Army chief in Lanka on three-day tour

Army chief in Lanka on three-day tour

New Delhi: Indian Army chief General V.K Singh began a three-day visit to SriLanka on Monday to enhance defence cooperation that had cooled during the island-nation’s bloody civil war in the face of domestic opposition.

The army chief’s visit comes amid concerns over increasing Chinese presence in India’s periphery including Sri Lanka and Myanmar and ahead of trips to Colombo by defence secretary Pradeep Kumar and foreign minister S.M. Krishna .

Singh, who was posted in Sri Lanka during the years the Indian Peace Keeping Force was deployed on the island to enforce a peace accord between the Sri Lankan army and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was fighting for a separate state for the minority Tamils, started his visit by calling on Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. He also met Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, minister of external affairs Prof. G.L. Peiris and secretary of defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, an Indian official said.

Besides Colombo, Singh will be visiting key defence establishments in Vavuniya and Indian de-mining projects in Omanthai in northern Sri Lanka -- the one-time stronghold of LTTE chief Prabhakaran who was killed at the end of the civil war last May -- the Island newspaper reported.

Singh will also visit military centres in east and central Sri Lanka besides meeting student officers at the Defence Services Command and Staff College in Sapugaskanda just outside Colombo, the paper added.

“India aims to maintain close, amiable and cooperative relations with Sri Lanka at both military and government levels," a statement from Indian army headquarters in New Delhi said ahead of Singh’s visit.

The decision to normalise defence ties was taken during a visit by President Mahinda Rajapakse to India in June with a yearly defence dialogue on the cards. India was cautious in its defence ties with Sri Lanka while the conflict was on due to sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils in India’s Tamil Nadu state -- both communities sharing close cultural and linguistic ties.

An Indian Army official said the accent of the renewed cooperation would primarily be on training of officers. India has been training Sri Lankan officers at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun and the National Defence College in Delhi. A resumption of defence exercises was also on the cards. Both sides will also exchange notes on counter insurgency procedures, given that Sri Lanka has just seen the end of decades of civil war and India is battling insurgencies -- from Kashmir in the north to Assam, Manipur and Nagaland in its northeast.

“Sale or transfer of defence hardware is, however, not on the cards yet," the army official said.

India’s current wooing of Sri Lanka has a strategic dimension, say analysts.

“In the past few years we have lost ground to China, in Sri Lanka," said R.N. Das, an expert on China affairs at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses think-tank. “This was due to domestic political reasons during the civil war."

“When our engagement was lagging, Chinese presence in the form of investments has been increasing in Sri Lanka. With these visits -- by the army chief now, the naval chief was there in June and some others in the pipeline-- we are looking to regain lost ground," Das added.

China has just finished construction of the first phase of a port at Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka that was handed over to the authorities last month. Reports say China has tied up with Sri Lanka for the second phase of the port project as well.

Officials in New Delhi dismiss the idea of the “encirclement" of India by China but the Indian military establishment has been taking note of deepening interaction between India’s neighbours such as Myanmar and China besides Sri Lanka.

Reports said Chinese ships made their first calls at Myanmarese ports last month while the Indian military has been noting increased Chinese involvement in infrastructure -- air fields across Myanmar besides an enhanced presence in the Indian Ocean region by the Chinese Navy.

The uneasy ties between India and China were buffeted last month when Beijing refused to allow an Indian Army general serving in Kashmir to visit citing the region’s disputed status. New Delhi has also expressed concern over the presence of Chinese troops in parts of the region claimed both by India and Chinese ally Pakistan.