Sri Lanka’s leader was to visit neighboring India on Friday for a second state visit in 17 months, underscoring his island nation’s delicate efforts to balance relations with regional superpowers India and China.
President Maithripala Sirisena, returning to the region from Britain, is expected to arrive in New Delhi in time to join Prime Minister Narendra Modi for dinner. On Saturday, the two men plan to participate in Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious ritual of plunging into a river believed wash away sins.
His visit comes a month after Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe traveled to China and agreed to resume work that had been suspended on a $1.5 billion Chinese-funded Port City, a project that has made India uneasy.
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Neither government gave details about what the two leaders planned to discuss, with India saying only that it was confident the visit would strengthen their “close and cooperative” ties.
The two countries share deep ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious ties, but also have a history of tumultuous relationship.
Sri Lanka’s decades-old civil war involving ethnic Tamil rebels was particularly sensitive to India, which has a large Tamil community. India’s intervention in 1987 to solve a separatist insurgency led to the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a rebel suicide bomber. India also lost hundreds of its peacekeeping forces sent to teardrop-shaped island.
Ties have warmed recently. Sirisena chose India for his first state visit after being elected early last year. Soon after, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to make a bilateral visit to Sri Lanka in 28 years.
Sirisena’s government also suspended the Chinese port project championed by his predecessor, strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had a heavy pro-China leaning. At the time, Sirisena’s government said there was a lack of proper study on the environmental impact of building a city _ with a golf course, marinas, apartments and shopping malls _ on an artificial island just outside the port of Colombo.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had launched the project during a visit to the island in 2013. Sri Lanka’s decision to restart the project was seen a way of reassuring China while simultaneously growing closer to India. Sri Lanka is also likely to court more Chinese investment to resuscitate an ailing economy burdened by heavy debt.
Sri Lankan officials have said changes were made to the original plan to minimise environmental impact, but have not made that assessment public. They also scrapped a controversial plan to give outright land ownership to China, saying they would instead offer the land on a 99-year lease.
India had expressed concern over the project, which would allow a heavy Chinese presence in a country geographically set apart from India only by the narrow Palk Strait.
Sirisena’s visit also comes at a time of heavy opposition in Sri Lanka to a proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement, which critics say could allow unemployed Indians to flood Sri Lankan professions such as information technology and health sectors.