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New Dynamic in India-Sri Lanka Relations

The relationship between the two countries is 2500 years old with a legacy of strong intellectual, cultural and linguistic interaction. The high-level cooperation between the countries covers areas ranging from education, culture, defence, trade and investment. Both countries have a broad understanding of major issues of both international and common interests. The entry into force of the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) in 2000 contributed significantly towards the expansion of trade between the two countries. Economic ties between the two nations also include a flourishing development partnership that encompasses areas such as infrastructure, connectivity, transportation, housing, health, livelihood and rehabilitation, education, and industrial development India has traditionally been among Sri Lanka’s largest trade partners and Sri Lanka remains among the largest trade partners of India in the SAARC. In 2020, India was Sri Lanka’s 2nd largest trading partner with the bilateral merchandise trade amounting to about USD 3.6 billion.  In addition to being Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner, India is also one of the largest contributors to Foreign Direct Investment in Sri Lanka.

Since the last few years, there have been strains on India-Sri Lanka relations especially because of their strong relations with China. Former President Rajapaksa brought the relationship with China closer when he side-lined Indian concerns including over the rehabilitation of Tamils displaced by the long-running Sri Lankan civil war. Sri Lanka has long been in India’s geopolitical orbit, but its relationship with China has strengthened in recent years and that is something that can’t be ignored. But due to its historical relations with the country, India has always tried to maintain friendly and cooperative relations with Sri Lanka. Also as both, the countries are part of the organisations like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation), it becomes important to work on the betterment of the foundation of the relationship. 

The Indian government have been taking initiatives to better the relationship. Recently, Harsh Vardhan Sringla paid a four-day visit from 2nd October to 5th October to Sri Lanka to review the bilateral relationship in its entire gamut. He met President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and other high senior officials including his Sri Lankan counterpart and the visit was a part of India’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). In a very significant development, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a direct flight from Sri Lanka to Kushinagar on 20th October 2021. Kushinagar, in Uttar Pradesh, is a very important destination for Buddhists around the world as Gautam Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana here. Delegates from twelve countries, including Sri Lanka, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore attended the inauguration.  The inaugural flight which arrived from Sri Lanka to Kushinagar on Wednesday had a delegation led by Sri Lanka’s Cabinet Minister Namal Rajapaksa with around 100 senior Buddhist monks, four State Ministers and other senior officials. 

The increase of Chinese footprints in Sri Lanka during and after the civil war has been a major concern for India especially security-wise. So it becomes more and more urgent for India to maintain their relations with the country and on a better note to decrease the presence of China in the Indo-pacific region. Both the countries through more people to people contact as well as high-level meetings can make sure that the relationship flourishes into a better one with no misunderstanding involved.