India-Sri Lanka relations tested in 2021 due to persistent fisherman problem and investment deadlock

The India-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship was put to the test in 2021 after Colombo unilaterally reneged on a tripartite agreement with India and Japan to build a deep-water container port here, and frequent incidents involving fishermen Indians as well as China’s growing footprint there.

The year began with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Sri Lanka in early January, declaring: “I begin 2021 with a visit to Colombo, a visit to India’s closest neighbor and maritime partner”.

Jaishankar, who met with senior Sri Lankan leaders, also noted that it was gratifying to see that the Covid-19 pandemic has not been able to dent India-Sri Lanka bilateral cooperation.

But the positive bond dynamics generated by the visit were disrupted by the death of four Indian fishermen in January following a collision between their vessel and a Sri Lankan Navy craft.

India registered a strong protest in Colombo as well as in New Delhi, stressing the need to deal with fishermen’s issues in a humanitarian manner.

In December, India expressed concern over the detention of 68 fishermen from Tamil Nadu from December 18 to 20 by the Sri Lankan authorities and raised the issue of their “early release”.

The issue of fishermen remains a major irritant in bilateral relations.

During the period of the Covid pandemic, India has kept its airspace open to travel for Sri Lanka’s specific and urgent medical needs.

As part of the Indian government’s Vaccine Maitri humanitarian initiative to deliver Covid-19 vaccines to countries around the world, India has donated 500,000 doses of the Covishield vaccine to the island nation, prompting it to launch its campaign National Coronavirus Vaccination.

Meanwhile, in a big shock to India’s investment plans in Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa government unilaterally reneged on a tripartite deal with India and Japan to build the strategic deep-water container port.

Sri Lanka, which had agreed in 2019 to develop the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) in the port of Colombo with India and Japan, canceled the deal and called the ECT a “container terminal. wholly owned by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority ”.

Colombo said it would instead develop the port’s West Container Terminal (WCT) with investments from India and Japan. Much to India’s annoyance, China landed the ECT development contract in November.

As the ECT / WCT issue loomed, Colombo announced that the government has successfully ended talks with the Indian government to end leasing of WWII oil storage tanks in the eastern port of Trincomalee. .

In 2003, Sri Lanka leased 99 oil tanks from the Indian Oil Corporation for 30 years for an annual payment of USD 100,000.

In 2021, Sri Lanka came under pressure from the international community over its human rights record, particularly during the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

While the UN called for sanctions and international criminal proceedings against those responsible for rights violations during the armed conflict with the LTTE in 2009, India abstained in a crucial vote on the record of human rights violations. rights of Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. in March.

But New Delhi urged Colombo to keep its commitments to advance the reconciliation process and meet the aspirations of the Tamil community.

Foreign Minister Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Sri Lanka in October and assured Sri Lankan leaders India will spare no effort to mitigate the negative impact of Covid 19 restrictions on engagement bilateral socio-economic and will stand alongside the government of Sri Lanka in its efforts for post-Covid recovery.

During his meeting with President Rajapaksa, he assured India that Sri Lanka would not be allowed to be used for “any activity” which could constitute a threat to the security of India.

He explained Colombo’s ties with China in a “comprehensive manner” and exchanged views on a wide range of issues, including the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Rajapaksa explained the need to restore the friendship and relations between India and Sri Lanka that existed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The year was also a test of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s personal abilities as a novice politician.

The 72-year-old former military officer had never been a member of any political party or involved in any electoral politics other than moral support for his older brother Mahinda, the ruler of the Rajapaksa dynasty.

Each passing day was a test for the president as he faced the pandemic, major foreign policy issues and regional tensions caused by Sri Lanka’s tendency to look to China.

Sri Lanka’s mighty Rajapaksa dynasty, which has consolidated its grip on power over the past two years, is known for its tilt toward China.

Although China is one of the biggest investors in various infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, there has been criticism – both locally and internationally – and growing concerns that Beijing has lured Colombo into a the debt. Ironically, that hasn’t stopped Sri Lanka from drifting to China for economic support.

As Sri Lanka’s energy security is threatened by the unprecedented currency crisis, the Minister of Finance and the third great Rajapaksa of the government Basil Rajapaksa traveled to India to negotiate a special line of credit with Delhi to facilitate imports. of oil.

Sri Lankan officials, despite the bumpy course of relations with India, remained optimistic about the granting of Indian aid.

“India is our closest neighbor and we appreciate their cooperation very much,” Jayanath Colombage, senior official in Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry, has often said of bilateral relations.

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