India and Sri Lanka agreed on Saturday to strengthen cooperation to combat terrorism and boost trade and investment.
“India has been a trusted partner in Sri Lanka’s development,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said a joint briefing after meeting Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in New Delhi.
New lines of credits announced in November will deepen development and cooperation, Modi said, adding that Sri Lanka’s stability, security and prosperity was a matter of interest not only for India, but for the entire Indian Ocean region.
Rajapaksa said the talks centered on security co-operation. “India has always assisted Sri Lanka to enhance our capabilities in intelligence and counter-terrorism,” he said in a statement.
The tiny island nation had heavily weighed on China for its infrastructure development during Rajapaksa’s previous 10-year rule as Sri Lanka’s president that ended in 2015, creating tensions with New Delhi.
Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya won Sri Lanka’s presidential election in November and since then has committed to neutral foreign relations. Both brothers chose India as the site of their first official state visit.
Sri Lanka — which emerged from a three-decade civil war in 2009 — was known for taking Chinese loans to fund vast infrastructure projects, including ports and highways, that eventually became part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Its appetite for Chinese cash waned after rising debt forced it to sell the Hambantota port back to China Merchants Port Holdings.
The deal prompted concern in India about its geopolitical rival China developing a port close to its southern coastline for future military uses. Sri Lanka is seen to have increasing strategic importance due to its proximity to some of world’s most important sea lines.
Rajapaksa’s earlier term as president was marked with a clear drift towards China, said Smruti S. Pattanaik, senior research fellow at New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
“But India’s relationship with the Rajapaksa brothers is now very different — both sides engaged with each other in the five years that Ranil Wickremsinghe was in power,” Pattanaik said by phone.
“India’s push is not about replacing China but about engaging with Sri Lanka differently to protect its security interests in the Indian Ocean.”