Diplomacy | Modi promotes ‘neighborhood first’ policy in Sri Lanka visit

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit to Sri Lanka yesterday as part of his first overseas tour since being reelected this spring, emphasizing India’s “neighborhood first” policy.

Before commencing official talks, Modi visited St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, one of three churches targeted by Easter Sunday suicide bombers. The bombings on three churches and three luxury hotels left 258 people dead. The attacks also dealt a severe blow to Sri Lanka’s economy, hitting the Indian Ocean island nation’s vital tourism industry particularly hard.

“I am confident Sri Lanka will rise again. Cowardly acts of terror cannot defeat the spirit of Sri Lanka. India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka,” Modi tweeted after visiting the church.

Photos with the tweet showed him in discussion with Catholic priests and viewing images of attack victims and renovation work on the church. Sri Lanka’s navy is handling the church’s renovation, which is expected to be completed this week.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the April 21 attacks, which were carried out by a local radicalized Muslim group known as National Thowheed Jammath.

Modi was to hold talks with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was also scheduled to meet with the Indian community in Sri Lanka before returning home yesterday.

India has been concerned with Sri Lanka and the neighboring Maldives leaning toward China, which is seeking more influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Modi arrived in Sri Lanka from the Maldives, where the archipelago nation’s new president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, pledged closer ties with New Delhi in a departure from his predecessor’s pro-Beijing policy.

Sri Lanka leased a Chinese- built port located near the planet’s busiest east-west shipping route to a Chinese firm in 2017 for 99 years in a bid to recover from the heavy burden of repaying a loan the country received to build the facility.

The port is part of Beijing’s so-called string-of-pearls plan for a line of ports stretching from Chinese waters to the Persian Gulf. In March, China agreed to provide a loan of $989 million to Sri Lanka to build an expressway that will connect the island nation’s tea-growing central region to the China-run seaport on the southern coast.

China’s influence in Sri Lanka makes neighboring India anxious because it considers the Indian Ocean region to be its strategic backyard.

Sri Lanka’s government has been trying to balance both Asian giants. Sri Lankan officials have reiterated that the port’s security will be handled by the government in an attempt to allay fears that the port could be used by China as a military hub.

In an apparent bid to offset Chinese influence, India has been helping Sri Lanka fund the building of houses and university facilities, as well as a free island-wide ambulance service. India also has extended credit to develop rail transport and a water project.

Since first becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi has stressed a “neighborhood first” policy for the South Asian region, promising neighbors prioritized benefits of India’s economic growth. Bharatha Mallawarachi, Colombo, AP

Categories Asia-Pacific