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Explained: Here’s why India is wary of the Sri Lanka-Pakistan tango

The relationship between Islamabad and Colombo is deeper than is sometimes apparent, with defence cooperation a key component. India does not yet perceive Pakistan as its rival in Colombo, but remains wary

Prime Ministers Imran Khan and Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo on February 24. (Reuters Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka on February 23 and 24 triggered a fair amount of controversy because of a cancelled invitation to address the Sri Lankan parliament. But ties between the two countries are deeper and on more solid footing than is immediately apparent — and this incident could not have caused any damage to a long and steady relationship.

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Visit outcomes

Pakistan is Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner in South Asia after India. During commerce secretary-level talks on February 18 ahead of Prime Minister Khan’s visit, the two countries decided to reactivate a Joint Working Group to resolve pending technical issues on trade, Dawn reported.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan have a free trade agreement dating back to 2005. Pakistan’s top exports to Sri Lanka are textiles and cement; Sri Lanka’s top exports to Pakistan are tea, rubber, and readymade garments. Over the last decade, Pakistan has also tried to work on a cultural connect with Sri Lanka by highlighting its ancient Buddhist connections and sites.

Defence ties are a strong pillar of the Sri Lanka-Pakistan bilateral relationship. After pulling back the IPKF in 1990, India provided no active defence support to the Sri Lankan military, although there was intelligence sharing during the war against the LTTE. Sri Lanka turned to Pakistan for arms and ammunition, as well as training for its fighter pilots, in the last stages of the war. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary at the time, visited Pakistan in 2008 to request emergency assistance with military supplies.

Just as Sri Lankan military officers come to India for training at National Defence College and Defence Services Staff College, Wellington (President Rajapaksa is an alumnus), they go to Pakistani military academies. Earlier this month, Sri Lanka participated in Pakistan’s multi-nation naval exercise, Aman-21.

During the 1971 war, Pakistani jets refuelled in Sri Lanka. Pakistan’s envoys to Sri Lanka are usually retired military officials — and the same was true for Sri Lanka’s High Commissioners to Pakistan until a few years ago.

In 2006, the Tigers carried out an attack in Colombo against then Pakistani High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Bashir Wali Mohamand, a former intelligence chief. He escaped, but seven others were killed.

Khan’s visit yielded a clutch of MoUs and agreements between the two sides. The headline outcome was a $50 million credit line in the defence and security sector, underlining the strong, decades-long co-operation between the two countries on this front.

Pakistan will set up a centre for the study of Asian cultures and civilisation at Peradeniya University in Kandy.

And more than making up for the cancellation of the Parliament speech, Imran Khan’s hosts named a sports institute in Colombo after him, highlighting the cricket connection between the two countries.

Neighbourhood friends

Aside from the tangible outcomes, the visit was important to both Pakistan and Sri Lanka for other reasons too.

This was Imran Khan’s only second foray in the neighbourhood since becoming Prime Minister. His first was to Afghanistan last November. The last time a Pakistani PM visited Colombo was Nawaz Sharif in 2016. The visit signalled that despite India’s best efforts at “isolating” Pakistan, Islamabad has friends in the neighbourhood.

This was also the first visit by a head of government to Sri Lanka since the pandemic began. For Colombo, the visit held much value, coming as it did at a fraught time for the government on the international stage. Imminently, it is bracing for a resolution against it at the UN Human Rights Commission for withdrawing from resolution 30/1 of September 2015, under which it committed to carry out war crimes investigations.

To make matters worse, the Islamic world is appalled by Sri Lanka’s tight rules for disposal of bodies of Muslims who have died of Covid-19. Burials are not allowed; all bodies must be cremated. The rule created a storm in Sri Lanka, with community leaders convinced that this was in keeping with the perceived persecution of Muslims by the state.

Muslims, who make up about 11 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, have had tense relations with the Sinhala Buddhist majority for much of the last decade, with riots shattering the uneasy calm every few years. Tensions spiked especially after the synchronised Easter 2019 suicide bombings by a group of men and women who claimed to be members of ISIS. The visit by a head of government of an Islamic country was good optics for Sri Lanka.

India, Pak, Sri Lanka

A speculated reason for the cancellation of Khan’s address to Parliament was concern that he would raise the Kashmir issue, and that Colombo did not want to rile New Delhi at a time when India is already cut up about Sri Lanka’s abrupt withdrawal from a tripartite agreement (along with Japan) for the development of the East Container Terminal at Colombo port, and the award of a contract to a Chinese company to set up a hybrid renewable energy in an island off Jaffna.

Over the years, Sri Lanka has learnt to balance its ties with India and Pakistan. Khan’s invitation to his hosts to “take advantage” of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to enhance trade ties did not elicit any reaction, at least not in public. In the past, Colombo has pitched for an economic corridor overland for access to countries beyond.

As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour with strong, all encompassing ties — even if these keep hitting rough patches — India has not perceived Pakistan as a serious rival in Colombo so far. Delhi’s overflight permission to Khan’s plane to Colombo was seen as a sign of the new military thaw at the LoC, but it is possible that permission would have been given even without the imminent India-Pakistan agreement on the ceasefire.

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Sporadically, the Indian security establishment has voiced concerns about Pakistan’s role in the radicalisation of Muslims — especially in Eastern Sri Lanka. where funds have poured in for new mosques from some West Asian countries — and the effect this could have in India.

Now, there is some wariness about a convergence of interests between Sri Lanka, China, and Pakistan in the Indian Ocean region and in defence co-operation, although this has not been publicly expressed. In 2016, India put pressure on Sri Lanka to drop a plan to buy the Chinese JF-17 Thunder aircraft made in Pakistan’s Kamra Aeronautical Complex, and co-produced by the Chinese Chengdu Aircraft Corporation.

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