposed by the Tamil parties.

After an inquiry into the matter, the President directed the Director General of the Department of Archaeology to release the land and paddy land acquired by the department. The DG has said that once he declares an area an archaeologically sensitive area, he cannot revert back to it since the Archaeological Ordinance does not permit him to do so. Then the president told him the order came from him as president. If he could not fulfil his orders, he could resign, which prompted Professor Anura Mantunga to resign. In his resignation letter, however, he does not specify a reason other than saying he is resigning for personal reasons. On the other hand, the SLPP is tossing around the idea of fielding their own candidate for the forthcoming presidential election since they feel they are a rudderless boat without proper leadership at the helm. Seniors claim Rajapaksa brought economic revival after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 victory.

However, it appears that the honeymoon between the SLPP and President Ranil Wickremesinghe is ending faster than anybody would think. The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa partnership that flourished for some time and became an eyesore among the masses is taking another turn for the betterment of the country. They are likely to go their separate ways, giving a sigh of relief to the people.