Sri Lanka President Sirisena arrives in New Delhi for talks with Indian PM Narendra Modi

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Sri Lanka President Sirisena arrives in New Delhi for talks with Indian PM Narendra Modi

-Dr. Abdul Ruff

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Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena who left the island of Sri Lanka on 15th February on a four-day state visit to India on the invitation of Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has arrived in New Delhi.

Apart from the Minister of External Affairs Mangala Samaraaweera who is now in Washington and is expected to join his president in New Delhi, the presidential team includes Ministers Rajitha Senaratne, Patalie Champika Ranawaka, D.M. Swaminathan, Governor of Easter Province Austin Fernando and Secretary to the President P.B. Abeykoon during this visit. Sirisena, accompanied by his wife Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari, waved to waiting media before being greeted at the airport by India’s minister for shipping Pon. Radhakrishnan, who hails from Tamil Nadu (Nagercoil) and is the only BJP MP and minister from Tamil Nadu in Modi government.

India’s foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told reporters in New Delhi ahead of his arrival: “We expect substantial talks, we expect outcomes in terms of agreements, in terms of frameworks, and in terms of announcements.”

President Maithripala Sirisena chose India for his first foreign trip in office, trying to rebuild ties hit by tensions over growing Chinese influence on the strategically located island. His maiden visit to India may see New Delhi and Colombo moving towards a civil nuclear cooperation agreement to take bilateral ties to a new height.

President Sirisena, who took over as the new President of Sri Lanka last month after defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa in what came to be a historic poll for the nation, has arrived in New Delhi. He is scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday.

A comprehensive India-Sri Lanka nuclear cooperation agreement is expected to be among the outcomes of the meeting. If New Delhi and Colombo ink the deal, it will be India’s first nuclear cooperation agreement with any of its neighbours.

New Delhi was quick to reach out to the new President after his election, as it expects Sirisena, unlike Rajapaksa, to not allow China to use the island nation to add to the strategic assets it has been building encircling India. As Sirisena chose New Delhi as his first overseas destination after taking over, the Modi government is expecting “substantive talks and outcomes in terms of agreements, frameworks and announcements” across a range of areas for prospective bilateral cooperation, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson recently said.

Sources, however, said that both India and Sri Lanka were keen to move fast on the proposed nuclear cooperation agreement.

Offers from Pakistan and China to help Sri Lanka build nuclear reactors had prompted a jittery New Delhi to launch consultations with Colombo in 2012 for “a comprehensive agreement on bilateral civil nuclear cooperation”. Indian and Sri Lankan officials held two more rounds of talks in 2014.

The scope of the proposed agreement is likely to include New Delhi helping build small nuclear power plants in Sri Lanka using Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors indigenously developed in India, in addition to training officials on nuclear safety and response to nuclear accidents.

The proposed deal is likely to provide for bilateral cooperation between India and Sri Lanka for research and development works exploring power generation using thorium. Indian nuclear scientists may help their Sri Lankan colleagues conduct feasibility studies on use of thorium deposits, found in abundance along the southern coastal belt of the island nation, to generate atomic power.

Indian nuclear plants commissioned ignoring the protests by the fishermen and village people in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu in South India came for severe criticism from Combo because of effects of radioactivity from the nuclear plants could reach Sri Lanka. With suitable nuclear deal with the new government in Colombo, India hopes to bring its sea neighbor Sri Lanka on board.

India has long considered Sri Lanka to be within its strategic sphere of influence. But China ploughed huge sums into Sri Lankan infrastructure projects, becoming the country’s biggest foreign financier and enjoying significant political and even military influence under Rajapakse.

Critics say China is trying to develop facilities around the Indian Ocean in a “string of pearls” strategy to counter the rise of its rivals and secure its own economic interests.

A first visit is always an opportunity to set directions. Sirisena is expected to try to secure greater Indian investment in Sri Lanka, which said last week it was seeking an international bailout of more than $4 billion. Sirisena will also travel to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya in Bihar of North India and a Hindu temple in Tirupati of Andhra Pradesh further south on Tuesday before leaving on February 18 for Colombo.

President Maithripala Sirisena and his fifteen member delegation, it was reported, flew to India in a commercial flight instead of a chartered flight to India as always used by his predecessor.

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