NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday concluded a two-day tour of two key Indian Ocean neighbours with a stop in Sri Lanka, promising Colombo all support to tackle terrorism as he became the first foreign leader to visit the island nation rocked by a series of terrorist bombings in April.
The brief stay in Sri Lanka was part of Modi’s first trip abroad after winning a second term in the April-May polls. Touching down in Colombo after a visit to the Maldives—where in an address to the Maldivian parliament Modi had called for an international conference on terrorism—Modi was received by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Accompanied by Wickremesinghe, Modi went straight to the St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, one of three devastated by the bombings that took place as people gathered for Easter Sunday services on 21 April.
“India never forgets her friends when they are in need," Modi said in his first post on Twitter after his arrival.
“I am confident that Sri Lanka will rise again. Cowardly acts of terror cannot defeat the spirit of Sri Lanka. India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka," Modi said in a subsequent post after his church visit. More than 250 people were killed as nine suicide bombers claiming allegiance to the Islamic State targeted the churches as well as four hotels on 21 April. The attacks shattered 10 years of relative peace in Sri Lanka that came at the end of a three-decade-long deadly civil war.
After his church visit, Modi called on Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, the second meeting between the two leaders in 10 days. Sirisena was one of the eight foreign leaders invited to attend Modi’s swearing-in on 30 May. After a ceremonial welcome, the two leaders went in for talks. “Met President @MaithripalaS, our second meeting in 10 days. President Sirisena and I agreed that terrorism is a joint threat that needs collective and focussed action. Reiterated India’s commitment to partner with Sri Lanka for a shared, secure and prosperous future," Modi tweeted after his talks with President Sirisena.
Analysts say Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka and the Maldives puts renewed emphasis on his “Neighbourhood First" foreign policy in his second term in office. In recent years, China’s presence has grown in both in Sri Lanka and in the Maldives as Beijing advanced loans for big-ticket infrastructure projects and sought closer military ties, especially for its navy. The debt from those projects has, however, become a burden for both countries, a Reuters report said. In a bid to take on the increased Chinese inroads into the Sri Lankan infrastructure sector, India and Japan have joined hands to construct a container terminal at the Colombo port, next to a Chinese terminal built as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Reuters report said. India accounts for around 70% of the trans-shipment business in Colombo port.
“In Maldives, Modi’s visit was aimed at consolidating ties" with the newly elected government of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said. In Male, Modi positioned India as its key development and assistance partner, making credible the promises of Indian generosity with firm commitments of help, Sibal said. The visit to Sri Lanka, the former foreign secretary said, was a “good diplomatic move" that showcased India’s “political, moral and diplomatic support" to the government and people of Sri Lanka, Sibal said. “Including Sri Lanka in the itinerary of the prime minister’s first visit abroad sends a powerful signal of India’s continuing commitment to Sri Lanka," Sibal added.