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Pakistan-Sri Lanka and India

  • 01 Mar 2021
  • 8 min read

Why in News

Recently, Pakistan’s Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka. It is the first Pakistani PM visit to Sri Lanka since 2016 and first visit by any head of government to Sri Lanka since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Key Points

  • Sri Lanka-Pakistan Relationship (Background):
    • Trade:
      • Sri Lanka and Pakistan have a free trade agreement dating back to 2005. Pakistan is Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner in South Asia after India.
    • Culture:
      • Over the last decade, Pakistan has also tried to work on a cultural connection with Sri Lanka by highlighting its ancient Buddhist connections and sites.
    • Defence Cooperation:
      • Defence ties are a strong pillar of the Sri Lanka-Pakistan bilateral relationship.
      • During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Sri Lanka allowed refuelling of Pakistani Jets.
      • In its Civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, Sri Lanka turned to Pakistan for arms and ammunition, as well as training for its fighter pilots, in the last stages of the war.
      • Recently, Sri Lanka participated in Pakistan’s multi-nation naval exercise Aman-21.
  • About the Visit:
    • Defence Credit Line Facility:
      • Pakistan has offered a USD 50 million new credit line to Sri Lanka to boost cooperation in defence and security sectors.
    • Enhancing Cultural Ties:
      • Pakistan will set up a centre for the study of Asian cultures and civilisation at Peradeniya University in Kandy.
      • Sri Lanka also named a sports institute in Colombo after Pakistan’s PM, highlighting the cricket connection between the two countries.
  • Significance of the Visit:
    • For Pakistan:
      • Enhancing Trade Ties:
        • Pakistan invited Sri Lanka to “take advantage” of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to enhance trade ties. In the past, Colombo had pitched for an economic corridor overland for access to countries beyond.
    • For Sri Lanka:
      • Seeking Support in UNHRC:
        • Recently, Sri Lanka has made an appeal to the member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to reject the impending resolution on the island nation's human rights accountability and reconciliation.
        • Sri Lanka is facing a new UNHRC resolution calling on it to hold human rights abusers to account and deliver justice to victims of the 26-year civil war (1983-2009) between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgent group fighting for Tamilian minorities.
      • Balancing Ties with India and Pakistan:
        • It provided an opportunity to Sri Lanka to balance its ties with India and Pakistan.
        • Sri Lanka cancelled Pakistan’s PM address to the Parliament over concerns that he would raise the Kashmir issue.
      • Repairing Anti-Muslim Image:
        • This visit may repair the damage of Sri Lanka’s image in the Islamic world as it recently denied burials of bodies of Muslims who have died of Covid-19.
        • Muslims, who make up about 11% of Sri Lanka’s population, have had tense relations with the Sinhala Buddhist majority for much of the last decade, with riots shattering the uneasy calm every few years.

Concerns For India

  • Hamper Efforts of Isolating Pakistan:
    • As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour with strong, all encompassing ties, India has not perceived Pakistan as a serious rival in Colombo so far.
    • However, this visit signalled that despite India’s best efforts at “isolating” Pakistan, it has friends in the neighbourhood.
  • Increasing Closeness to China:
    • Pakistan's PM visit soon after Sri Lanka’s abrupt withdrawal from a tripartite agreement (along with Japan and India) for the development of the East Container Terminal at Colombo port, and the award of a contract to a Chinese company to set up a hybrid renewable energy in an island off Jaffna is a reason for concern for India.
  • Threatening India’s Interests in Indian Ocean Region:
  • Connectivity:
    • The Gwadar port is connected to China’s Xinjiang province by the CPEC which in turn is a strand of the ambitious multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative launched by China in 2013.
    • The latest invitation to Sri Lanka from Pakistan comes as India is trying to get work restarted on Chabahar port in Iran which New Delhi sees as a route to landlocked Central Asia and Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.
  • Concerns over Radicalisation by Pakistan:
    • Sporadically, the Indian security establishment has voiced concerns about Pakistan’s role in the radicalisation of Muslims — especially in Eastern Sri Lanka.

Way Forward

  • Sri Lanka has learnt to balance its ties with India and Pakistan expertly, signalling to both that it treats the two relationships separately. India too should not get threatened by Sri Lanka-Pakistan ties instead it should readjust alignments in its interests. Reviving a trilateral maritime dialogue with Sri Lanka and the Maldives in 2020 is a positive step in that direction.
  • India should also consider adding to the mix an old idea proposed first by former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe — an overland economic corridor through India that would provide Sri Lanka a land route to Central Asia and beyond.

Source: IE

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