India is the anchor of regional security and Colombo and New Delhi need to develop a framework to deal with issues such as a Chinese research vessel’s recent visit to Hambantota, Sri Lankan high commissioner Milinda Moragoda has said.
Acknowledging India’s efforts to help Sri Lanka cope with its worst economic crisis, Moragoda said in an interview that New Delhi will continue to play a crucial role in aiding the island nation’s recovery, including investments and assistance with bridging finance till Colombo finalises a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“Very clearly, India is the anchor when it comes to security in this region, on that there is no issue. As the security guarantor of the region, India is the anchor,” Moragoda said on the row stirred up by the visit by Yuan Wang 5, a satellite and missile tracking vessel, to the Chinese-controlled Hambantota port in mid-August.
Against the background of heightened tensions and rivalry between India and China in the region, Sri Lanka wants all players to “get along” even as it focuses on its own development and maintenance of its sovereignty, the envoy said as he completed his first year in New Delhi on Tuesday. “We should not want in any way any threat to our sovereignty,” he said.
Moragoda emphasised the need for a “clear dialogue” between Sri Lanka and India on matters across the board. “Earlier, ship visits were not taken very seriously…But I think we have to move beyond that and we have to develop some kind of framework to ensure that this type of incident [or] misunderstanding on security does not occur,” he said.
He cited Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s remarks about smaller countries having to rethink policies in response to a “dangerous phase” in geopolitical tensions, and said while Sri Lanka occupies a strategic position, it needs to have a clear understanding with India regarding bilateral relations.
“The fact that we will not allow Sri Lankan soil or maritime space to be used against India in any way or in a way that is a security threat for India, that has been an understanding throughout…and India also has given the same assurance in 1987 that her soil will not be used against us,” he said.
Moragoda described India as a “logical partner” for Sri Lanka’s efforts to overcome the country’s economic crisis, including in efforts to acquire bridging finance and investments in sectors such as tourism.
“India, I must stress, has really supported us at every turn in the past eight or nine months. If not for India, we would have had a serious problem because when it came to fuel and food and when it also came to foreign exchange, India backed us up. So that is something as a country, we appreciate and we are grateful for,” he said.
Since the beginning of the year, India extended aid worth $3.8 billion, including lines of credit, a currency swap and deferring of loan repayments, to Sri Lanka.
Moragoda said the tough times are not over for Sri Lanka as it has to contend with both structural issues such as reforms of state-run enterprises and the power sector, and the restructuring of bilateral and multilateral debt. “Unless these things are done, Sri Lanka can’t move forward. Ultimately we have to look at efficiency and at becoming an export economy and fitting somehow into global supply chains,” he said.
“We are looking to see what is possible with India. There are different ways of approaching it – not necessarily loans alone, but investments. Maybe we look at even rupee trade,” he added.
Widespread public protests in Sri Lanka resulted in the resignation of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who left the country in August. The administration of the new President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is now focussing on the implementation of India-backed projects such as the Trincomalee oil farm and a national ID card scheme.
Moragoda, who took the unusual step of issuing a strategy paper for reshaping bilateral relations before coming to New Delhi, said there is also fresh momentum on connectivity projects and the two countries are discussing the possibility of building an energy pipeline between the Trincomalee oil farm and the Indian side.
Sri Lanka will soon operationalise its consulate general in Kolkata and plans to appoint honorary consuls in Gujarat and Odisha as part of measures to increase the country’s footprint in Indian states, he said. There are also plans to compile a directory in Sinhala of all Buddhist sites in India to encourage more visits from the Sri Lankan side, he said.