Sri Lanka’s President began his second state visit to India in 17 months on Friday in a trip that underscores his island nation’s delicate efforts to balance relations with regional superpowers India and China.
President Maithripala Sirisena was slated to join Prime Minister Narendra Modi for dinner after arriving during the day from Britain. On Saturday, the two men plan to participate in Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious ritual of plunging into a river believed wash away sins.
His visit comes a month after Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe traveled to China and agreed to resume work that had been suspended on a $1.5 billion Chinese-funded Port City, a project that has made India uneasy.
Neither government gave details about what the leaders planned to discuss, with India saying only that it was confident the visit would strengthen their “close and cooperative” relationship.
The two countries share deep ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious ties, but also have a history of tumult.
Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war involving ethnic Tamil rebels was particularly sensitive to India, which has a large Tamil community. India’s intervention in 1987 to solve a separatist insurgency led to the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a rebel suicide bomber. India also lost hundreds of its peacekeeping forces sent to the island.
Ties have warmed recently. Sirisena chose India for his first state visit after being elected early last year. Soon after, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to make a bilateral visit to Sri Lanka in 28 years.
Sirisena’s government also suspended the Chinese port project championed by his predecessor, strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had a heavy pro-China leaning. Sirisena’s government said there was a lack of proper study on the environmental impact of building a city — with a golf course, marinas, apartments and shopping malls — on an artificial island just outside the port of Colombo.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had launched the project during a visit to the island in 2013. Sri Lanka’s decision to restart the project was seen a way of reassuring China while simultaneously growing closer to India. Sri Lanka is also likely to court more Chinese investment to help its economy.
Sri Lankan officials have said changes were made to the original plan to minimize environmental impact, but the changes have not been disclosed. They also scrapped giving outright land ownership to China, instead offering the land on a 99-year lease.
India is concerned about the project because it means a heavy Chinese presence will be situated close to India, separated only by the Palk Strait.
Sirisena’s visit also comes at a time of heavy opposition in Sri Lanka to a proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement, which critics say could allow unemployed Indians to flood Sri Lankan professions such as information technology and health sectors.