Focus: Pakistan – Sri Lanka
By Madeleine Oldstone
Pakistan and Sri Lanka are signing a cooperative nuclear deal at the end of March when Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena makes his first visit to Pakistan. The meeting is scheduled for March 31 and the details of the deal will be negotiated before the visit.
Since the beginning of his term, Sirisena has attempted to balance diplomatic ties within the region. Earlier in his presidency, he visited India in order to repair relations, which had not been well during his predecessor’s tenure. During the visit he signed an agreement with the Indian government for civil nuclear cooperation.
“The bilateral agreement on civil nuclear cooperation is yet another demonstration of our mutual trust. This is the first such agreement Sri Lanka has signed. It opens new avenues for cooperation, including in areas like agriculture and healthcare,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference.
Many analysts remain skeptical of both countries’ intentions due to the rocky history between India and Sri Lanka. The relationship between the two have been uneasy over the last few years due to India’s interference in the domestic affairs of civil war-torn Sri Lanka. In addition, India has questioned the human rights violations in Sri Lanka regarding attacks against insurgents who were allegedly supported by India. These actions have been seen as an attempt by India to balance the regional power of China.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Modi has attempted to unite members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Besides Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan, other members include Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Maldives. The unity of the association is essential to countering China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy. The Financial Times writes that “attention to India’s neighborhood, including long-forgotten places such as Bhutan and Nepal, has improved India’s frayed regional standing.”
After his visit with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President Sirisena has been invited to visit China at the end of March. China has stepped up its efforts to court the new government in Sri Lanka, which Beijing sees as “a key partner in its new ‘Maritime Silk Road’ project, which aims to build ports and free trade zones in Southeast Asia and in the Indian Ocean.”
The $40-billion Silk Road fund is expected to support infrastructure projects in the area. This fund will provide financial support to Sri Lanka as the government deals with rising foreign debt. It is not surprising that China has been the biggest financial lender to Sri Lanka. The new government of Sri Lanka “welcomes China’s investment in and assistance to Sri Lanka and expects to strengthen practical cooperation with the Chinese side in various fields,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.