India, Sri Lanka seek closer military ties to counter China

India’s Ajit Doval (left) meets Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (Twitter pic/tagtodayO)

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka and India vowed to strengthen military ties and widen maritime links with neighbouring countries after security talks, the president’s office said Sunday, to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.

China, a long-time regional rival of India, has been widening its footprint in the region, including building ports and upgrading airports in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met Saturday with recently elected Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and discussed setting up a maritime coordination centre, Rajapaksa’s office said in a statement.

It did not give details of the proposed centre, but said other nations in the region should be included as observers.

It said the two countries also discussed closer military and coastguard cooperation.

The meeting followed Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi in late November for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who offered US$450 million in aid to Sri Lanka after his landslide victory in the presidential election.

Sri Lanka has traditionally been allied to India, but China invested and loaned billions of dollars to the island nation during the decade-long reign of Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi also held talks with President Rajapaksa on Tuesday during a brief transit stop in Colombo.

“As Sri Lanka’s strategic partner, China will continue to stand by Sri Lanka’s interests,” Rajapaksa’s office quoted Wang as saying.

Rajapaksa in December warned India and Western nations that Sri Lanka would be forced to seek more finance from China if they do not invest in the island.

Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the strategic Hambantota port south of Colombo to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease after the government at the time said it was unable to repay loans taken to build it.