Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka was a reaffirmation of a long and enduring friendship. The two-day visit held importance for both sides — for Sri Lanka, which is facing international opprobrium at the UN Human Rights Council for withdrawing from its commitments to probe war crimes allegedly committed by its soldiers and officers during the war against the LTTE, a visit by a high-profile foreign leader from the neighbourhood was good optics. Also, with the Islamic world glowering at Sri Lanka for disallowing burials of Muslim COVID-19 victims, Khan was especially welcome in Colombo given that he is the first head of government to visit the country since the pandemic began. For Pakistan, this was an opportunity to reassert ties with an old friend in the hotly contested strategic space of the Indian Ocean.
At a time when India and China are vying for influence in the Indian Ocean region, Khan’s hint at a convergence of interests between Islamabad, Beijing and Colombo did not elicit a public reaction from his Sri Lankan hosts. Sri Lanka has learnt to balance its ties with India and Pakistan expertly, signalling to both that it treats the two relationships separately. Delhi, too, has not felt threatened by Sri Lanka-Pakistan ties. This is why the $50 million defence credit line from Pakistan to Colombo, announced during Imran Khan’s visit, has not elicited much of a reaction in Delhi. After all, Pakistan provided much more defence support in the form of weaponry to Sri Lanka through the 1990s to the end of the war against the LTTE.
But External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Maldives, days ahead of Khan’s visit to Colombo, suggests Delhi may be leaving nothing to chance. Last year, India revived a trilateral maritime dialogue with Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Making up for lost time in shoring up Indian interests in the region, the two countries signed during Jaishankar’s visit a host of agreements, including on maritime security, and to develop a coast guard harbour at the island of Uthuru Thila Falhu, as well as a $50 million line of credit from India for defence purchases. Delhi should consider adding to the mix an old idea proposed first by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — an overland economic corridor through India that would provide Sri Lanka a land route to Central Asia and beyond.