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India, Sri Lanka cooperate on defence as Colombo begins to distances itself from China

Indian Army chief General MM Naravane in Sri Lanka (Photo: @IndiainSL/Twitter)

Indian Army chief General MM Naravane's five-day visit to Sri Lanka has reinforced New Delhi's commitment to Colombo as "Priority One" partner in defence relations. The two nations are also looking at cooperating over regional security issues.

Earlier this year, the Indian High Commission had described Sri Lanka as its "Priority One" partner in the defence sphere as the two nations celebrated the 70th anniversary celebration of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). India had participated in the grand event with a large number of aircraft from the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.

The Indian and Sri Lankan armies are currently holding a 12-day military exercise. In signs of rising defence cooperation between the two nations, the navies of the two countries had jointly held exercises last month. The Sri Lankan navy had also held military exercises with the Japanese navy last week.

Sri Lankan newspaper The Island says that Naravane, "would also witness Exercise Mitra Shakti, one of the largest bilateral military exercises in the region. He would also participate in Gajaba Day celebrations as the Chief Guest. The General is also scheduled to deliver a talk at DSCSC, Batalanda and interact with students and faculty.”

On his second day in Sri Lanka, the Indian army chief met Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gen Kamal Gunaratne (Retd) and General Shavendra Silva for strengthening defence ties between the two nations. Naravane also paid tributes to the fallen Indian soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).

Gulbin Sultana–Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), told India Narrative that, "Sri Lanka has realised that it cannot ignore India. It is definitely making efforts to shore up its relations with New Delhi."

Sultana adds that this may not necessarily mean that Sri Lanka is completely moving away from China. "Sri Lanka is facing a major economic and foreign exchange crisis. It needs assistance and it has realised that it cannot cut itself off from the world and depend upon China alone for its needs".

Just a few days back Sri Lanka gave the contract for the Western Container Terminal to an Indian firm at the all-important Colombo Port, marking an end to a stretched out controversy that involved investments from India, Japan and China.

Similarly, in September it signed a deal with a US energy company to construct a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal near Colombo.

There has been a distinct change in Sri Lanka's foreign policy perceptions over the last few months as it inches closer to India and tries to extricate itself from China's clutches. Relations with China have resulted in a debt-trap for Colombo as it could not pay off the infrastructure loans for the Hambantota Port resulting in China taking over the port on lease for 99 years.

Sultana says: "Colombo is reaching out to India, USA and the European Union (EU). It has begun to understand that the US and EU are big export markets, therefore, it cannot afford to isolate itself". 

Colombo is restoring its relations with democratic nations in the Indo-Pacific region for economic support and military ties. 

Naravane will also call on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, the foreign secretary and senior defence officers.

The army chief's visit comes on the heels of foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla's visit to Sri Lanka last week when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assured India that Colombo will not act in a fashion that is detrimental to India's interests. 

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