INDIAN Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was on a two-day visit to Sri Lanka on January 19-20. It follows a letter by India to the IMF that it supports Sri Lanka’s efforts to restructure bilateral debt. The multilateral financial institution has offered a $2.9 billion bailout to Sri Lanka but the actual disbursement of funds has not started as yet. It depends on several conditions, and restructuring bilateral debts is one of them. Besides India, Sri Lanka has to muster similar support from China and Japan before it can access the IMF bailout fund.
During his stay in the island nation, the Indian Foreign Minister met Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry. Among other notable Sri Lankan leaders, his meeting with former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his son Namal Rajapaksa, a Member of Parliament representing Hambantota, is significant. Namal is the eldest son of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has served both as President and Prime Minister of the country. Namal was the Minister for Youth and Sports in the last Government, which was overthrown by the people’s movement. Incidentally, Namal resigned from his post in the early stages of the movement that saw his father’s home vandalised and burnt down, along with Namal’s fleet of luxury cars. While in the meeting Mahinda Rajapaksa was present, the information was shared by Namal on his official twitter account, hinting that Mahinda Rajapaksa is still lying low.
“Was an honour to meet Dr @DrSJaishankar and discuss wide ranging issues. IN&LK have been long standing friends & Sri Lanka is truly grateful for the Indian Govt’s prompt financial assistance amounting to $4bn dollars in 2022 to mitigate the adverse effects of economic crisis,” Namal tweeted along with two pictures of the meeting.
Among the first to react to India’s support for the $2.9 billion IMF bailout for Sri Lanka was the American Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Julie Chung. “Pleased to see India confirm strong support for SL’s prospective EFF programme & commit to providing financing/debt relief transparently & in coordination w Paris Club. The US stands ready to assist SL to unlock IMF assistance when all creditors agree to fair & equitable treatment,” she tweeted on January 19, the day the Indian Foreign Minister arrived in Sri Lanka. Chung has been one of the few diplomats in Colombo whose presence has been felt throughout the current crisis. She has been meeting people and going out on field visits, taking note of every small step being taken toward mitigating the economic crisis and hardships it has brought for the common people. Wearing a bright lemon-yellow suit, Chung tweets for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” the next day.
The interests of India and the US converge on Sri Lanka is not hard to understand. Sri Lanka with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean holds much more significance than it might reflect. A foreign military base in Sri Lanka can have far-reaching ramifications for international supply chain stability, a key concern in the post-COVID world, which is further aggravated by restrictions on the movement of cargo in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Recently, a Chinese spy ship, Yuan Wang 5, docked in Sri Lanka despite stiff opposition from India, which has emerged as an important ally of the island nation, thanks to its $4 billion worth of assistance since the economic crisis spiralled out of control in January last year. Indian Foreign Minister’s arrival in Colombo coincided with a joint military exercise between the US Navy and Sri Lankan Navy and Sri Lankan Air Force in the waters of Colombo, Trincomalee, and Mullikullam. Recently, a joint military exercise between the US and the Indian forces at about 100 km from the India-China border at Auli in the Indian State of Uttarakhand elicited sharp comments from China and India.
Given this backdrop, the crisis in Sri Lanka is not limited to the economy and politics. It invariably indicates the involvement of powerful international players.
The Indian Foreign Minister in his public statements kept the focus on the economy and how India pro-actively followed up on its hyped neighbourhood-first policy in prioritising support for Sri Lanka in its moments of crisis.
“We felt strongly that Sri Lanka’s creditors must take proactive steps to facilitate its recovery. India decided not to wait for others but to do what we believe is right. We extended financing assurances to IMF to clear the way for Sri Lanka to move forward,” he said in a statement. He also delivered a personal invitation from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe for an India visit. It means the Sri Lankan President is likely to be in India sometime this year. (IPA)