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Asia

India makes inroads into Sri Lanka under China’s long shadow

CONCERN ABOUT CHINA

The talks, and the scale of Indian aid this year that far exceeds other donors, underline New Delhi’s efforts to claw back influence in the island located just a few miles off its southern tip along busy waterways linking Asia to Europe.

In late June, a fortnight before tens of thousands of angry Sri Lankans took to the streets and forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country, India’s top diplomat flew into the island nation’s main city of Colombo for meetings.

Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, who was accompanied by officials from India’s finance ministry, met Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, among others.

In their conversations with the Sri Lankan leadership, Kwatra and other Indian officials flagged China’s position as a key geopolitical concern, according to a Sri Lankan government source with direct knowledge of the discussions.

The source, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the press, said China’s huge role in the island’s economy, which had mushroomed under previous Rajapaksa administrations, was troubling India more than anything else.

Details of the June meeting have not previously been reported.

Kwatra and the Indian and Sri Lankan foreign ministries did not respond to questions from Reuters on the June meetings.

In a statement released immediately after Kwatra’s visit, the Indian foreign ministry said that talks had mainly focused on economic issues, including deepening investments. It made no mention of China.

New Delhi has long been concerned about China’s clout in its neighbourhood, including Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Sensitivities have been heightened, and diplomatic relations frayed, since Indian and Chinese troops clashed along a remote Himalayan border in 2020, leaving dozens of soldiers dead.

“We understand that it is their prerogative to look after their security,” Sabry said, referring to India. “And as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we don’t want to contribute to any escalation of tension between any countries.”

China, meanwhile, has engaged with the Sri Lankan government on debt restructuring that is required for the IMF deal to go through, besides sending shipments of medicine, fuel and rice.

The World Bank estimates Beijing’s lending stands at around US$7 billion, or 12 per cent of Sri Lanka’s US$63 billion external debt.

“We are willing to work with relevant countries and international financial institutions to continue to play a positive role in helping Sri Lanka,” China’s foreign ministry said in response to written questions from Reuters.

The ministry said it did not have details of India’s assistance and investment in Sri Lanka and that its own support of Sri Lanka was “not targeted at third parties”.

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