President Sirisena’s global outreach commences on a positive note

It could not have been better. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s maiden overseas visit, to India, was a very positive one. Not only did he have reportedly good meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Indian leaders in Delhi, his visit would also herald a return visit by an Indian VVIP for the first time in 28 years.

The fact that President Sirisena has come to replace predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa may have set the tone and tenor for future ties between the two nations cannot be over-stressed. That a Prime Minister in India could consider a Sri Lanka visit without possible hiccups since the slain Rajiv Gandhi made the historic 1987 trip to sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord also owe to Sirisena’s elevation. Yet, it does not stop there.

What’s of immediate bilateral concern and interest in the larger geo-strategic sphere is the signing of a nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries during President Sirisena’s visit. It is much different from the one India has with the US. It needs to be clarified that the agreement does not cover the installation of any Indian nuclear plant in Sri Lanka.

There is no need for additional power generation in Sri Lanka, for the nation to consider the nuclear option, with or without India. Close to a decade ago, the two nations were considering the sale of Indian electricity through under-the-sea cables to Sri Lanka for about five years, to be followed by a long-term Sri Lankan sale of excess electricity through the same cables from around 2017.

However, owing to a variety of factors, including security concerns involving the LTTE on land and its ‘Sea Tigers’ wing otherwise, and also the poor power-generation during those years, across the Palk Strait in southern India, the scheme did not take off. Yet, there may still be scope for India purchasing excess Sri Lankan power, as and when the Indian-funded Sampur power project in the Eastern Province with substantial Tamil population goes on stream.

The story of the Sampur project is one of casual and callous approach by the then Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka. Rather than thanking India for the offer to set up a power-project in the war-ravaged province, Sri Lanka made India feel that it were doing a great favour to the larger, northern neighbour by even considering the proposal. Other issues remained, but they were not of a level or category for the political will of the Sri Lankan leadership to prevail, and in good time.

‘One for’ Sri Lanka

It’s true that the present-day Sri Lankan Power Minister, Pattali Champika Ranawaka, had evinced an interest in a nuclear power plant for his country when he held the same post in President Rajapaksa’s first term. He was known to have visited the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant, near Chennai, and expressed great appreciation and even “wanted one like it” for Sri Lanka.

However, the Government and Minister Champika had a different view of the nuclear option after the ‘Fukushima nuclear disaster’ in Japan. By then he had been moved out for more convenient reasons. There were all-round apprehensions, instead, about the Koodamkulam nuclear-power plant in southern Tamil Nadu being a threat. Those concerns died the natural death in good time.

Yet, in good time, the present, open-ended agreement could lead to India building nuclear reactors in Sri Lanka after following the international norms and safeguards in this regard. For now, however, the agreement “would facilitate cooperation in the transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity-building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including use of radioisotopes, nuclear safety, nuclear security, radioactive waste management, and nuclear and radiological disaster mitigation and environmental protection”.

The itemised Sri Lankan queries on the Koodamkulam project may have become necessary, mostly post-Fukushima but some of them earlier, too, owing to local protests in India. The present agreement is thus an assertion that all Sri Lankan concerns had been addressed, and even takes it forward to nuclear cooperation between the two nations, however limited just now.

Mutual trust

In his brief statement after detailed discussions and signing of four agreements, Prime Minister Modi said that the one on civil nuclear cooperation was “another demonstration of our mutual trust”. Issues of mutual trust between the two countries go beyond that, however. On the bilateral front, PM Modi’s statement mentioned the early return of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Government-run camps in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, and the ‘livelihood concerns’ of the fishing community in the two nations, who will be encouraged to talk again between themselves on an early date.

Of even greater importance should be PM Modi’s declaration about the two nations agreeing to expand defence and strategic cooperation between the two. Like the existing China-funded development projects in Sri Lanka, Indian concerns about China’s out-reach on defence, security and geo-strategic fronts are well known. Considering that President Sirisena is expected to visit China in March, and also the fact that China’s MSR Project and defence cooperation proposals had takers in the erstwhile Rajapaksa Government, New Delhi would be looking for Colombo’s follow-up in the coming days, weeks and months.

At their joint media appearance, Prime Minister Modi referred to the existing trilateral maritime security cooperation agreement, also involving Maldives, and to which farther-south Mauritius and Seychelles have been co-opted as observers, with possible plans to induct them too as full members. PM Modi also used the occasion to officially announce his plans to visit Sri Lanka in March.

Reports have indicated that Modi could visit Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles during the Sri Lanka trip, thus building upon the low-profile bilateral and multilateral exchanges and agreements that had commenced under predecessor Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. From a regional perspective, the Modi visit has the great potential for the five nations to emerge as a collective Indian Ocean Rim voice, and for India to be acknowledged as a greater neighbourhood Ocean power than is accepted now.

Institutional mechanism

A lot of good work would need to be done for evolving an institutional mechanism for this purpose, going beyond the ‘Dhosti’ series of coast guard cooperation between India and Maldives, to which Sri Lanka was invited not very long ago, with Mauritius and Seychelles joining in as observers not very long after. It’s the need of the hour that India takes the lead in this, and also takes all the region’s nations with it, evolving a collective architecture for the security of and in their shared seas.

In the eyes of the Indian strategic community, the nuclear deal with Sri Lanka is significant in the China context. A five-nation security architecture would go far beyond Sri Lanka and even China, which has engaged some of these nations one way or the other, and purportedly against India, to be exercised on a day of its choosing. To that extent, President Sirisena’s visit might have started off a process afresh, with PM Modi’s expected four-nation visit, taking it to the next, higher level.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

(Courtesy: ORF)