By Francesca Regalado
Newly elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has wasted no time in making his country valuable to the region’s key players. His visit to New Delhi on February 16 resulted in an agreement to build Sri Lanka’s nuclear energy infrastructure and train local personnel, the Indian Foreign Ministry told Reuters. Indian President Narendra Modi stated that the agreement demonstrates “mutual trust” between the two nations, reestablishing a relationship that was strained by the previous Sri Lankan government’s close ties with China.
While Sirisena was in India, China was quick to announce that Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera would be visiting Beijing. Mr. Samaraweera meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on February 27 will be followed by an invitation from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Sirisena for a visit at the end of March.
A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry regarding Samaraweera’s visit conveyed China’s intention to continue working with Sri Lanka on the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), part of China’s 21st Century Silk Route Economic Belt, the land front of which will traverse the historic Silk Road from central China to western Europe. According to The Diplomat, Cambodia has expressed support for the Silk Road initiative to become an ASEAN priority, despite the expected hesitance of ASEAN members with whom China is engaged in territorial disputes. The maritime leg of the Silk Road will begin in southern China to eastern Africa, requiring the cooperation of the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
During President Xi’s September tour to both Indian Ocean states to push the MSR, Sirisena’s predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa was still in office. Prior to his election, Sirisena expressed his plan to depart from Rajapaksa’s China-dependent foreign policy, according to The Diplomat. Bloomberg reports that China’s contribution of $1.4 billion to build an MSR port and highways in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, is the largest amount of economic aid to the island nation, which had endured a 26-year civil war until 2009.
Since defeating Rajapaksa in the January elections, President Sirisena has reopened Sri Lanka to the humanitarian affiliates of the United Nations. The same ones Rajapaksa’s government had ordered to evacuate from the country before launching an offensive against the subversive Tamil Tigers. Reuters reports that Sirisena, reminiscent of India’s Modi, is determined to pursue a more balanced foreign policy as opposed to Rajapaksa, whose relationship with India was strained by his openness to China.
India’s newly forged commitment to Sri Lanka comes amidst a domestic shortage of its own. India’s bid to meet the International Energy Agency’s standards for national energy development is undermined by a quarter of the population who continue to live without electricity. Around 300 million Indians rely on kerosene and animal manure as fuel for lamps and food preparation. NPR reports that the energy crisis affects health and education – indoor air pollution from kerosene and wood-burning fumes lead to respiratory diseases that mostly affect women and children, the latter of whom are discouraged from studying by the lack of sufficient lighting. According to Foreign Policy, President Modi made an election promise to address the inefficiency of the energy sector, aside from expanding India’s regional ties.