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India and Sri Lanka to think about land link

Before a meeting in New Delhi, Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe (L) and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shake hands.

During President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first visit to the regional powerhouse, India and Sri Lanka agreed on Friday to contemplate constructing a land link as Chinese influence on his island increases.

Establishing “land connectivity” across the Palk Strait, which is in places less than 25 kilometers (15 miles) wide, would offer India access to the key ports of Trincomalee and Colombo and strengthen a “millennia-old relationship,” according to a strategic document released by the two countries.

After their discussions, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that feasibility studies for a land bridge and a petroleum pipeline would be conducted.

Wickremesinghe’s two-day visit occurred one year after he became president after his predecessor was ousted during an unprecedented economic crisis.

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Despite Colombo defaulting on its $46 billion in foreign debt, India poured nearly $4 billion in aid into Sri Lanka, which was experiencing daily street protests over food, fuel, and medication shortages.

“Sri Lanka faced many challenges in the past year, but we stood shoulder to shoulder with the Sri Lankan people in their time of need,” Modi said.

New Delhi also raised concerns regarding the “Chinese presence” in Sri Lanka, according to India’s foreign secretary, Vineet Kwatra.

Beijing’s activities on the island and elsewhere in the region worry India, which considers Sri Lanka to be a part of its territory.

China is Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, and a Chinese firm acquired a 99-year license for Hambantota’s southern port after Colombo was unable to repay a massive loan from Beijing to construct it.

A $1.4 billion land reclamation project adjacent to the port of Colombo, the largest foreign investment in Sri Lanka’s history, has sparked Indian concerns that Beijing may use it as an eavesdropping post.

Initially, a portion of the territory was to have been Chinese territory.

Colombo and Hambantota are the only deep-water ports between Dubai and Singapore.

As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has signed infrastructure agreements with countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, including the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Djibouti, where it maintains a military base.

The Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 5 made a port call in Hambantota last year, raising security concerns in India. New Delhi refers to the Yuan Wang 5 as an espionage ship.

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“The Sri Lankan side did convey their sensitivity and respect for our security and strategic concerns regarding what occurs in our maritime domain,” Kwatra said during a press briefing.

Wickremesinghe stated, among other projects in the strategic document, that the petroleum pipeline between the two countries “will ensure an affordable and dependable energy supply to Sri Lanka.”
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