Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa in New Delhi

At their first virtual meeting on Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa talked about an array of issues, including bilateral debt, infrastructural development and rights of minorities in Sri Lanka. On the agenda was Colombo’s request for deferring debt repayments. It owes India about $960 million. India has already agreed to a $400-million currency swap facility for Sri Lanka and the latter has now put in a request for an additional swap arrangement worth around $1 billion. The two leaders also discussed the status of several Indian infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. Foremost among these is the Eastern Container Terminal in Colombo, a project that India and Japan are hoping to implement. Rajapaksa put this project on hold in the run-up to general elections in August. Colombo made no announcement on the revival of this key project.

This was a bilateral summit. Yet it was a third country, China, the proverbial elephant in the room, that determined its content and outcome. China’s influence in Sri Lanka has grown manifold over the past decade, and India’s engagement of Rajapaksa, who during his 10-year stint as president put the island-nation in China’s orbit, is aimed at drawing it back into the Indian fold. India’s gestures with regard to the currency swap and easing Sri Lanka’s debt, for instance, are aimed at reducing its dependence on China. To counter China’s rising profile and presence in the Indian Ocean Region, India has agreed to further strengthen maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka, including personnel exchange and training. India has stepped up the exercise of soft power, too, by bonding with Sri Lanka over Buddhism, a link that Colombo shares with Beijing as well. India announced a $15 million grant for promotion of Buddhist ties. The China-centric Modi-Rajapaksa meeting indicates how much ground India has to recover in this relationship.

On the Tamil question, a significant gap persists. While the Rajapaksa government is considering repealing the 13th Amendment to its Constitution, India wants it implemented. The joint statement issued at the end of the Modi-Rajapaksa meeting laid bare this difference; it stated the Indian and Sri Lankan positions. Significantly, the subsequent statement released by the Rajapaksa government made no mention of Modi’s call to Colombo to meet Tamil aspirations for justice and achieve reconciliation through implementation of the 13th Amendment. This does not bode well for minority rights in Sri Lanka.