Diplomacy win: Sri Lanka’s nuclear deal with India is a pointed message to China

You can call it the Narendra Modi government’s first big ticket achievement in the field of diplomacy: the nuclear agreement signed between India and Sri Lanka in New Delhi on Monday as visiting Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Modi watched.

It signifies that the new government of Sri Lanka has started rolling back the previous government’s policies that blatantly favoured China – and thus Pakistan as well – at the cost of India. It also shows that President Sirisena has taken this giant step (of signing the nuclear agreement with India) without bothering about the parliamentary elections in his country which are due in Sri Lanka in April-May.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena shaking hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Ceremonial Reception, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on 16 February 2015. Image courtesy PIB

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena shaking hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Ceremonial Reception, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on 16 February 2015. Image courtesy PIB

This may be demonstrative of Sirisena’s high level of self-confidence even though he did not win last month’s presidential election with a huge margin (his main rival and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa polled 47.58 percent votes, while Sirisena managed to get 51.28 percent votes) and a huge pro-China lobby is still active in Sri Lanka. India would be hoping that Sirisena’s self-confidence is not misplaced and he wins the upcoming parliamentary elections too.

The most important thing is that Sri Lanka does not boast of a vibrant nuclear energy programme and has plans for just six thousand megawatt of nuclear power by 2031. So why have a nuclear deal with India when nuclear power is neither a big deal in Sri Lanka nor a pressing requirement?

Before we get to possible answers to this question, let us first have a brief run through the nuclear agreement that was signed by India and Sri Lanka today.

The agreement on Cooperation in "Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy" would facilitate cooperation in transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy including use of radioisotopes, nuclear safety, radiation safety, nuclear security, radioactive waste management and nuclear and radiological disaster mitigation and environmental protection. Ratan Kumar Sinha, secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, and Patali Champika Ranawaka, Minister of Power and Energy, signed the agreement on behalf of India and Sri Lanka respectively.

This is what PM Modi said about the nuclear agreement at a joint press interaction with Srisena: "The bilateral agreement on civil nuclear cooperation is yet another demonstration of our mutual trust. This is the first such agreement Sri Lanka has signed. It opens new avenues for cooperation, including in areas like agriculture and healthcare."

The nuclear agreement will see India helping Sri Lanka build its nuclear energy infrastructure, including training of personnel, and this process can be expanded subsequently when India can sell light small-scale nuclear reactors to Sri Lanka.

PM Modi also talked of expanding defence cooperation with Sri Lanka, though he did not provide any details. This is highly significant as having pro-active defence cooperation with Sri Lanka was a big no-no for the previous UPA government.

The development is a huge blow to China, which signed up a $1.5 billion deal with the previous Rajapaksa government for developing a seaport close to the commercial port in Colombo. The Sirisena government has not shelved the project outright yet but has embroiled it in bureaucratic red tape by referring it for environmental clearance.

If Sri Lanka were to be that keen on expanding its nuclear activities, it could have asked for help from countries like China, Russia and even Pakistan which have a fairly large nuclear set up. But it did not do so and instead chose to opt for India instead.

This is Sirisena's unwritten 'thank you' note to India.

However, it won’t be easy for Sri Lanka to write off Chinese influence in days. China has invested $4 billion in Sri Lanka in last five years alone.

Coming few months will be interesting in India-Sri Lanka context and PM Modi's visit to Sri Lanka next month will raise the strategic bar further for both the countries.

Updated Date: Feb 17, 2015 07:59 AM

Also See