External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s recent visit to the Maldives and Sri Lanka highlights the importance that India attaches to its close ties with the two neighbours. His five-day tour to the two countries followed invitations of Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G L Peiris.
“Both Maldives and Sri Lanka are India’s key maritime neighbours in the Indian Ocean Region and occupy a special place in Prime Minister’s vision of ‘SAGAR’ and Neighbourhood First. EAM’s visit is testimony to the importance that India attaches to its close and friendly relations with the Maldives and Sri Lanka,” summed up a press release from the Ministry of External Affairs.
Decided at short notice, his trip to the Maldives has been significant in many ways, given the anti-India protests led by former President Abdullah Yameen which the Maldivian Government appears struggling, at least politically, to contain.
Despite domestic pushback from a section of the opposition parties in the archipelago against the growing strategic partnership with New Delhi, Jaishankar’s visit made it clear that New Delhi has been looking for long-term cooperation – both economic and defence – through its ‘Neighbourhood First’ — a message Male also echoed by reaffirming its ‘India-First’ policy.
“We are proud of what we have achieved in recent years, we are particularly proud of the way we have faced challenges together,” Jaishankar said, adding, “It has shown that your policy of ‘India First’ and our policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’, these are not just phrases but these are actually the very fulcrum of our relationship.”
Significantly, the visit and official level talks were conducted in the southern city of Addu, not in the capital Male. “You’ve made history, Minister @DrSJaishankar! This is the first time official talks have been held out of the Capital City Male’,” Maldives Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid said in a tweet.
The Ministry of External Affairs later said Jaishankar’s visit to the Maldives saw the signing of several agreements related to the bilateral cooperation in matters of development and the inauguration and handing-over and launch of a number of key Indiasupported projects that will contribute to the socio-economic development of the Maldives and enhance its security.
Maldives is an archipelago of 1,200 islands stretching north-south in the central Indian Ocean, south of India. Its geography makes it a strategic “prize” by big powers, despite its isolation and tiny population of only 5,00,000 people. For much of its history, Maldives has had to work pragmatically with bigger powers while also guarding its autonomy.
Jaishankar later flew to Colombo for bilateral talks with Sri Lanka’s top leadership. During his meetings with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, he assured them of India’s continued cooperation and understanding as the island nation was facing an unprecedented economic crisis.
Sri Lanka is facing an acute economic and energy crisis triggered due to the shortage of foreign exchange. India recently announced a $1 billion line of credit to Sri Lanka as part of its financial assistance to the country to deal with the economic crisis. New Delhi had extended a $500 million line of credit to Colombo in February to help it purchase petroleum products.
Jaishankar, who had back to back meetings with former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem and Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa, has welcomed the first interaction between Sri Lanka’s Tamil leaders with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as “positive development”.
While in Sri Lanka, Jaishankar participated in the BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in Colombo. On the sidelines of BIMSTEC, he held a series of bilateral meetings with his counterparts from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and discussed cooperation in connectivity, energy and hydropower projects. He said the BIMSTEC member states must collectively combat terrorism and violent extremism.
India and Sri Lanka later signed six agreements to boost bilateral cooperation in diverse sectors like technology, fisheries and hybrid power projects.