NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to increase economic assistance and deepen security ties with Sri Lanka, which had tilted toward China under the previous administration. The Indian leader was in Colombo on the final leg of a three-nation tour of Indian Ocean countries where he wants to re-establish India’s influence.
Emphasizing the importance of cooperation among countries in the Indian Ocean region, Modi told lawmakers in Sri Lanka that the "course of the 21st century will be determined by the currents of the Indian Ocean.”
“Shaping its direction is a responsibility for the countries in the region. We are two countries at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean," he said. "Your leadership and our partnership will be vital for building a peaceful, secure, stable and prosperous maritime neighborhood."
Modi arrived Friday after visiting two other small island countries in the region - Mauritius and Seychelles.
His outreach to Indian Ocean countries is a bid to correct years of neglect on New Delhi’s part. That helped China increase its influence in a region which India has long considered its maritime backyard.
Now, Modi is emphatically changing that, wooing the countries with offers of economic and security assistance.
Sri Lanka, on India’s southern tip, is the top priority. Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit in 28 years.
Seeking closer partnership
Saying that Sri Lanka could be India’s strongest economic partner, he added trade, technology and investment should flow between the two countries.
“Our neighbors should have the first claim on India… I will be happy if India serves as a catalyst in the progress of our neighbors,” he said.
The two countries have signed four pacts. These include simplification of visa and customs rules to boost trade and reduce tariff barriers.
Modi also met with Sri Lanka's newly-elected president, Maithripala Sirisena on this trip, which comes about a month after the two men held wide-ranging talks in New Delhi and agreed to expand defense and security cooperation, cultural ties and connectivity.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wicremesinghe said that Colombo welcomes India’s emphasis on building cooperation with its neighbors and the Indian Ocean region.
India promised $318 million in assistance to build a railway infrastructure and help develop Trincomalee port into a regional petroleum hub.
Prime Minister Modi also urged Sri Lanka to give greater autonomy to its Tamil ethnic minority following the end of the country’s long civil war.
“You have successfully defeated terrorism and brought the conflict to an end. You now stand at a moment of historic opportunity, to win the hearts and heal the wounds across all sections of society.”
India, which has a large Tamil population, has been stressing the need for reconciliation between Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese majority.
On Saturday, Modi will visit the Tamil-dominated northern province of Jaffna, where India is involved in several reconstruction projects.
In both Seychelles and Mauritius, Modi has also signed agreements to upgrade infrastructure and improve sea and air connectivity.
In recent years, China has reached out to all these countries to establish political ties and build seaports, airports and highways.
Sri Lanka's new administration has been building closer ties with New Delhi saying it wants to rebalance its foreign policy. It recently cancelled a Chinese project to build a port in Colombo, which India had criticized.
The Indian Ocean is a vital maritime route for the two Asian giants as both cargo and oil is transported across these sea lanes.